“That’s a nice top you are wearing. Is that new?” inquires my dad. “Oh, no! I’ve had that for weeks”, replies my mom. What she does not say is that the blouse has been hanging in her closet for three weeks and that it is the first time she is wearing it.
I have heard this and similar conversations unfold repeatedly while growing up. Once she got married at the age of 35, my mom was a homemaker; she did not have her own money anymore and she was married to a man who was thrifty. She liked to spend money, he liked to save it. At some point, she learned that his question often was loaded. He had a tendency to respond with “Did you really need another top? Your closet is full!” or he would at least give her “the look”. He literally would bite his lips together, fold his hands, look down and not say anything. It triggered her shame, and she made the choice not to lie directly but to conceal the full truth to avoid these unpleasant feelings.
In order to understand the nature of lying, we have to be aware that it exists on a continuum. At one end of the spectrum is the deliberate lie or the making up of information. Equivocations are also lies. They are more indirect, ambiguous or contradictory statements that do not offer the entire truth. Concealments are next on the continuum. Omitting important or relevant information is lying. And finally, exaggerations or understatements also don’t paint an accurate picture and are, therefore, not the whole truth.
Let’s face it, everybody lies. Lies between spouses or relationship partners have on one hand the possibility to nurture, but they also of course have tremendous potential to destroy a relationship.
You might wonder if it is always bad to lie in a relationship. “Loving lies” actually help to solidify the bond and make the couple feel closer. An example would be to say, “That was a great dinner you made for me,” when we perhaps didn’t quite like the food, but we appreciate the effort. Or, “You look very good,” when our partner just got a bad haircut, because we are happy to look past any flaws in physical appearance, since we love them. A loving lie is not destructive, but actually strengthening.
As it is, people have different motivations for lying. Most people lie to avoid something. We might want to avoid conflict or tension in social interactions, or hurt feelings, or to stay out of trouble or conflict. Some lies are for personal gain: to get out of trouble or to enhance an image.
We lie to others, but we also lie to ourselves. There is an amount of self-deception going on in every relationship. For a relationship, it is important to know ourselves and to honestly and congruently express to our partner what we know about ourselves, our feelings and needs.
In their book, “Tell Me No Lies”, Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson explore different stages of relationships and how to invite truths rather than lies.
At this point of the “game”, it is, according to Bader and Pearson, normal to focus on the similarities and not pay attention as much to our own wishes and desires. We can slip into lies of omission, exaggeration and understatement, in order to prove our compatibility to each other. Trying to be the same is an important step of aligning and minimizing the ways in which we are different. If I know my partner is neat or loves opera, I might not point out to them that without my cleaning help, I am quite messy, or that I prefer musicals to operas. I might think that I could try harder to be neat, or start to like the opera.
“The dark side of the honeymoon” occurs when couples refuse to acknowledge problems. Conflict avoidant people have the biggest issues. They avoid honest talks for fear of rupture of the relationship. They are seeking security over having their own needs met. Unfortunately, this means giving up parts of themselves that matter. When we always compromise and adapt, it catches up with us over time. We might end up being depressed, or silently angry and resentful.
“Part of the capacity to tell the truth comes from an ability to handle shame and guilt. Sometimes people keep things to themselves because they know what the truth would do to their partner. This is guilt. Others remain silent because of what they’re going to feel about themselves. This is shame.” (Bader & Pearson, Tell Me No Lies, 224)
When couples evolve well, each partner begins to actively differentiate after the honeymoon period and speak up about things which are important to them and matter to them. They both risk moving into areas of disagreement and they learn how to deal with tension. It takes courage for both partners. Clearly, we need to be brave to tell the truth, and also to listen to our partner telling the truth.
The Lie Invitee
We don’t always like to hear the truth and might respond with anger towards our partner. It’s easy to villainize the liar, but has the person who is being lied to help create this dynamic? Bader and Pearson call the other person the “lie invitee”. Have I been a lie invitee in my relationships? You bet I have! When we respond with anger, or go into attack mode, or act like martyrs, we are not helping a conflict avoidant partner to be truthful.
“Some people are completely unaware of the fact that they’re invoking lies, while others understand what they are doing but feel helpless to do otherwise. On the unconscious end, someone may say, ‘I am only expressing my feelings as a reaction to what my partner is telling me’… Someone more aware may think, I know I overreact to things I don’t want to hear or I know this is a leading question.” (Bader & Pearson, Tell Me No Lies, 37)
How to Hear the Truth and How to Respond
I can only guess what went on in my dad’s head each time my mom spent money, but I am quite sure it was something like this, “Here we go again! She just doesn’t appreciate that I am trying to keep our money together and guarantee our security for old age. She is just so impulsive and wasteful. Why did she need another piece of clothing? I wish I had a wife with the same values when it comes to money. A wife who is thrifty and asks my advice on spending money…”
Don’t make what your partner is telling you personal. It is not about you, but about them. Don’t listen with the goal to confirm a negative view about yourself or your partner. Instead, listen accurately. Listen more than halfway. Listen compassionately and patiently. Ask neutral questions to understand properly.
Bader’s and Pearson’s most important advice is: Be curious instead of furious! You invite the truth by responding, for example, with, “I am glad you are telling me the truth about what happened! I’d rather know what happened than not know it. Now we need to discuss our different values / this situation / what to do about this problem…”
As the person who has to find the courage to be honest, it is helpful to tell your partner when expressing the truth that what you are about to say is not easy for you. Your partner can then be more aware of their response and make sure they listen calmly, say thank you for your honesty, and rationally solve the problem.
One of the biggest acts of self-deception in a relationship is the belief that one is the victim of what is going on but not a contributor. If you have been at the receiving end of lies or half-truths, examine how you might have contributed to this cycle. With that new clarity, you might want to go back to your partner and tell them, “This is what I have been doing that makes it hard for you to be honest with me. Let’s change it together. I would like to create an atmosphere that is conducive to telling the truth. You need the courage to speak up, and I need the courage to listen to what is really going on.”
More extreme lies are what Bader and Pearson call “felony lies”, for example when a partner looks at the other claiming, “No, I am not having an affair! You are crazy for thinking I have an affair” or “No, I don’t have a gambling problem. That’s ridiculous,” when they have an affair or have gambled away the couple’s retirement money. With felony lies, relationships start to disintegrate. The trust is so violated and the honesty so absent that usually these couples end up separating or divorcing.
However, it is possible to heal from felony lies. It requires new honesty. The liar is usually in a big hurry to be done with the situation, and is not sensitive to creating space for their partner to ask a lot of questions, to re-establish what is actually true, and to express some of their feelings about what happened. The process of how people discuss a conversation is very crucial to whether they get over the betrayal or not. A lot of small moments daily over a long period of time are required to regain the trust, instead of trying to rush it and expecting the partner to be over it right away. The absolute foundation of a relationship is not love, it is trust. As Peter Pearson likes to say, “It takes teamwork to make your dream work.”
Would you like to make your dream work? You can take a workshop or book individual coaching sessions.
Belief Change and Relationship Coach Angelika,
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