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Some thoughts on little white lies

It's probably no surprise to anyone who's read my writings for any length of time that I'm not a fan of dishonesty in relationships--of any sort, big or small. I have always championed the cause of open, honest communication, especially in romantic relationships. A great deal of human misery and suffering in relationships can, it seems to me, be addressed by the simple but nevertheless radical idea that communication is good.

That doesn't mean I embrace the idea of Radical Honesty™, at least not as it often shakes out in the real world. I've written about that before.

But I am no fan of intentional dishonesty, even in small ways. The little white lie? It has effects that are farther reaching and more insidious than I think most folks realize.

People who advocate for the little white lie often argue--indeed, seem to believe--that they are being compassionate. The function of the little white lie is to save someone from hurt or embarrassment, the reasoning goes. What is the harm in that? Isn't it cruel to tell a hurtful truth, if there is no purpose to it?

I have oft observed a very strange thing in romantic relationships, and that is good things our partners say to us tend to bounce off as though our self-conception were made of Teflon, whereas bad things have amazing power to stick. If our partner tells us "I think you're beautiful; I am totally attracted to you," it is easy to say "well, he doesn't really mean it," and not to internalize it. But a partner saying "I don't think you look good in that dress" sticks tenaciously, and can haunt us for weeks.

Why is that?

There might be a lot of reasons, but I think one of them is the little white lie.

We live in a society where there are certain things we are "supposed" to say. There are certain lies that we are encouraged to tell--little soothing words that we set up like fences around anything that might potentially be hurtful to hear.

Each of them might, in and of itself, not be that big a deal. Who cares, really, if your partner's butt looks big in that skirt? You're not with your partner because of the size of their butt, after all; it doesn't matter to your relationship.

But here's the thing.

When you tell little white lies, however harmless they may seem, you are telling your partner, Don't believe me. Don't believe me. I will lie to you. I will tell you what you want to hear. Don't believe me.

Is it any wonder, then, that positive stuff bounces off but negative stuff sticks? You are establishing a precedent that communicates to your partner, straight up, do not trust positive things I say. They are empty words. They do not reflect the reality of what I believe. So how, given that, can we really expect our partners to trust it when we give them affirmation?

Little white lies are corrosive. They communicate a very important truth: I will be dishonest to you to save your feelings.

When we make a habit of telling the truth all the time, something wonderful happens. We tell our partners, You can believe me. I will not say what you want to hear; I will say what I actually believe. That means when I tell you positive things, I mean them.

Lies, however innocuous, breed insecurity. They cause your partner to second-guess everything you say: does he really think this is true, or is he just trying to placate me? Is he genuine, or is he just trying to avoid saying something I might not want to hear?

A question I hear often is "When I tell my partner things I like about them, why don't they believe me?" And the answer, of course, is that we live in a society that cherishes comfort above truth. We are taught from the time we are children that we should tell white lies, and expect others to lie to us, rather than say anything uncomfortable. That leaves us in a tricky position, because we don't have any way of telling whether the positive words we hear are lies.

Oh, we know we can believe the negative words, because those aren't little white lies--the purpose of a white lie is to avoid discomfort, and negative things are uncomfortable. We trust the bad stuff implicitly. But the good stuff? We have no reason to trust that! We don't know if it's real or if it's a white lie.

So here's a thought. If you want your lover to believe you about the good stuff, give them a reason to. Let them know it's honest. How? By embracing honesty as a core value. What's the harm in little white lies? They create an environment where we suspect dishonesty from everyone. We can never quite be comfortable that anything positive we hear is the truth; there is always--there must always be--that niggling little doubt.

It is very difficult to develop positive self-esteem when we can not trust the good things people say about us. And yet, taking away our trust to believe the good is exactly what little white lies do.

Don't do that. Be compassionate in your truth--but be truthful.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 23rd, 2015 02:37 am (UTC)
What about surprises? eg surprise parties? Sometimes you have to obfuscate (i.e. lie) to maintain the surprise.

