Bethany pressed her lips tight to keep from crying.
“I don’t understand why he lied to me, James. He could have just told me.”
Everything she thought she knew about the man she loved and the life they shared had been thrown into question by a revelation that rocked her world.
“I don’t know what is real and what isn’t anymore,” she said sadly.
Lifting her eyes to mine, she asked a question I’ve heard so many times:
“What if everything he ever told me was a lie?”
If You’ve Been Lied to, You’re Not Alone
Bethany isn’t my first client to come to me with a heart broken by a partner’s lies.
The pain cuts deeper because of the humiliation.
Were you the only one who didn’t know? Has he been laughing at you behind your back this whole time?
So when I explain that lying happens in most relationships…
And in most cases it’s done to preserve the relationship rather than deceive…
They don’t want to believe me.
For them, it’s black or white. Either he’s honest or he’s a liar. If he lied about one thing, then he could have been lying about everything.
That perspective feels morally satisfying, but it doesn’t fit with what we know of human nature.
How We Learn to Lie
When you were growing up, were you taught to say that someone’s new hairstyle looked great, even if you actually thought it looked terrible?
Were you taught to say that you loved a gift, even if you didn’t actually like it at all?
Polite society rests on a foundation of prosocial lying.
These “little white lies” aren’t intended to deceive. They’re intended to make people feel good and avoid rocking the boat.
Society wouldn’t flow as smoothly without the ability to avoid being honest, such as saying, “I’m fine!” even though you’re not fine.
Children learn to avoid telling the truth to be polite, and they learn to avoid telling the truth to get out of trouble.
When asked if they did something bad, many children will say no, even when it’s clear they did it. They will avoid telling the truth in order to protect a friend from punishment, too.
Children also begin to see how often the adults in their lives don’t tell the truth. Adults make promises they don’t keep. They pretend that the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus are real when they’re not.
All of which means that we come to adulthood with a mixture of conflicting messages around truth-telling.
We should always speak the truth, unless it could:
- Upset someone
- Get us into trouble
- Complicate things needlessly
- Cause harm
No wonder honesty becomes so problematic in relationships…
He Thinks He’s Doing the Right Thing
To make matters worse, you don’t always want him to be fully honest with you.
There is only one right answer to, “Does this dress look okay?”
When you tell him you love him and ask him if he loves you, you don’t want him say what’s in his heart if it’s a no.
Most men know this.
They are convinced that their #1 responsibility is to make sure you feel okay, even if it means saying something that isn’t entirely true.
Once they get into the habit of saying things just to make you feel better, they lose the habit of checking in with themselves to find out what they really think and feel.
They live a lie even to themselves.
They’re trying to be what everyone else wants them to be, and in the process they lose touch with their own truth.
They get away with it for so long because they’re sumptuously rewarded for saying what other people want to hear.
When a man tells you what you want to hear, he sees happiness in your eyes.
He couldn’t bear telling you the truth if it took that happiness away.
But you and I both know that love cannot flourish in the company of secrets.
We have to tell the truth to each other if we want to know each other truly.
Every man who withholds from you, for fear that you won’t want to be with him if you know the truth, is a man who’s settling for less than love.
And that may be all he thinks he deserves.
Too many men believe they have to pretend to get a woman’s attention, and they have to perform to keep it.
They get so used to living life that way that they can’t let down their guard even when it’s safe.
That’s why I encourage all couples to talk about what it means to be honest in a relationship.
Don’t assume you both agree on what honesty means.
Share your experiences of dishonesty in past relationships. Talk about how honesty is related to trust. Talk about how hard it is to tell the truth when you think it will hurt the other person. Talk about what makes you feel safe to be honest with each other.
Having that conversation won’t stop a man from lying to you, but it will help you see what he believes and why he thinks that way.
For Bethany, talking to her guy about why he didn’t tell the truth opened the way for greater honesty in their relationship.
“I assumed he was trying to trick me,” she told me later. “I didn’t realize he thought he had to hide what was going on, because he thought I’d leave him if I found out.”
Not everyone gets a happy ending, of course. Some men lie to deceive and end the relationship when they’re caught.
But talking about honesty from the get-go will set expectations for your relationship and keep you accountable to each other, and that’s a great foundation for your future.