Lying is such a common human experience. We say we value honesty. We say it's essential to a healthy relationship. But, we lie to each other and ourselves with amazing regularity. In its most benign form, we lie to protect "good" secrets--secrets like what's in the package under the Christmas tree--secrets like, "You really don't look all that great this evening."
Some say that if you can't lie, you can't leave home--that children lying to parents is a necessary step in their movement away from home. For example, when your father knocks on your bedroom door asking, "What's all the commotion in there?" What do you say? Most likely, you say, "Nothing!" You don't say, "Well, Dad, truth be told, I'm dancing naked in front of my mirror." The fact is that it's none of his business what's going on as long as it's legal and moral. So, we spare ourselves and our parents the unpleasantness of saying, "It's none of your business what's going on in here." Instead we say, "Nothing." And both we and our parents know it's a lie. In a healthy family there's a place for this kind of "dishonesty." It's recognized as an appropriate way to gain independence. Everybody accepts it for what it is and no one is offended.
In its destructive form, lying creates a gulf between two people that quickly widens. Like a wildfire, it can move from "You're lying" to "You're a liar" with remarkable speed. Once you've arrived at you're-a-liar, conversation is all but useless. How can you have a useful, reliable conversation with a liar? You can't. It isn't possible. Everything is suspect when you're dealing with a liar.
Yet, we often find ourselves bound to people we've labeled "liars." The option to refuse communication with our spouse, our child, our landlord, our banker is impractical if not impossible. We have to maintain a level of openness if for no other reason than basic life efficiency. So, how do we avoid chronic suspicion or worse, a creeping paranoia? How do we make sense of all this?
One way out of this dead end is to recognize that the destructive version of lying is all about self-protection. If I believe my spouse is lying, my first job is to make sure he/she has no good reason to be self-protective. I have to make sure I'm not on the attack--that I'm giving no reason for self-protection. This is, of course, a very difficult task given how offended most of us are when we've been lied to.
Most lying is the product of caution, even fear. It's probably not an exaggeration to say people who lie are frightened people. It follows, then, that if I don't want my partner to lie to me, I have to make sure he/she feels safe enough to tell the truth. I have to recognize that more than dealing with a person who's lying, I'm dealing with a person who's frightened. It's the fear that deserves my attention, not the dishonesty.
When all is said and done, it's a choice between using the language of morality or the language of emotion. If my goal is to judge, I'll chose the language of morality. If my goal is to connect, I'll choose the language of emotion.
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So, what does applied mathematics have to say about healthy, intimate relationships? Well, it seems to have a lot to say. One of the more interesting aspects of game theory, a branch of applied mathematics, is the distinction between zero-sum and non-zero-sum games. A good example is tennis. In singles tennis, if one player gains points the other does not--a zero-sum phenomenon. In doubles tennis, if one side gains points the other doesn't but the two players on one side do not experience the same thing. Their relationship is a non-zero-sum relationship. If one does well the other benefits and vice-versa. Their goal is to work together and against the other team. Another example can be found in the difference between money and love. If I have ten dollars and give you five, I have five left and you have an additional five--a zero-sum situation. On the other hand, if I have ten units of love and unconditionally give you five, I may well feel like I have more love because I gave you some--a non-zero-sum situation.
When couples are getting along well, their relationship is often characterized by non-zero-sum interaction. The more it is characterized that way the better they get along and the better they get along the more it will be characterized that way. However, when couples are not getting along the relationship can quickly devolve into a zero-sum situation. This is what people are referring to when they accuse their partner of "keeping score." The more committed I am to a zero-sum stance the more fear and anger I will generate in myself and my partner. Of course, the way out of this spiral is to unilaterally adopt a non-zero-sum stance.
Adopting a non-zero-sum stance will not be easy in a zero-sum circumstance. In fact, it will be painful and feel defeating in the short run. This is one of those places where doing the good and right thing may well feel unnatural. This is also one of those places where it is better to ask, "What does the relationship need?" than to ask, "What do I need?"
So much of the pain we experience in relationships could be diminished, even avoided, if we didn't take things personally. Partners routinely interrupt each other with comments like, "What did you mean by that?" Or, "I can't believe you'd actually think such a thing about me!" We make comments like these when we get snagged by the belief that our partner is doing something to us. In the language of traditional psychology, we become defensive. We feel attacked and instinctively defend ourselves from blows that are often more imagined than real.
The taking-it-personally phenomenon reminds me of a fight my wife and I had a number of years ago. At one point she was describing, in very uncomfortable detail, all the ways I had failed her--all the ways she was disappointed in me. At the time, I did what came natural. I began to defend myself. After a few sentences of energetic defensiveness, she stopped me asking, "Why is it that every time we have this discussion it always has to be about you?" The question took all the wind out of my sails. I thought, "You mean this isn't about me? You mean I don't have to take all you've said personally? You mean you'd just like me to be able to hear and understand your disappointment?"
Although I learned a lot in that exchange, the inclination to take things personally, to be reactive and to defend one's self is incredibly powerful. It takes a lot of practice and a deep desire to be present with a partner before hearing things we'd rather not hear can be done genuinely and compassionately.
Just imagine how wonderful it would feel to be able to tell your partner about your disappointment in him/her without feeling like you needed to be ready to duck once the words passed your lips. In all likelihood it would make you feel closer and, paradoxically, a lot less disappointed.
Among the many concepts couples do well to agree on are two--private and secret. It's pretty clear that relationships suffer tremendously when partners keep secrets from each other. Secrets engender anxiety and mistrust. They introduce a corrosive element that often results in the death of the relationship--if not literally then at least emotionally. Many relationship experts contend that the corrosive quality of secrets can even be transmitted through several generations with children unconsciously carrying the weight of secrets their parents have kept.
By the same token, it is also true that everyone deserves their privacy. Of course, people have varying needs for privacy. One person may have very little need and, as a result, is not offended when his/her partner goes into a wallet or purse without permission looking for lunch money for their child. Another, however, might well hold a wallet or purse as private territory to be entered only with permission. It's not that they are hiding anything. It's just that their privacy needs to be acknowledged and not breached without permission.
Keeping secrets and invading privacy have the potential to seriously damage a relationship. Both diminish the sense of safety necessary for intimacy to flourish. When either of these issues comes up, it's important to recognize the complexity of the situation, tread carefully and respond respectfully. These can be volatile but productive occasions.
Jake Thiessen, PhD
I've been working with couples for a very long time. And, I love it! This blog is my attempt to communicate some of the things I've learned over the past 40 years.