LIES: little white ones, black ones, grey ones. We’ve all told them. But when do lies become a deal breaker for a long-term relationship? We have our own bottom line when it comes to tolerating lies — from infidelity down to the fact he was at the footy (“work commitments”) instead of going to Aunt Annie’s 40th anniversary.
Some people will throw in the towel at the slightest porky, while others will endure a long, chronic list of lies — stupid or even huge — just to stay in the relationship. As one friend said of a small lie: “I feel I can’t trust him. It takes me so long to let my guard down, now everything is ruined. I feel unsafe.”
According to therapists I’ve talked to, and my own experience as a sex and relationships journalist for many years, lying mocks what it means to be an intimate couple. And once trust is gone it’s so hard to repair. But tolerance for lies depends on childhood and personality structures.
One woman I know (who declined to be named) discovered that her wonderful, loyal husband had been raiding the joint bank account. He was taking out regular amounts and putting the money into a private account. Because the amounts were small, she didn’t notice that, say, $120 had gone, especially since he did the tax.
When she finally worked it out, he claimed he was going to surprise her with a round-the-world holiday. Because she was so practical, he knew she would never agree to anything so self-indulgent. He did it for the good of the relationship, which he said had “become boring”.
But she had painful doubts. If he found the marriage boring, could he have been sneaking money out in order to be well ahead in the event of a divorce? Could she ever trust someone again who could do such a thing? The interesting thing was she stayed. On further questioning, she told me that her father had been investigated for fraud many years ago; and had also had affairs.
Having grown up with dishonesty she had a higher tolerance level for what another person might find intolerable. Some people are attracted to what is painful but familiar. The opposite is also true; a dishonest father might make someone else panic at the smallest hint of a lie.
One in five people harbour a major secret such as pornography, a lover, or money problems, according to Terry Gaspard, therapist and co-founder of the Moving Past Divorce resource site. Lying by omission is a form of deceit. “Trust is about so much more than catching your partner in a lie. It’s about believing he or she truly has your best interests at heart … (and won’t) abandon you”, she writes in the Huffington Post.
I have a gay friend who discovered his boyfriend had been on steroids. His partner’s increasing aggression and sexual appetite frightened him. On discovering the “withhold”, he felt hurt and betrayed. The irony is they had an open sexual union based on honesty. Why would his partner not fess up to what amounted to a simple fear of ageing? Eventually the distrust corroded love, like acid.
Openness is of the utmost importance. One woman, not sharing that she’d been put on antidepressants, left her man fretting that her lack of sexual interest was his fault. A gay friend told me he often sleeps with allegedly “straight” men who lie to their wives about their bisexuality. Lies rob others of their freedom to choose rationally.
“When my lie leads people to decide other than they would had they known the truth, I have harmed their human dignity and autonomy,” says an article on lying and ethics on the US-based Santa Clara University website.
Writes one woman on an online publication called Truth About Deception: “It’s never a deal breaker for someone to have low self esteem … [but] compulsive lying is. The saddest part is that if he’d just be honest and deal with his insecurities in a healthy way, our relationship would be completely different. After speaking to my therapist, I’ve come to the conclusion that the relationship has no future. (We) all deserve true love and respect.”
For me, smoking is a deal-breaker. Probably more even than infidelity; my father died from smoking aged 57. One lover who said “I’ll never smoke … yuck!” foolishly left a receipt for ciggies on his coffee table. I felt disrespected, and hyper-vigilant for any other lies. “Why didn’t you just share with me that you had an addiction? We could have worked on it together.” He: “It was easier than fighting about it.”
We weren’t together long enough to see if this was a one-off lie. Which is the point. Is it a momentary lapse to avoid being in trouble, or is your partner a habitual, compulsive or pathological liar in order to make life easier for themselves? A habitual liar lies so frequently as a coping mechanism, it’s simply a reflex like breathing. “I didn’t call because my mobile died” or “I was at work” is standard. Some research suggests that certain people may have a “predisposition to lying”. Habitual liars had increased white matter volumes in parts of their brains.
Then there are those who claim they just need space. “I lie,” a caller once said on my Triple M radio sex show. “I don’t think it’s any of his business where I go. He’s possessive and I can’t be bothered arguing that I have male work friends.”
Of course this isn’t an acceptable explanation: “You made me do it” is the victimiser blaming the victim. It’s chicken-and-egg syndrome. In the case of controlling people, they’re often provoked into fossicking through bills or sneaking on to their partner’s computer, because they have an instinct they’re being lied to and feel threatened. Often liars and control freaks end up together in some dreadful dance which mimics parental patterns.
Mostly untruths are about infidelity and money. Infidelity isn’t a deal breaker for me because I grew up with hippies in the times of “free love”. Social commentator Bettina Arndt has an interesting point of view: too many good marriages are ruined by the odd dalliance.
But I believe telling the truth quickly is the only way forward, because the lie hurts more than the act. I found the happiest people shared erotic fantasies, and even play. A caller told me her partner was allowed to have sex as long as it was occasional, not emotional, out of town, and not with her friends. She even joined in with threesomes which she said made the relationship “hot ’n’ steamy”.
There’s a catch to all of this. Those who always forgive have to look at whether they have another psychological condition, “love addiction” (which I’ll explore in my next story). They’re such intimacy junkies they’ll put up with anything to avoid separation anxiety. Often the two types will attract each other.
Ultimately, the deal “saver” is a partner taking responsibility and not childishly sneaking off behind the shelter-sheds. And for the victim, it’s looking at one’s own co-dependencies. If partners see themselves on the same side and work towards honesty, it’s a good start to what I believe is otherwise unacceptable behaviour.
To err is human, to do good therapy is sublime.