In order to answer this question, we need to first ask and answer other questions. Please read on!
What is a lie?
The answer to this question might seem obvious to most people. A lie is when a person tells someone, or many people, something that is not true. However, we must add that for it to be a lie, the person making the statement must know that the statement is not true. It is not a lie if a person thinks he or she is telling the truth, even if it is not the truth.
What is not always obvious is that giving a situation spin, or leaving out important information can also be a lie. Examples:
“Last night was horrible. My mom called and told me I need to get a divorce.”
(Reality: Her mom called and told her that they should get into marriage counseling or they might end up getting a divorce.)
“Why are you so late?”
“I got a slew of phone called right before quitting time and really needed to handle them.”
(Reality: He was flirting with a new co-worker and making some calls to spend more time with her.)
People can twist things around, but a lie is anytime something is said that is not completely honest about information know by the person making the communication.
Can you get away with lying?
To get away with a lie means that a person lies and the person or people to whom the lie is intended are unaware that it is a lie. In this instance, the lie is believed to be the truth. A great deal of research has been conducted specifically to see if people can tell if someone is lying. Surprisingly, most people cannot tell if they are being lied to. However, there are exceptions: FBI agents, for example, are particularly good at detecting lies. It turns out that there are subtle signals when a person lies. Those have to do with the direction that a person looks when they are lying and other unconscious movements. People can be trained to detect lies, but most people never receive that training. So, the answer to this question is, “Yes, you can get away with a lie.”
However, there is an interesting twist to this story. While you can get away with a lie, you cannot get away with a pattern of lying to the same person. Evolution blessed people with the ability to detect who they can trust and who they cannot trust. This include those who have a pattern of honesty and those who have a pattern of dishonesty. In a marriage, therefore, while you might get away with a lie, you cannot get away with a pattern of lying. Your spouse will come to see you as a liar.
Is it okay to lie, even if intentions are good?
In other words, is telling “little white lies” with good intentions an acceptable form of dishonesty? Interestingly, this too has been studied. Perhaps the most famous of these studies was conducted at a children’s hospital. The question was whether or not medical staff should be completely honest with children who have very serious, even fatal, illnesses, or should the news be watered down or even sugar coated.
Historically, the staff had taken the second path and watered down and/or sugar coated the information. In the study, one group of children were told the harsh truth about their condition, and even that it was fatal, if it was. Another group continued to be “protected” from the truth. The “truth group” handled the news better than expected, were more cooperative and responsive to the treatments, and were in generally better spirits. Most surprisingly, for children with terminal illnesses, those in the “truth group” (on average) lived longer than those in the “protected group.” While hiding a disturbing truth from children might feel compelling, in this study, it was less kind than the truth.
There is another obvious answer to the question of lying with good intentions. Good intentions or not, people cannot get away with a pattern of lying. That is as true of “little white lies” as well as “big black lies.” A practice of telling “little white lies” to a spouse, ultimately results in the spouse not trusting the information anyway, so what good has been accomplished?
Why do people, even good people, lie to their spouse?
That is a much more complicated question that it might first appear to be. It requires understanding the life humans lived for millions of years as “hunter-gatherers.” Natural selection’s demand was to live as long as possible and get as many genes into the next generation as possible. Reflexive lying was often a requirement to meet this demand and became fused into our brains. When our spouse asks us a question, and we suspect that he or she might not like the answer, we feel a little threat. This occurs today, even though in modern times it makes no sense.
In fact, lying is counter-productive, because lying is always a selfish thing to do. You cannot look at someone, feel love for them and tell them a lie. A lie is self-protective, even when it is a “little white lie”. For the few moments it takes to tell a lie, the spouse senses that there is no real love there. While evolution produced liars, it also produced humans that, even though unconscious, can detect when a person is being selfish and lying.
There is another reason that people lie – a willingness to lie gives permission for problematic behavior to occur. If a person is willing to lie to a spouse, that person can engage in behavior that will be damaging to the marriage, if known. In our earlier example, would the husband have stayed at work to flirt with a new colleague if he knew he was going to be honest about that with his wife when he came home?
One of the primary principles in Alcoholics Anonymous is rigorous honesty. This serves many purposes, but an important one is that it makes taking that drink a decision to also tell people about it.
