Cross-posted from my blog
It’s probably no surprise to anyone who’s read my writings for any length of time that I’m not a fan of dishonesty in relationships–of any sort, big or small. I have always championed the cause of open, honest communication, especially in romantic relationships. A great deal of human misery and suffering in relationships can, it seems to me, be addressed by the simple but nevertheless radical idea that communication is good.
That doesn’t mean I embrace the idea of Radical Honesty™, at least not as it often shakes out in the real world. I’ve written about that before.
But I am no fan of intentional dishonesty, even in small ways. The little white lie? It has effects that are farther reaching and more insidious than I think most folks realize.
People who advocate for the little white lie often argue–indeed, seem to believe–that they are being compassionate. The function of the little white lie is to save someone from hurt or embarrassment, the reasoning goes. What is the harm in that? Isn’t it cruel to tell a hurtful truth, if there is no purpose to it?
I have oft observed a very strange thing in romantic relationships, and that is good things our partners say to us tend to bounce off as though our self-conception were made of Teflon, whereas bad things have amazing power to stick. If our partner tells us “I think you’re beautiful; I am totally attracted to you,” it is easy to say “well, he doesn’t really mean it,” and not to internalize it. But a partner saying “I don’t think you look good in that dress” sticks tenaciously, and can haunt us for weeks.
Why is that?
There might be a lot of reasons, but I think one of them is the little white lie.
We live in a society where there are certain things we are “supposed” to say. There are certain lies that we are encouraged to tell–little soothing words that we set up like fences around anything that might potentially be hurtful to hear.
Each of them might, in and of itself, not be that big a deal. Who cares, really, if your partner’s butt looks big in that skirt? You’re not with your partner because of the size of their butt, after all; it doesn’t matter to your relationship.
But here’s the thing.
When you tell little white lies, however harmless they may seem, you are telling your partner, Don’t believe me. Don’t believe me. I will lie to you. I will tell you what you want to hear. Don’t believe me.
Is it any wonder, then, that positive stuff bounces off but negative stuff sticks? You are establishing a precedent that communicates to your partner, straight up, do not trust positive things I say. They are empty words. They do not reflect the reality of what I believe. So how, given that, can we really expect our partners to trust it when we give them affirmation?
Little white lies are corrosive. They communicate a very important truth: I will be dishonest to you to save your feelings.
When we make a habit of telling the truth all the time, something wonderful happens. We tell our partners, You can believe me. I will not say what you want to hear; I will say what I actually believe. That means when I tell you positive things, I mean them.
Lies, however innocuous, breed insecurity. They cause your partner to second-guess everything you say: does he really think this is true, or is he just trying to placate me? Is he genuine, or is he just trying to avoid saying something I might not want to hear?
A question I hear often is “When I tell my partner things I like about them, why don’t they believe me?” And the answer, of course, is that we live in a society that cherishes comfort above truth. We are taught from the time we are children that we should tell white lies, and expect others to lie to us, rather than say anything uncomfortable. That leaves us in a tricky position, because we don’t have any way of telling whether the positive words we hear are lies.
Oh, we know we can believe the negative words, because those aren’t little white lies–the purpose of a white lie is to avoid discomfort, and negative things are uncomfortable. We trust the bad stuff implicitly. But the good stuff? We have no reason to trust that! We don’t know if it’s real or if it’s a white lie.
So here’s a thought. If you want your lover to believe you about the good stuff, give them a reason to. Let them know it’s honest. How? By embracing honesty as a core value. What’s the harm in little white lies? They create an environment where we suspect dishonesty from everyone. We can never quite be comfortable that anything positive we hear is the truth; there is always–there must always be–that niggling little doubt.
It is very difficult to develop positive self-esteem when we can not trust the good things people say about us. And yet, taking away our trust to believe the good is exactly what little white lies do.
Don’t do that. Be compassionate in your truth–but be truthful.
AMEN to that! I wish I could get my other halves to read this! Little white lies quickly escalate into more and more lies and they just get bigger. Thank you for always reminding me I’m not alone in this.
Well said, thank you for that reality check
This is a great article. I am **huge** on the honesty issue. Aside from the fact that little white positive lies set the receiver up to not believe any positive offerings, lying is a striking form of manipulation…..and….in my view…….so are “withholds”. In fact, withholds are “lies by omission”.
