Are White Lies a Red Flag in Marriage?

What is a white lie? Merriam-Webster says it’s a lie told about something that’s unimportant or small. The intent of a white lie is to avoid hurting another person. 

Are white lies told in marriage? Absolutely. Some research has suggested that people tend to tell one or two lies per day. That said, lying is not a major characteristic of the majority of people, according to other research.

Are white lies common 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.

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 a relationship?

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 they are as a person. 

White lies vs. malicious deceit

Before we go any further, let’s talk about what differentiates a white lie from a malicious deceit.

Merriam-Webster tells us a white lie is made “to avoid hurting another person.” Deceit is an attempt to trick someone into believing something false, and malicious deceit reflects a desire to cause harm. Based on these definitions, we know one thing for certain: White lies intend no harm, but other types of lies attempt to cover up something a little more unsavory.

Examples of white lies

  • Your spouse says, “This casserole tastes delicious!” when, in truth, they’re not a fan.
  • Your spouse says, “I can’t go to the movie tonight because I have a headache,” when, in truth, they don’t want to sit through that film.
  • Your spouse says, “Everyone is going to love you, and I’m sure you’ll get the job,” when, in truth, they don’t know what the outcome of your job interview will be.

Examples of deceit

  • Your spouse says, “Sorry I missed dinner. I was working late,” when, in truth, they were spending the evening with their affair partner.
  • Your spouse says, “We can’t afford to go to the movies,” when, in truth, they are hiding money in a secret bank account.
  • Your spouse pretends to go to work each day when, in truth, they lost their job due to a gambling habit and instead spend their days at the casino.

In a relationship, lies can 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

There are other ways of classifying lies. For example, social scientists distinguish 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 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 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?

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 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 is the motivation behind the lie?

If your spouse lied to you and you find out, you may be interested in discovering their motivation for the lie. By understanding their motivation, you get closer to the heart of the matter.

Are they trying to protect you? Are they trying to hurt you? Or, are they trying to protect themselves by covering up something they’ve done?

It turns out that motive and situation are key factors in whether a lie can be helpful or harmful. Consider the following before telling an untruth to your spouse.

  • Your intention: Is your intention to be kind and compassionate?
  • Your timing: Would brutal honesty be helpful when nothing could be done about the situation anyway?
  • Their need for reassurance: When they're feeling vulnerable and looking for comfort, can a small lie help smooth over the moment and reassure them?
  • The consequences: If a hurtful truth could be potentially discovered later on, is it worth the cost of the lie? 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. 

Honesty vs. tact: Striking a balance

Honesty is a prized virtue, but another virtue that's less-often talked about is tact.

Let’s take the casserole example. Say you made a casserole that tasted like rubber. Your spouse could tell you the aforementioned white lie, saying your casserole is delicious. Or, if that level of dishonesty bothers them, they could be more honest with you.

  • An honest (but possibly hurtful) response: “That casserole tasted like synthetic material. It made me want to hurl."
  • A tactful response: “There was something about the ingredients or the texture that didn’t set well on my stomach. I usually love your casserole, but this one wasn’t my favorite.”

Here’s a look at a situation in which your spouse doesn’t want to go to a movie with you. Instead of telling the white lie that they have a headache, they could take another tack.

  • An honest (but perhaps hurtful) response: “Your taste in movies stinks. I’d rather stay home.”
  • A tactful response: “That movie is just not my style. It sounds more like something you’d enjoy with your buddies than with me.”


Although white lies may be told to “protect” a spouse, when discovered, they can actually erode the trust, love, and respect in the relationship. Here are some tips for balancing the urge to tell a lie with the need to be both honest and tactful with your spouse.

Pause, reflect, and consider the impact of what you are about to say. Before you say something to your spouse that could come out as a lie, ask yourself these questions: Is a partial truth appropriate? What about a tactful phrasing of your thoughts? Is the complete truth what’s needed here? Think about how your words might affect your spouse emotionally. Weigh the potential harm with the benefits of total honesty. Is there a way to strike a balance?

Be selective with your details. It is possible to be honest without revealing every detail. Choose the information that is essential for your spouse to know, and avoid unnecessary specifics.

Apologize when necessary. People make mistakes. If you’ve withheld information when you shouldn’t have, admit it. Acknowledging  your errors can help build trust because your spouse sees that you are trying your best and that you're willing to apologize when you make an error.

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? Can you 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. 


Lying in Everyday Life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
New Research Says Most People Are Honest Except for a Few. The University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Lying because we care: Compassion increases prosocial lying. National Library of Medicine.
Divorce Content Specialist
Mediation, Divorce Strategy, Divorce Process, Mental Health
Candice is a former paralegal and has spent the last 16 years in the digital landscape, writing website content, blog posts, and articles for the legal industry. Now, at Hello Divorce, she is helping demystify the complex legal and emotional world of divorce. Away from the keyboard, she’s a devoted wife, mom, and grandmother to two awesome granddaughters who are already forces to be reckoned with. Based in Florida, she’s an avid traveler, painter, ceramic artist, and self-avowed bookish nerd.