Should spouses always be fully honest with one another? Yes!
Complete honesty has many positive effects on a marriage. Here we list some of the main ones:
- Honesty identifies little problems to be solved before they become big problems. For example, the husband comes home from work and the wife asks why he is a little late. He tells her that he was beginning to flirt with a new colleague and hung around because it was fun. This can be the start of important conversations about their marriage possibly ending, or hopefully, leading to a conversation about having more fun with one another.
- Honesty creates a healthy and effective feedback loop in the marriage. The husband asks, “How do I look in this suit” at the changing room in the store and she says, “ You have gained some weight.” He doesn’t buy the suit and thinks about his weight and takes action to do something about it.
- Honesty undercuts one of the greatest threats to a marriage: inferences. Spouses make guesses about their spouse all of the time. The only way to keep a marriage in reality is to be able to check out those guesses (inferences). The only way that can happen is if spouses ask and answer honestly. He says, “You’ve been grumpy the last few days when you come home from work. Are you angry at me about something?” Only an honest answer can move them forward as a team, regardless of the cause of her being grumpy.
- Honesty allows spouses to always understand each other’s perspectives- about everything. The gap between spouses’ perspectives about almost everything that happens is bigger than most people are aware. Even “facts” can be seen very differently by spouses. Honesty closes that gap and creates a harmony in their lives together.
- Mark Twain gives us another advantage of complete honesty: “You never have to remember what you told people.”
How do you become completely honest?
- The first step is to become convinced that marriage will be better if both spouses are honest with one another. This should lead to a serious commitment to honesty.
- The second step is to begin to become completely honest. There will likely be mistakes because of old habits and the power of that evolutionary reflex to lie. However, mistakes can be corrected. Within moments of a lie, even giving something a dishonest “spin,” saying something like, “That is not completely true.” Then telling the completely true story. If both spouses are aware that this is a learning step, they can see that as a success.
- Once improvements in the marriage and the good feelings of being completely honest with one another reward the behavior, it becomes easier to override the impulses to lie.
Are there drawbacks to being completely honest? Yes!
- You lose some freedoms when you are completely honest. You lose the freedom to engage in the behaviors about which you would likely lie, because those behaviors are in some way destructive to the marriage.
- You become more exposed to your spouse, which is a two edge sword. You might, for example, expose insecurities that are challenging to you.
- Honesty can immerse the marriage into dealing with marital issues that had been hidden by dishonesty. This is not only a chance to make improvements in the marriage but also can be serious personal challenges. For example, “I flirt a lot with men because our marriage has become pretty dull. You don’t even seem to be attracted to me anymore.” This honesty opens the door to some risky conversations, which might be threatening but which also might lead to substantial improvement in the marriage.
Whether or not to be completely honest in a marriage all of the time is a complicated question. First, it goes well beyond just not telling out-and-out lies. It includes eliminating half-truths, giving situations “spin,” silence, and even little white lies with good intentions. It is important to remember that while a person can get away with a single lie, although not always, it is impossible to hide a pattern of lying. You can never get away with that. With a pattern, you develop a reputation of not to be trusted. It is pretty difficult to have an intimate marriage with someone you do not trust.
People lie for many reasons, but it is important to remember that lying, like many self-defeating behaviors, were instilled in our brain with natural selection when the world of humans was very different from what it is today. It is worth becoming completely honest in a marriage for many reasons, all of which can lead to a significant improvement in the marriage.
However, there are also drawbacks to complete honesty:
- Some can lead to an increase in marital problems. Better said, honesty can expose already existing marital problems and challenge spouses to take steps to resolve those problems. At the same time, honesty can expose problems that can lead to a divorce.
- Complete honesty, without accepting the limitations this creates on the behavior of the spouses, can lead to increased marital conflict.
- Complete honesty can also surface marital problems with no solutions, which can lead the marriage in frightening directions.
What is clear about lying versus honesty is that a truly successful marriage can only be reached with honesty. To continue to tolerate any type of lying in a marriage means at worst ending in a divorce, and at best, a marginally acceptable marriage. Honesty is a necessary condition for reaching the type of marriage most people would like to have- i.e., a successful and long-lasting marriage.