Q My partner tells small lies and it infuriates me.
For example, he might have finished the milk but denies doing so, or in company, he'll say he has seen a TV programme, when I know that he hasn't. I honestly don't think he lies about serious things - we've been together four years - but I wonder if I am somehow fuelling this in some way, and if some of these lies are because he wants to avoid conflict. Other times, I worry that it's because he doesn't have a firm grasp on reality and that he genuinely forgets about or misinterprets situations - so what he's presenting is his 'truth'. I don't pull him up on the lies, generally, because I'm embarrassed by them, but this is diminishing my respect for him. What is your advice on how to best handle it?
Allison replies: There are so many sides to this: yours, his and the truth; your version, his version and reality. All these sides will create major blind-spots from both of your perspectives.
First question up: is truth important to you? Who modelled truth or the lack of it? How was lying treated in your family? How was lying responded to - was it with guilt, shame or anger? For some, truth and being honest is an integral personal value and it can be unfathomable as to how others can lie.
Do you know the answers to these same questions from your partner? You would think that the 'truth' would be an easy one, right? A simple right or wrong, black or white, but people can have wide variations of their understanding of the 'truth'. Your partner may see these as 'white lies' or not a big deal. The question is, how do these big little lies affect you and your sense of who you are together in this relationship?
When arguments are happening only inside your head, they can build up feelings that it may be wise to address. I wonder who is really avoiding conflict? Lying is not just the absence of telling the truth; withholding how you feel is emotionally dishonest. The danger of not sharing how you feel about these lies could be irreparable to you, as you can psychologically disengage from the relationship and your respect levels are an indicator of that.
Being honest about how you feel is uncomfortable. The cost of secrets and lies on both sides of the honesty coin are difficult, and yet, it is an important conversation to have.
What do you fear from telling your partner how you feel? Are you scared of admitting your feelings to him? This is really normal and understandable. Authentic intimacy isn't all it's cracked up to be. It can be hard to look someone in the eye and explain how their behaviour is impacting you.
Lies erode trust. Lies create doubt. Each of your partner's big little lies forces you to re-evaluate if you trust him, and challenges how you view him.
Listen to what feelings are coming up for you. Are they 'self-centred lies' which would benefit himself (to avoid conflict or intimacy) or other 'other-centred lies' for someone else's benefit - such as pro-social lying, where he may feel more accepted if he said he watched the same TV programme as the other person?
It is saying something about his self-esteem and how he views himself if, at such a minor level he isn't able to say, 'No, I haven't seen that programme.'
The truth is in the details. The most important thing I say to couples is what does this mean to you and to your relationship? This is why I asked how you value the truth. For some people, white lies are completely acceptable. When these lies "infuriate" you, this is a red flag to these lies being a betrayal of a core value of yours.
Write out your answers to how you feel in private:
⬤Are you embarrassed by your partner in general?
⬤ What are your partner's character strengths and weaknesses?
⬤ What about the small lies infuriate you? (Leave judgement at the door)
⬤ Why do you feel you are fuelling these lies?
⬤ How do you both handle and/or avoid conflict?
⬤ Do you respect him?
⬤ How long have you been feeling like this?
⬤ Can you accept this going forward?
I think the answers will help you acknowledge the impact these lies have been having upon you. So that when you talk with your partner, it can't be trivialised that you are overreacting about drunk milk or unwatched TV programmes.
Guilt, even from 'minor' lies, disconnect. The heart of relationships is built on trust; somewhere, and with someone, with whom you can share your truth safely with, in a shared reality. Lies fray at the edges of that reality. Connect to what this means to you and then talk together.
If you have a query, email Allison in confidence at firstname.lastname@example.org