To Live and Lie for Love: Reasons People Lie in Relationships

It’s no lie — we all occasionally lie in our relationships. Whether it’s the passing comment after a new haircut “Your new look is great!” or the disastrous date night that ends in “I’ll call you soon”. These lies are everywhere, both the small ones we call “little white lies” and the big ones that can blow up a relationship.

Sometimes our lies become habitual, weaving themselves into the fabric of our everyday relationships to such an extent that they go unnoticed by a partner or spouse. Other times, the lies aren’t so small and create bigger problems. Giant lies, like infidelity and gambling away the children’s college fund, break trust and shatter families. It’s important to get to the root of our behavior, what are we really doing when we lie and what are we avoiding.

Let’s explore some types of lies and couples’ scenarios to get a better picture of the kinds of things that go on.

Early “I want you to get the best impression” Lies

Katie and John have been on a few dates and are in that crucial but exciting get-to-know-you phase. John finds out that Katie is passionate about horror movies and loves to attend all-day horror film fests and even goes to horror movie conventions. To impress her and create an early connection between them, John tells Katie that he too loves the gory genre. But he doesn’t really. This small deception may allow Katie to feel they have something in common, thus increasing the speed in which the relationship could potentially move forward. Later on, John reveals to Katie that he doesn’t enjoy watching horror movies but agrees to accompany her to a movie or two.

John’s initial get-to-know-you lie has minimal impact on his relationship with Katie. Ellyn Bader of The Couples Institute calls these “loving lies,” those lies that increase the sense of “coupleness,” or level of perceived bonding between two people. Small deceptions can be used to increase the self-esteem of a partner, like telling them you love their new outfit or their cooking. Sometimes it’s that you don’t want to offend them, like telling them it’s fine that they floss at the dinner table! These lies rarely cause harm and are accepted by society.

Little “I don’t want you to know my flaws” Lies

Susan  and Mike have moved in together and are enjoying getting to know one another in a more intimate setting. But one day Mike looks at the credit card statement and sees that Susan spent $200 on a new dress that she told him only cost $100. This lie may seem harmless but indicates that Susan doesn’t feel comfortable talking to Mike about their finances or admitting that she may spend too much on her clothes.

These lies, sometimes called white lies, are common once a relationship progresses to more solid levels. These lies  They can mean that couples are hiding their vices from one other, that they are fearful of conflict, or don’t have good communication skills in touchy situations. They may be justifying the lies by convincing themselves that they’re just little lies. But little lies can snowball into bigger and more severe lies.

Omission Lies

Jill always grabs the bills from her husband, Tim with every intention of mailing them on her way to bring the kids to school. For a few weeks now the bills have piled up in her car, and Jill has avoided telling her husband that she did not mail them. And then the calls from collectors start coming in, and her husband is confronted with the knowledge that Jill did not mail the bills. They will need to pay $200 in late fees. Frustrated by Jill’s lie, Tim wonders, could she be lying about other things? The trust among them has been broken. Tim is going to need to address the little white lie with Jill because it has made him feel like a big fool.

Another type of omission lie can occur when one partner makes an assumption about something, and her partner does not correct the incorrect assumption. Arlene and Jane have been together for a few years.  But Arlene knows that Jane is the jealous type and does not want to stir up trouble by telling her that she is having drinks after work with a few of her old girlfriends. When Jane comments that Arlene  must have a lot of work on her plate since she came home late, Arlene just lets the topic go. She does not correct Jane’s incorrect assumption and may even agree with it to keep the lie afloat.

Lies of omission may seem like little lies, but unless the stakes are very low, they can be just as dangerous as lies spoken outright.

Conflict Avoidance Lies

Sandra dreads the weekends. She has been married for a year and finds it hard to tell her husband that she is not comfortable with her brother-in-law’s drop-ins. He is loud and she finds his frequent body pokes and off-color jokes irritating. To make matters worse, she has become party host to their Sundays, catering to both her husband’s and brother-in-law’s needs as they call out for food and drinks while binge-watching football. She hopes to find the courage to say something soon before she combusts. With every passing weekend, she feels the lies are piling up — she is not a happy football wife. Her husband, unlike her brother-in-law, is a pretty decent, sensitive guy so she knows he’ll be empathetic to her feelings. However, she fears that by telling him that she will pit the brothers against one another and destroy their close relationship. Maybe it’s best just to leave the house completely on game day?