A number of years ago my partner's birthday came and went as normal. A month or two passed. Her (then) husband had arranged a late surprise birthday party. For the weekend of, I had to lie to her about what we were going to do. I told her I had no plans; would come out to her house as normal.

Reality was that her best friend had been co-opted in getting her out of the house; her husband and I decorated for the party. She saw people she hadn't seen for years; the cake was so excellent she literally fell over when she saw it. Best surprise party evuh.

Lie? Yes. Harmful? No; because she _groked_ why I said what I said.

In my humble opinion, you _can_ tell white lies if (and only if) the lie becomes self evident so that the trust between people isn't harmed.

A lie (even a white lie) that is left to fester and not exposed; that's where the harm comes in.
Jul. 24th, 2015 01:39 am (UTC)
(White) lies
I think there's also something there about white lies about "facts" being easier to reverse/undo than white lies about "opinions".

In the Surprise Party case, once the surprise is revealed, it's very obvious to the surprised that the "facts" they were told ("I have no plans", "I'll come to your house as usual", etc) were part of a "let's pretend" fantasy. And so easier to put aside as "clearly not true", as well as clearly being one-off, for-a-good-cause fantasy.

But even if you "come clean" about an opinion thing ("you know, actually the second dress looks better on you than the first"), it's not possible for the deceived to be sure that the second one is true either. Which further undermines trust. (And somewhat down that rabbit hole you have, eg, gaslighting, where the victim ends up having no idea what is true.)

I think the crux of the matter is "I will be dishonest to you to save your feelings", as tacit said; the Surprise Party scenario is let's-pretend for different reasons. It's still best to minimise (white) lies about facts, but over a short duration, when they can be cleared up soon, it seems to me they're much less corrosive than (white) lies about opinions.


Jul. 23rd, 2015 05:54 am (UTC)
"But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation."
Bhramari Devi Dasi
Jul. 23rd, 2015 01:25 pm (UTC)
Lies and withholds = manipulation
This is a great article. I am **huge** on the honesty issue. Aside from the fact that little white positive lies set the receiver up to not believe any positive offerings, lying is a striking form of manipulation…..and….in my view…….so are “withholds”. In fact, withholds are “lies by omission”.

By withholds I’m not talking about one person telling another person’s story, sharing with one person confidences offered by another, or even the deep details of what you do in bed with another (if the need to know is not based on sexual health decision-making, but is rather to make comparisons and argue). Specifically and in a polyamorous context, I’m talking about romantic interests you are planning to or are actually pursuing, the nature of your other sexual/romantic relationships (so that others investing emotionally in relationship with you understand the truth of your overall relationship landscape), sexual health and practice information (that supports others in making informed choices), etc. I’m talking about information that in general helps others continually make informed choices about not only “how” but also “if” they want to relate with you.

Lies and withholds are insidious. They are forms of manipulation. Manipulation and love do not reside in the same space….ever.
Jul. 23rd, 2015 09:07 pm (UTC)
Have you written about lies by omissions as well? I'd like to address this with my partner.

Me: (some mention of hearing Jurassic World is good, maybe we should see)
Him: "It's not very good."

Cue week later at my family party when it comes out HE'S ALREADY SEEN IT. Important? Not really. But there IS a sense of betrayal that he didn't say it in our conversation and just making a negative assumption or reporting something that he'd heard/read from someone else, as he often does.

(Also weird suspicion because when did he have time to see a movie without me and without me knowing, but that's neither here nor there)
Jul. 27th, 2015 07:53 am (UTC)
Thank you SO MUCH for saying this.

As an adult autistic who is unable to lie, I have had to train my lovers and my friends that I can't tolerate their lies either - not even little white ones. I will have to send them a link to this so they can read it. It explains so much more than I can...
Jul. 28th, 2015 02:10 am (UTC)
I learned not to trust the negatives either. Then again, I grew up around people who were just *that* petty and spiteful.
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 30th, 2015 02:37 am (UTC)
Howdy, and welcome aboard!
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )