Q: We need marriage help! I thought I had a happy marriage, but over the last year I’ve noticed that I keep catching my husband in these little white lies and his deceit is starting to get to me. I don’t know if I can trust him anymore. He told me everything is fine, but why would he continue lying to me if he doesn’t have something to hide? ~Amy
A: Thanks for the question, Amy. While I cannot speculate exactly on why your husband might lie, let’s examine some reasons why couples end up lying to each other and how this impacts a marriage.
Relationship Trust and Emotional Safety
As you alluded to in your question, honesty and trust in a relationship are central to building and maintaining the foundation of a healthy marriage.
When you establish trust, you create an atmosphere of safety (the focus here is on emotional safety). Feeling emotionally safe with your spouse/partner will allow you to share more of yourself—the deeper parts of yourself that only a few people may get to see. This type of sharing nurtures and deepens both emotional and physical intimacy.
This might seem obvious, but in order to develop a trusting, stable relationship with your partner, you must feel that s/he is honest. Imagine how difficult life would be if you couldn’t count on what your spouse or partner told you. If you feared your partner usually handed you lies, your natural curiosity about his/her whereabouts or feelings would easily turn into suspicion and chronic doubt.
But the truth of the matter is that most of us fib to our partners now and then, and sometimes with good reason (at least we convince ourselves it’s for good reason). But when lying becomes the norm rather than the exception, and when dishonesty stems from self-serving reasons only, the relationship suffers. Therefore, becoming mindful of the reasons why you might lie is important to the overall health and well-being of your marriage/relationship.
Marriage Help: Why Spouses Lie to Each Other
1. Protecting your partner –“The little white lie”: Stephen recently lied to his wife Maggie. A medical test detected a spot her internist was concerned about, so the doctor scheduled Maggie for further tests. Stephen sensed his wife’s anxiety and he attempted to present a calm emotional exterior to comfort her.
So when Maggie asked her husband if he was afraid the spot could be cancer, Stephen confidently responded, “Absolutely not. Breast cancer doesn’t even run in your family.” In truth, Stephen was a nervous wreck and feared his wife did have cancer. But denying his own fears helped with his wife’s escalating anxieties. Would you lie like Stephen did in this case?
2. Fear-based lying. Fear is the basis for a significant portion of lying that occurs in marriages or relationships. By telling the truth, you fear some type of reprisal from your partner–you might anticipate a verbal attack, anger, disapproval, belittlement, and/or disappointment. When you imagine your partner’s reaction to your truth (whatever that truth might be), you feel anxious and as a result, withhold the truth or cover it up in some way.
3. Shame-based lying. What if you told the truth and someone’s reaction caused you to feel ridiculed and embarrassed? This is a pretty common event, especially in childhood. We can all probably recall witnessing instances of playground injuries leading to tears by the unfortunate child and laughter and ridicule by other children. Such shaming reactions often leave an indelible psychic scar, especially in boys who are seen as somehow defective if they express vulnerable feelings.
Such experiences and the socialization of machismo can lead to men to be feeling-phobic. Lying becomes a method of protection against the anticipation of shaming reactions (this can occur even when your spouse/partner has never reacted in a shaming way). A significant portion of the men I work with in couples counseling are highly prone to feeling ashamed and as a result, lie in an effort to prevent themselves from being seen as vulnerable.
4. Habitual lying. Habitual liars don’t even know they are lying. They’ve lied for so long, and across so many circumstances, that it has become a part of their personality. A habitual liar will spin tales and create factitious stories when no objective reasons exist for any kind of deception. Peel back the habitual liar’s surface confidence and you’ll find a beleaguered, self-doubting and confused individual. This person has hidden for so long that the truth feels assaultive to his/her identity.
5. Self-deception. The ability to deceive ourselves is quite remarkable. We all have psychological defenses that help us deal with stressful experiences, feelings that overwhelm us, thoughts and emotions that make us uneasy because they conflict with our self-image (with who we’d like to be). These same defenses allow us to ignore what we don’t like about ourselves–creating a type of virtual reality that helps us to see only what we desire. As self-deception increases, the tendency to deceive others also increases.
Chronic self-deception can pose a serious problem for your relationship, because intimacy demands that you share the deepest, most vulnerable parts of yourself. If you deny these parts of yourself, you will certainly refuse your partner access to these places. In these instances, you might lie so that your partner doesn’t see the parts of you that you don’t even want to acknowledge.
By gaining an understanding of why you or your spouse/partner might choose to be dishonest, you will be in a better position to prevent lying from hijacking your marriage or relationship. The goal is to be mindful of why you lie and to overcome this pattern for the sake of your relationship.
In the next installment of the Love and Lies series, we’ll look at ways to help prevent lying from getting out of control.
If you’d like to make open communication a regular part of your relationship, check out Communication Breakthrough: A Communication Guide for Couples.
Until next time,
Dr. Rich Nicastro