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.
If you are having a hard time sorting out the truth in your relationship, click here. We can help.
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.