Alternative Facts in Intimate Relationships

Originally Published in Psychology Today


Fibbing to a romantic partner may seem fairly harmless, but is it?

We’ve sure been talking a lot about lying lately, haven’t we? Is the news media being dishonest with you? Well, your take on that depends on whether you consider a story to be “real news” or “fake news.” And we’ve seen the repackaging of what most would consider to be untruths as “alternative facts.” 

But what about the deception that happens on a more micro level, between two people? Just as we denounce dishonesty at the societal level, we might also want to take another look at the falsehoods we utter to those who are closest to us, particularly our romantic partner.

Just how often do people lie? A lot. Think of all the encounters we have with others on a daily basis. On average, for every three to five conversations people have, they’re dishonest in one of them. And although individuals tend to be more truthful with their loved ones than with everybody else, they’re deceptive with them, too. For example, there’s evidence that people lie to their husband or wife 10 percent of the time. 

And folks aren’t really all that opposed to lying. According to 2016 surveys, 64 percent of us believe that it’s OK to mislead someone from time to time, and 58 percent of us think it’s acceptable to deceive someone on occasion so we don’t upset them. Indeed, even though people feel more uneasy if they fib to those they care about compared to someone they’re not close to, they still view most of these “smaller scale” lies as coming from a well-intentioned place rather than from selfishnessExamples of such lies in romantic relationships include praising food that secretly isn’t all that enjoyable or faking a sexual climax to spare a partner’s feelings. 

However, when it comes to “large-scale” lies, these actually take place more often within the nearest and dearest relationships. In romantic relationships, instances of weighty liesinclude attempts to cover up an affair, tall tales of achievements, and falsely saying “I love you.” But these kinds of untruths are pretty uncontroversial. Most people know they’re a big deal and feel more upset if they tell this kind of falsehood than a smaller one. Generally speaking, though, the practice of lying to a romantic partner to promote the relationship, spare feelings, and ease personal discomfort commonly occurs

But does it work? Does it really boost romantic relationships? Not really, for a few reasons. First off, we’re more apt to get caught if we lie to a romantic partner (and to others whom we love), leaving us with two problems. On top of the unearthed truth we were trying to evade, now we have to look at our partner and face the lie we told. 

Second, even if we believe our lie was just a fib and came packaged with caring motives, it doesn’t mean our partner will share that viewpoint. And why? Because we don’t treat lying and being lied to in the same manner. If we were on the receiving end of an untruth, we’d likely see it as self-centered, significant, and upsetting, whereas we’d minimize it and see it as a helpful gesture if we were the one lying.  

Third, dishonesty in a relationship can spark a cycle of disconnection. For instance, when someone suspects their romantic partner is being secretive, they have less faith in that person and become more secretive as well. And even if a person lies convincingly and leads their partner to believe the untruths, dishonesty with a romantic partner is linked with less emotional intimacy for the one who’s lying. Deception gives with one hand, but ultimately takes away with the other. Whereas truthfulness—the opposite of deceitfulness—is vital to building trust, which partners need to count on each other and feel more dedicated to the relationship.  

So how can we be more authentic and curb the spread of “alternative facts” in romantic relationships? Remembering moments of emotional safety and bonding may be a starting point, because when people remember feeling cared for, they’re less inclined to be dishonest

In the end, perhaps by reaching for acceptance, love, and intimacy, and taking the risks of being real rather than being deceptive, we’ll be more likely to find and keep the love we seek.

Holly ParkerComment