Lying to Your Partner: Is It Ever Worth It?

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It happens all the time, but does it have to? Lying is one of the most common forms of deception. According to research by Laura Guerrero and Peter Anderson, on any given day, it is highly likely that you or someone you are communicating with will engage in some form of deception. Most people in intimate relationships claim their lies were told to protect their partner. The question is: is it ever okay to lie?

People lie for a number of reasons. A bad day, an isolated incident or situation and to save the partner from potentially harmful information are all given as reasons why people lie. The lie teller usually claims altruism (a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing another’s welfare). Mary Kaplar and Anne Gordon state that those who have engaged in deceptive acts usually claim that they lied or withheld information in order to protect or avoid hurting a loved one. Is this kind of altruistic lying really ok, or is it still very damaging to the partner? Researchers in communication provide us with some answers to these unclear questions.

Ross Buck and C. Arthur VanLear describe effective communication as occurring when the behavior of one individual (the sender) influences the behavior of another (the receiver). Lying would fall into the category of ineffective communication. The sender doesn’t always realize the message their partner will receive. Often, the message is received much less altruistically than it was intended. Often times, the lie teller can’t remember what caused them to lie in the first place, but will often cast themselves in the best light possible, so as not to shake their moral character. This stems from the Cognitive Dissonance Theory of Leon Festinger, which states that we are most likely to change our attitudes to match our actions when we are given even a very small justification for changing that behavior. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Who wants to be a liar because of some malicious reason? The altruistic response is much more socially accepted.

Victims of lying often react very negatively to this type of situation. In fact, they don’t really care why the person lied. All they see is the lie. Kaplar and Gordon tell us that lie receivers don’t have access to the same wealth of information as do lie tellers. They don’t know what motivated their partner to tell a lie. They don’t know under what mitigating circumstances the lie was constructed. All they know is that they were lied to. This is where the way the message is received is very important. Since lie receivers have much less information, they face many more constraints and have less flexibility that lie tellers in how they construe the lie. In other words, a lie you tell your partner, for whatever reason, and whatever it is about, could be interpreted in a totally different and much more negative way! Be careful!

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