By withholds I’m not talking about one person telling another person’s story, sharing with one person confidences offered by another, or even the deep details of what you do in bed with another (if the need to know is not based on sexual health decision-making, but is rather to make comparisons and argue). Specifically and in a polyamorous context, I’m talking about romantic interests you are planning to or are actually pursuing, the nature of your other sexual/romantic relationships (so that others investing emotionally in relationship with you understand the truth of your overall relationship landscape), sexual health and practice information (that supports others in making informed choices), etc. I’m talking about information that in general helps others continually make informed choices about not only “how” but also “if” they want to relate with you.
Lies and withholds are insidious. They are forms of manipulation. Manipulation and love do not reside in the same space….ever.
That is an interesting point of view, but… is it really wise to be frank with your partner (or any close person like a friend of a relative) and outright say negative things about them? What if they’re really sensitive? What if the truth is really, really hurtful?
“You cooking is terrible, let’s just get pizza”. “You’re really overweight and that dress makes it obvious”. “I never liked your writing, it’s really bland”. Such things, even if told in the kindest of ways, feed insecurity like nothing else, because often people are already aware of these things and look for support and understanding. If even their partner (close friend/family member) doesn’t give that, where else can they find it?
Doesn’t give what? Support and understanding? Well, it might be painful to both parties, but one can give support and understanding without lying.
I suck at singing. I sound like a cat in heat crossed with a dying cow. It’s just…bad. I tried voice lessons for years, and the end result is that I have a voice that still sounds terrible, but is technically skilled. I never had large ambitions for my voice, but it would be nice to be able to sing along to the radio without seeing other people wince.
So if I had a close loved one who had terrible writing but just really wanted to be a good writer, that is something that I’d perhaps talk about. My feelings about my voice, that is. That feeling of really wanting something that doesn’t seem attainable. I’d also ask them things like if they’d taken writing classes or read any books on writing. I certainly wouldn’t say something as generic as “your writing is really bland”…what does that even mean? If the writing is lacking in descriptive quality, then maybe the two of us could google for writers who use really stunning descriptions, and my loved one could read up on that and see if s/he can learn from that.
I think one of the most important things about giving someone honest feedback is that it requires from us far more of an investment than a little white lie. Saying “your story is great!” is far easier than saying “Tell me more about this story that you wrote. I’m not entirely sure I’m getting it, and I want to understand it better before I give you feedback” and then devoting significant time and energy to giving that feedback in a respectful, compassionate manner.
I know that there are some people who just want the little white lie. I don’t want to be close with those people, because it’s too emotionally difficult (imo) to keep up a relationship that requires when to know to lie and when to tell the truth. If that cuts my pool of people to be friends with significantly, I’m OK with that. In the end, I’d hope what that meant is that everybody has a better chance of finding the people they click with the best.
Your point of view is certainly understandable, but there are ways to be honest without being so frank. To tell someone “I think the other dress looks better than that one.” Is still positive and still honest. It’s hard, sometimes, to not say (nicely) what’s on your mind, and easier to avoid saying anything, but you have to remember that you are doing the person a favor. Dishonesty is a direct symptom of cowardice, big or small. And though it may be uncomfortable to say certain things, there is always a way to be gentle or compassionate about it. The examples you have are what someone is thinking, not saying. “Your cooking is terrible, let’s just get pizza” and the other quotes sound like things an emotionally abusive partner would say.
Love this article! I’ve always been a believer of being 100% honest all the time, but that belief has faced some difficulty when it comes to comments about appearance. I definitely have experienced the phenomenon of bad comments sticking much more than good comments however, and it’s great to read this explanation of why believing that white lies are never appropriate doesn’t make me crazy! I’ll definitely share this with my husband.
Thank you for this. You have articulated something I have long known, but for which I did not have the words. When someone you love refuses to lie to save your feelings, that is a tremendous gift, and should be cherished and valued. Thank you again.
…Also, I’m posting this on my little blog. 🙂
I totally agree! thank you! I have a ‘secondary’ partner (still not totally comfortable calling him that) who says things to me like ‘you’re my one true love’ or ‘your the best thing in my life’. I love him so much, totally head over heels, but I can’t say this back, because it’s dishonest. My partner of seven years is also one of the best things in my life, he’s also my true love. So instead, I find creative, and deeply honest things to say back, like ‘i’ve never loved anyone like you’ or ‘you make me feel like sunshine on my skin’. I feel it is so important to be immaculate with my words, because there is so much beauty and wonder about him and our connection to share. When he directly asks me about our connection, then I will directly and honestly respond, so that we can get to the truth and heart of our relationship, rather than being vague or giving those little white lies to make him feel ‘safe’. Safety comes from trust