By not telling her husband about her feelings, Sandra believes she is protecting not only her relationship with her husband but her husband’s relationship with his brother. These lies are often called buffering lies, or those meant to avoid conflict. But what does this mean as far as relationships go?

It usually means that a couple does not have the communication skills to discuss the things that are happening in their relationship. Instead of Sandra telling her husband that she feels taken advantage of on Sundays and that she feels uncomfortable around her brother-in-law and why, she bottles everything up and feels more and more discouraged and unhappy. Soon, those things may manifest themselves in unpleasant ways when least expected. It’s even possible that she will blow up about something that is not important if she does not unload her bag of resentment soon.  You cannot avoid conflict about the things that are really important, like finances, addiction, feelings about the relationship, raising children, etc. People often view potential conflict as worse than the lie itself, but in reality this avoidance will come back to bite you both.

Monster Lies

Big lies, like infidelity or addiction, can be the most devastating, and often require an entire web of untruths to maintain the extramarital relationship or addictive behavior. These big lies are purposeful and intended to cover the wrongful party’s tracks. The devastation of a monster lie often reaches beyond the partner to the children and family of the wrongdoer, breaking trust on many different levels.

The victims of the online hacking of extramarital dating service Ashley Madison weren’t the individuals who had their personal information leaked, but instead the wives, husbands, and children of those caught cheating. Those families were devastated, and the recovery from this kind of lie is challenging and requires a high level of communication and effort by both partners.

Why do people lie?

Most people say they lie to avoid causing negative feelings, sidestep conflict, and to escape hurting or insulting a partner. But are these reasons altruistic, or are they just the result of a person not being able to handle conflict or unpleasantness? Or is it because they do not have the skills to communicate about a touchy subject?  Or do they feel excited by deceiving someone?  Do they want to hang onto a less than satisfying relationship but don’t want to put in the effort to make it better?  Some people lie because they believe that no one can like or love them the way they are. Deception can trick couples into thinking they are keeping a relationship going, or in some sense lubricating it, but this often means they are neglecting to develop much-needed communication skills, good intimacy, and solid trust.

Lying is a destructive behavior even though so many of us engage in it. This may be because we are socialized to lie. Society often tells us that some lies are acceptable, such as being late to work and claiming to have overslept instead of truthfully saying that a morning television show occupied your time. Studies have shown that lying may begin as early as age three and that many children tell fibs multiple times a day. They, of course, learn this from adults, making lying a learned behavior. Some parents may even encourage their children to lie to avoid hurt feelings and embarrassment.

Often people say they lie to protect their loved ones, such as keeping the serious medical news to themselves so as not to alarm a partner. But, this seemingly harmless lie of protection can backfire when a partner believes the liar does not trust  the other partner’s ability to be supportive in a serious situation.

Ultimately, here is the problem with lying. The little white lies can become habitual and get in the way of trust and intimacy. Mike’s trust in Jill is broken by her lie of omission, bringing bigger trust issues into question, making that one little lie into a potentially devastating action. Katie and John are in the early stages of their relationship, but continuing to tell little white lies will almost surely lead them down a dangerous path of frequent and more severe lying.

Lies can destroy relationships gradually over time or in an instant.  Ultimately, a lie is a form of avoidance –we choose a short-term easy path, telling an untruth. We do not consider the consequences of our easy choice and don’t think of the long-term benefits of doing the tougher thing – telling the truth.  The partner who cheats does not consider the benefits of dealing with what is wrong in the relationship.  The partner who omits isn’t preserving feelings so much as avoiding dealing with an unpleasant encounter.  The partner who lies early in the relationship may not feel lovable enough without lies to build him up.

Understanding why we lie in our relationships and developing the necessary self-esteem or communications skills to be truthful are key to stopping the behavior. If you or your partner need help to get through a hurtful lie, please contact me to set up an appointment.


All material contained on this blog is for information purposes only. This information is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional psychological advice. Always consult a qualified professional prior to utilizing any of the information provided in this post.

Cover photo: Katie Tegtmeyer flickr