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We had been talking about honesty in romantic relationships — how honest should you be, and if there’s a place for little white lies.  white les

It was prompted by a memory. Years ago a friend was egged on by her husband to tell him her fantasies. She hesitated for a long time because her fantasy involved a man known to them. After repeated requests — OK, badgering — to tell him, she finally did … and they promptly ended up seeing a marital counselor because he was extremely upset.

As Jack Nicholson’s Col. Nathan R. Jessep says in “A Few Good Men,” “You can’t handle the truth!”

And so it is for most of us.

If ever there was a right time to tell a little white lie, I suppose that was probably the time. Sharing a sexual fantasy? Sure. Sharing a sexual fantasy about a specific person? Unless it’s someone you’d probably never be able to have sex with — say Chris Pine if he’s your version of hot or, in my case, Javier Bardem — probably not.

But it did make me wonder just how honest couples should be with each other. And while I was pondering that, as if by design, Elizabeth Gilbert posted something on her Facebook page that explored the same issue: “The biggest emotional trouble I’ve ever gotten into in my life always stemmed from the same dilemma — when I was torn between telling the truth, and being kind,” she begins.

Oh yeah, I know this all too well. Always wanting to be the nice person, as many women are raised to be, the pleaser. Yeah, well, it works against us.

Avoiding hurt

As Gilbert says:

For years, I told lies to people because I didn’t want to hurt them. Some of this was because I am “a nice person,” sure. But some of it was because I was “a scared person.” And some if it was because I was “a controlling person.” (Which isn’t very nice, when you really think about it.) … It took years of terrible consequences and suffering for me to realize that I wasn’t doing anybody any favors by hiding the truth from them, again and again. By lying to people out of kindness, I was being neither honest NOR kind. What I was practicing, in fact, is what the Buddhist call “Idiot Compassion” — which is when your cowardliness and your weak-heartedness makes you pity people instead of respecting them.”
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I don’t think we’re consciously pitying them. But we know something’s up, and we’re trying to justify our actions to ourselves. Ultimately she says, “White lies are OK. Other lies are not.Whenever you are called to choose between truth and kindness, choose truth.”

Oh, OK, white lies. We’ve all done that. White lies are common in healthy relationships, one psychologist tells PsychCentral. The Huffington Posts lists 18 “harmless lies” couples tell each other.

Are they right?

Maybe. Lies told to help another person or to protect someone’s feelings — aka white lies — tend to be good for relationships, a recent study found.

Still, where do you draw the line?

Honesty versus feeling good

In popular blogger Mark Manson’s new book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (I interviewed Manson recently and will blog about his book next week, so come back for some good stuff next Tuesday), he writes that when his wife is looking a little bit less than her usual beautiful self, he tells her the truth — and she gets pissed off. Many men lie when asked to answer questions like, “Does this dress make me look fat?” etc. to be kind, he says. So why does he do it?

Because honesty in my relationship is more important to me than feeling good all the time. The last person I should ever have to censor myself with is the woman I love. … When our highest priority is to always make ourselves feel good, or to always make our partner feel good, then nobody ends up feeling good. And our relationship falls apart without our even knowing it.” tweet

The feeling good trips us up. Perhaps the biggest lies most women tell are the ones we tell to avoid a fight; I have been very good at this, sadly. It’s what “Divorce Court” judge Lynn Toler calls “The False OK”:

I think a lot of women tell the very same lie for years on end. They say “okay” when they don’t mean it. They tell their husbands, “everything’s fine,” even when it’s not. “Keeping the peace” is what they call it. They are, they tell me, getting through the day. It is all about the argument they simply do not want to have. … I think there is a whole group of women out there who don’t do well with conflict. They are the ones with a happy husband because he always gets what he wants and she doesn’t seem to mind. But what he doesn’t see are all of the collected hurts stored up in her emotional closet. Not because she doesn’t ever get what she wants but because that lopsided equation makes her feel unloved. tweet

Are those “harmless” white lies?

I have spoken my share of white lies. I’m not convinced they are really all that harmless. Can we be honest and kind at the same time, as Elizabeth Gilbert says, by always telling the truth?

Want to learn how to individualize your marriage? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

One Response to “Is honesty the best policy in love?”

  1. Jon says:

    Sometimes withholding some of the truth may not be a bad thing. “Am I the best lover you ever had?” “No, Donna was, but I love you and married you.” It might be better to say, ” Of course you are” and let it go at that. Otherwise, there will be repercussions or questions will come up that will be awkward to answer. We always do our best to be as honest as we can, but it is often kinder to spare some feelings. It’s kind of a judgement call on the importance of the issue at hand.

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