A friend once admitted to me that he lies to his wife all the time. Not big lies. He tells little ones, and with (he said) the best of intentions. For example, his wife will ask him to do something — order baseball tickets or pick up a birthday card during lunch. He’ll forget, temporarily, to do it.
“I’ll tell her it’s done even though I know that it’s not exactly true, because I still plan on getting it done,” he tells me. “I just don’t want to disappoint her and make her mad at me. I feel bad, but it doesn’t feel like a lie, because I know I’ll get it done ASAP.
“Do you think I’m wrong?” he asked me.
The lie of the land
White lies infiltrate practically every marriage. Research shows that Americans tell (on average) one to two lies a day.
Many of these fibs aren’t intentionally malicious. Sometimes we tell lies to flatter: “No, you don’t look fat in that outfit,” or “Wow, that meal was delicious!” Sometimes we tell lies to avoid conflict: “It only cost $50!” or “I wasn’t checking her out; I was just looking at her weird shoes.”
A lot of times, we tell ourselves that these lies will protect our spouse. We want them to feel good about themselves (“I love your new haircut!”) or we tell them what we think they want to hear (“I’d love to watch that new Hallmark movie!”).
But if we’re honest with ourselves, the main beneficiaries of those lies are us. Lying is almost always about protecting self: I don’t want to be found out. I don’t want to fail. I don’t want to disappoint my husband. I don’t want to fight. When we’re tempted to lie, we can ask ourselves, What does this fib do for me?
Then we can ask another question: What are the personal and relational costs of this lie? If we’re truthful, there’s always a cost.
The danger with white lies
We’ve become accustomed to lying. Our culture accepts white lies and even condones them. People sometimes tell themselves that these everyday fibs are inescapable and even valuable. But lies, even white ones, are never harmless. They hurt our marriages in three distinct ways:
1.) Lying desensitizes us. When we lie, we reinforce that lying is acceptable or even beneficial to our marriage. Sometimes one lie leads directly to another: We tell a second lie to cover up the first. Telling a white lie is a little like the old Lay’s potato chip slogan: “Betcha can’t tell just one.”
2.) Lying creates a slippery slope. We tend to rate lies on a sliding scale, one that always slides in our favor. We may tell ourselves of a certain lie, It’s harmless. I’m just being kind. But when does a “harmless” white lie slide into a more serious deception? Let’s face it: In this realm, our logic is skewed. We’re biased. We rationalize. It’s so easy to deceive not only our spouses, but also ourselves — telling ourselves that the lie is “no big deal” or simply a case of “sparing my spouse some pain.” We’ll stretch our definition of a white lie not according to our spouse’s needs, but to our own.
3.) Lying creates cracks in the foundation of trust. Trust is fragile: It doesn’t take much to begin to erode it. Lying — even white lying — causes doubt, and this uncertainty often leads to suspicion, mistrust and, ultimately, to someone feeling betrayed. It sends a message to your spouse: I’m willing to lie when it suits my purposes. You may feel better in the short term, but lies will weaken trust and security in the long run. If he’s willing to tell this little lie, your spouse may think to herself, what else will he lie about?
Striving for authenticity
Granted, sometimes total, careless transparency can be awkward, as well. You shouldn’t necessarily say everything that pops into your brain. This can be just as harmful as lying.
But while we shouldn’t be needlessly cruel, we should strive to be authentic. We must learn to fight through the awkwardness of potentially hurting, disappointing or frustrating our spouse and learn how to tactfully deliver the truth.
Remember my friend from the beginning of this article? He came to recognize that his white lies could lead to dark problems. His realization led to an important conversation with his wife, too: Her “requests” of him felt more like “demands,” which made him feel that saying “No, I haven’t done that yet,” was an admittance to failure. The lies came out of a desire to keep the peace. He and his wife worked on better communicating with each other, and in a way that would encourage the husband to respond more honestly.
My friend realized that his “yes” needed to be a “yes.” I’d encourage you to pursue that same path. Let your word be your bond. Lies, even white ones, can lead to big problems.
Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family and the author or co-author of several books, including Crazy Little Thing Called Marriage.