Some lies are small and others huge, and there is a difference in their impact. To illustrate this, let’s create a lie ladder. Imagine each deception is on a rung from 0-100, with the worst lies near the bottom. A perfectly honest and open interaction is at the top of the ladder, and a blatant lie is at the bottom in the dark, at 0. Small lies and omissions are higher up than calculated lies. For example, if you exaggerate details in a story to make it funnier, you might be on rung 91, and a minor evasion like, “I forgot to take the trash out,” is on 82. A secret gambling addiction and its associated lies hover around the 30s, and an ongoing affair with all of the accompanying lies and secrecy are down in the single digits and teens. This metaphorical ladder suggests the lower the number, the more damage done to the relationship. It also suggests that the more distant the relationship is, the more likely lower lies will occur. And finally, when someone starts down the ladder at any level, they tend to continue sliding down. Small lies always precede larger ones.
Take a client of mine I will call Anna, who was committed to her husband, Chet, but frustrated with his demands. He didn’t like her family, especially her younger brother who had been in and out of alcohol rehab. Because Chet was harsh, Anna didn’t tell him she sent her brother money. She also minimized her past struggles with an eating disorder. After they had a premature child, their lives became nerve-racking, with doctor’s visits, poor sleep, and worry over the baby’s progress. Anna coped by binge eating and obsessive exercise. She carefully kept this from Chet, and as he asked further questions, her lies became more calculated and blatant. Her thoughts and actions crawled down the ladder. He doesn’t need to know that I had that gallon of ice cream, he would go crazy. I will use cash instead of a debit card for this bag of snacks. If Chet was more helpful with the baby, then I wouldn’t be hurting so much. I If I told him that I occasionally cut my arm to cope, he would leave me. I need to stop, but will do it on my own.
She became an expert at hiding evidence and putting on a front. Ironically, she was always an advocate for her younger brother in getting professional help, but convinced herself that she didn’t deserve it. Her lies piled up and became more extreme and dangerous. Like pebbles that dislodge an avalanche, her small lies had big consequences. Her cover ups to Chet changed their relationship and her own self-perception. She felt like a terrible person, and this continued to send her down the scale, as if she had a reputation to live down to.
Dan Ariely and colleagues confirmed the power that small falsehoods have to influence bigger lies. They asked female volunteers to try on sunglasses for the supposed purpose of evaluating them. The women were divided into three groups: One was told the sunglasses were an imitation of a luxury brand. Another group was told the sunglasses were the authentic brand, and the third group was not told any details. After the women wore the shades, they were asked to solve a series of problems, but given the opportunity to cheat. Of the women who wore the authentic brand, 30% cheated on the test. Those without information about what they wore had a 42% cheating rate. But 73% of the women who thought they were wearing fake glasses chose to cheat on the test. Even when the choice to be phony wasn’t that of the participant, it loosened their normal moral constraints.
Something that seemed like a small lie changed their view about right and wrong and sent participants down the ladder. The researchers called this the “counterfeit self,” because when people rationalize and lie in small ways, it affects their whole identity. This is why Sam Harris calls lying the “gateway drug” to bigger assaults, because if you are going to do bad things, you need to lie to yourself and others to get there.
The good news is the reverse is true as well. When partners choose to be honest, they are heading back up the ladder, and this direction is significant. It feels different. When someone acts upon their impulse to be honest, whether in a compliment or a confession, good things happen. When a spouse resists saying something distorted, they are choosing integrity, and this sends a message to their psyche. They are choosing to move towards the light.
Anna had many opportunities to stop her deception and come clean. She finally became so isolated and unhappy that she took the difficult step of admitting what was going on. She approached Chet and tearfully told him of her pain and struggles and expressed her concerns about their relationship. He was upset but surprised her by being open to her story and concerned about her well-being. He admitted he had not been there for her, or their baby. They began a series of important conversations with each other at home and in therapy. Although there were hard truths to face, the result was closeness in the relationship that hadn’t existed when the small lies were spreading and putting distance between them.