Are White Lies a Red Flag in Marriage?

Marriage is more than just two people falling in love and deciding to recite some vows. A healthy marriage requires open communication, honesty, and commitment. And while some small fibs may not be particularly damaging to a marriage in themselves, lies, in general, can expose issues regarding truthfulness and trust in a relationship.

Are white lies common?

Is honesty always the best policy? Most of us have been involved in stretching the truth from time to time. After all, telling the unvarnished truth can sometimes be downright hurtful. When we tell small untruths to protect someone from hurt, white lies may even be beneficial. 

But there are many reasons why people casually slip into lying patterns. Sometimes, the reasons are altruistic and compassionate. Other times, not so much.

What causes people to lie, and when can little untruths be a red flag in our relationships?

Why people lie

People have various reasons for lying. While one person may tell a white lie to be considerate of someone else’s feelings, another will lie to cover up glaring misdeeds. While someone may lie to cover up feelings of inadequacy or embarrassment, someone else will lie to exact control over another person. 

Whether someone wants to be kind or likable or simply doesn’t want to get caught for things they’ve done, the motivation behind lies can tell you a lot about who someone is as a person. 

In a relationship, lies can also be compassionate or nefarious. If your spouse tells you a white lie to make you feel good about yourself, it’s a far cry from those lies that attempt to gaslight you or cover up an affair. And lies told in a relationship can be deeply damaging as they create a lack of trust – a valuable part of intimacy that takes time to create. 

Prosocial vs. antisocial lies

Social scientists make a distinction between prosocial and antisocial lies. A prosocial lie is an untruth told for the purpose of good, whereas an antisocial lie is told to harm or control someone or for personal gain. 

Children understand the concept of lies very early in their development. It can even be argued that kids are weaned on prosocial lies, from Santa Claus to the Tooth Fairy. Parents coach children to tell small untruths to make others feel good or avoid hurting them. 

Kids also understand at a very early age that antisocial lies can help them avoid consequences and punishment. 

As kids mature and develop a moral compass, they’re confronted with a dilemma. When is it okay to lie in the name of kindness and compassion, and when is it harmful? Some go on to become adults who justify antisocial lies whenever they’re a means to an end. Some develop personality disorders centered around untruths and control.

Are prosocial lies okay in a marriage?

Little prosocial white lies are generally considered benign and sometimes even helpful. But marriage relies on mutual trust and honesty. A white lie, even a prosocial one, still manipulates the truth and the other person’s perception of reality, doesn’t it? 

If a married couple experiences repeated lies, even about “little things” in the name of kindness, there may be potential for distrust after a while. Are they telling the truth or lying just to make you feel better? Can you trust them at all if they can’t be honest about insignificant things?

It turns out that motive and situation are key factors in whether a prosocial lie can be helpful or harmful. Consider the following:

  • Their intentions: Was the intention to be kind and compassionate?
  • Their timing: Would brutal honesty be helpful when nothing could be done about the situation anyway?
  • The need for reassurance: When you’re feeling vulnerable and looking for comfort, can a small lie help smooth over the moment and reassure you?
  • The consequences: If a hurtful truth could be potentially discovered later on, is it worth the cost of the lie, prosocial or otherwise? How would it affect the other person’s feelings then?

How would you feel about the lie if you were on the receiving end? This is an excellent time to employ the golden rule. 

Serial lies

Big or small, serial lies can take a serious toll on any relationship. You begin to second-guess even the small things your spouse says, wondering what is truth and what is fiction. Yes, little compassionate untruths may be kind in small doses, but lying – especially about the important things – can erode the trust, love, and respect your relationship needs to flourish.  And, as we all know, small lies can lead to bigger lies in some situations.

Trust forms the very foundation of a marriage. Once broken, it’s difficult to repair. Lies get in the way of intimacy and connection, plant seeds of insecurity and resentment, and leave deep scars that may never heal.

What to consider if you think your partner is lying

Unresolved issues can fester and eat away at your marriage and even your mental health. If you believe your partner is lying, there is no way the relationship can be repaired without addressing the problem openly, honestly, and head-on. 

Consider your answers to these questions:

  • Can you talk about the situation and rely on an honest answer in return? 
  • Did you catch your spouse in the lie? If so, did they take responsibility, or did they merely justify their actions? Was there an apology for your hurt feelings?
  • If you now know you were being lied to, how do you feel about them? Do you think you can ever trust them again?

Rebuilding broken trust with a lying spouse is a daunting task. At the very least, you’ll need to revisit or establish new boundaries. Forgiveness will take a long time and may feel altogether impossible. 

To rebuild a relationship, trust must be re-established. Working with a professional therapist may help you and your spouse rebuild the trust you’ve lost, but it will take work and commitment. 

A couples counselor or marriage counselor has experience guiding intimate partners through the challenges of rebuilding a trusting relationship. This kind of therapy may help you and your spouse work through the issues that caused trust to break down in the first place. In fact, some relationships actually come back more committed, communicative, and trusting than before. 

Honesty and trust in a marriage are essential. If you have experienced deceit and a loss of trust, you may be considering your next move. Hello Divorce is an online divorce platform committed to taking the adversity, complexity, and cost out of the divorce process. Schedule a free 15-minute phone call to see how we can help with your next step.