Keeping Secrets

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Source: Courtesy of Pixabay

Open and honest communication is an important part of healthy relationships, but sometimes sharing everything is not entirely possible. We may withhold information from our significant other, or in some cases, outright lie. In some instances, this may be done to protect him/her from potentially damaging information, and in other instances, to protect ourselves. This article will examine why we lie and share a few tips for discussing the importance of total disclosure with your partner.

Why We Lie

Lying to a romantic partner isn’t necessarily motivated by bad intentions. In fact, a person may lie to protect his/her partner and to avoid sharing potentially upsetting information with him/her. For example, you may have heard a passing comment about your partner that was negative. If the person is not part of your inner circle and may never interact with your partner again, would you share the comment? If you don’t, you are withholding information. What if your partner asked if anything was said about him/her? In this case, not sharing would be an outright lie. However, in the latter case, would providing your partner with negative information have any upside? Guarding it may be the kinder approach to take.

People who tell lies may view their lies as altruistically motivated and justified by the situation. In fact, research by Roggensack and Sillars (2014) has shown that while people value honesty in their relationships, situational variables may lead people to think about the careful balance between being open and using discretion in what is shared. In their research they found that there is a difference between obligatory rules, which “prescribe disclosure” and discretionary rules which are more flexible.

It was found that couples agree to a greater extent on the obligatory rules. Obligatory rules often explain behavior in clear terms such as not checking your partner’s text messages. Discretionary rules, on the other hand, require judgment as they are flexible Roggensack & Sillars, 2014). An example is not sharing information that can potentially cause conflict.

A study by Cole (2001), with 128 couples, found that there are three explanations for why intimate partners lie to one another. These are reciprocity, avoidance of punishment, and attachment needs. Regarding reciprocity, if a person suspects that his/her partner is being dishonest, he/she may act in kind as a way of retaliation. Regarding the avoidance of punishment, couples will opt to withhold information, especially when they have overly aggressive partners. They will often assess their partner’s potential reactions to a situation and opt of out sharing information that may lead to a problem. Regarding attachment needs, both the dimensions of attachment avoidance and anxiety are related to the use of deception. For the former, telling lies or withholding information can be used to keep partners at a comfortable distance. For the latter, the use of deception can be used to bring an anxiously attached person closer to his/her partner in the short-term, but may have the unintended effect of creating a rift between them in the long-term.

What to Do

Even if the goal of using deception is to appease your partner and bring you two closer together, eventually many lies have a way of surfacing. To protect the relationship and the trust between the two of you, it is better to refrain from taking a creative license when it comes to sharing information with your partner.

It is important to have a discussion with your partner, in advance of acquiring any potentially problematic information, about what to do if such a situation ever arises. You may be surprised to find out that your partner wants you to distill information using your judgment before sharing anything hurtful or contentious. Or, you may find that your partner wants you to openly communicate any information pertaining to him/her- the good, bad, and ugly. Either way, having this conversation will be important in establishing the rules for engagement within your relationship.

The Use of Deception in Romantic Relationships
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People often think of deception as something negative, however lying to a partner may be done to protect him/her. This article will examine lying and withholding the truth.
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Cole, T. (2001). Lying to the one you love: The use of deception in romantic relationships.  Journal of Social and Personal Relationships18(1), 107-129.

Kaplar, M. E., & Gordon, A. K. (2004). The enigma of altruistic lying: Perspective differences in what motivates and justifies lie telling within romantic relationships. Personal Relationships,  11(4), 489-507.

Roggensack, K. E. & Sillars, A. (in press). Agreement and understanding about honesty and deception rules in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. doi:10.1177/0265407513489914


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