When is it OK to lie to someone you love?
Behaviour experts weigh in on white lies.
Whether it's a friend, family member or romantic partner, we'll invariably find ourselves in a situation where not telling the truth seems far more beneficial for everyone. But is it?
It's easy to see that lying to cover up major transgressions (cheating, stealing, etc.) is ultimately detrimental. A pair of 2009 studies into the mentalities of those who engage in concealing behaviour ultimately found that they often experience negative psychological well being.
But white lies seem to fall into a grey area. A white lie may be well-intentioned and seem small enough that, in the grand scheme of things, it's insignificant to a generally fruitful relationship, but telling them may have a greater effect on you than you realize. For example, research into the behaviour of white lie tellers found that, outside of a commonly accepted kind of dishonesty (like telling someone "I'm fine"), they can experience a conflict in their behaviour: it can cause them to be nicer to the person they lied to in order to feel better about their actions. Perhaps not the worst thing, but an impact nonetheless. And perhaps, a further deceit?
The kind lie
So is it ever OK to tell a white lie to your loved one?? According to registered psychotherapist Hina Kahn, rarely. "Lying is something you generally want to avoid", says Kahn, "it is a lot to carry for the liar, to keep track of what they have said and to whom. It can create a tremendous amount of mental baggage which can be emotionally exhausting." However, Kahn goes on to say that there are certain circumstances where "lying is the kinder communication or the best alternative. For example, if you were invited to a friend's house for dinner and you didn't enjoy the meal, that is a situation where you might not tell the truth to spare their feelings, or think of one or two things you did like and focus on that." The main consideration here, and perhaps the main determining factor when telling a white lie is who is this ultimately benefiting — the person lying or the person being lied to? In the above example, the dinner host stands to lose more than the dinner guest (who isn't hiding any bad behaviour, simply an opinion) so, out of consideration, lying may be the best option.
The protective lie
Kahn brings up another kind of relationship with a unique power dynamic. "Perhaps your child has asked you something and to give them the whole truth would be inappropriate for their age or cause them some distress, that would be another situation where not telling the truth does more good than harm." It's an important dynamic that is so commonplace you might not even realize it; we lie to children all the time. We lie to them personally and also publicly (think Santa Claus) and rarely for our own needs, but because we feel it's in the best interest of that child's well being.
Being honest about who you're lying for
Romantic relationships exist on a level all their own. An increased level of intimacy (both physically and emotionally) presents more opportunities for white lies, but also perhaps a greater burden to tell the truth. You don't want to lie to your partner, yet you want to be hyper-considerate of their feelings, so maybe it's best to not tell the truth about everything. Dating coach Chantal Heide feels like there certainly is a place for some lying in relationships. "YES it's okay to lie!", says Heide, "In fact, it's an evolutionary trait that helped us fit into complex societies and survive as a group. In essence, little white lies are a human necessity, but most 'yes, it's OK' scenarios come with a caveat." Heide points to examples such as how attractive you think someone outside your relationship is (as long as you're not actively pursuing that person), how much you spent on a frivolous item (as long as you're taking care of your financial responsibilities otherwise) and reasons for breaking up (the old "it's not you, it's me"). Again. The common thread here is to ensure the lie is intended to benefit the other person and not just cover up your own poor behaviour. Conversely, Heide advises against lying about relationship matters such as financial matters that affect the both of you, whether you're in love or not, your willingness to commit and your relationship status to others. These lies become more significant because they can influence the behaviour of others, rather than just being a matter of opinion. The final lie Heide warns against is lying to "yourself about yourself." Keeping an honest assessment of oneself is crucial to keeping a clear perspective of their behaviour in any kind of relationship.
However, there are those, like psychotherapist Brad Blanton who believe in Radical Honesty, telling the truth all across the board, as a life-transforming policy. Blanton believes that simply living as upfront as possible (with your intentions, thoughts and feelings) is a more direct path to ultimately getting what you want out of your life and relationships, while enforcing the development of courage, clarity and accountability.
Your viewpoint on the practice of lying ultimately boils down to your personal ethics, as well as the dynamics and boundaries of your relationships, not to mention your ability to lie.
But based on the advice of these experts, the only way to ever potentially use lies in a constructive way is to first be brutally honest with yourself about why you're lying in the first place. Fingers crossed social consideration trumps your desire for personal concealment.