Your stomach turns. You caught your partner in a lie. You begin wondering what lying does to a relationship and before you know it, your mind starts reeling. Why did they lie to me? Did I do something wrong? Has our trust been broken for good?
One of the most important components of a successful relationship is both partners’ willingness to make themselves vulnerable. But being vulnerable doesn’t come easy for many people. And in order to avoid the uncomfortable feelings that accompany vulnerability, some people will turn to lying.
If you’ve encountered lying in a relationship, keep reading for everything you may want to know about why people lie, the effects of lying in a relationship, and how to approach your partner about the situation.
Why people lie in relationships
The motive behind why people lie can be as harmless as feeling insecure about revealing something deeply personal or as malicious as covering up a serious wrongdoing.
Kristen Mark, associate professor and director of the Sexual Health Promotion Lab at the University of Kentucky, said most lies stem from a motivation to cover up something that makes someone feel insecure.
“People tend to lie most about things that they are concerned about revealing to their partner,” Mark said. “Most of the time, lies stem from an insecurity of how a partner might respond.”
Dona Rutowicz, a New York-based licensed clinical social worker specializing in relationships, said there are 10 main reasons why people lie in relationships:
To avoid hurting their partner. Rutowicz said this could involve not hurting a partner’s feelings by telling them, for example, that you loved the dinner they prepared even though it tasted terrible.
To deliberately hurt their partner. On the flip side, Rutowicz offered the example of a spouse who finds out their partner is cheating on them. They might be mad, angry and hurt, so they’ll tell their spouse something they know will hurt their feelings.
To avoid embarrassment. It’s a lot less embarrassing to lie and say the dog snatched your beautiful dinner off the counter than it is to admit you were out of your depth.
To cover up insecurities. Imagine having family members pressuring you about when you’ll have children. You might be tempted to make up a false reason rather than be forthright with your concerns about being a good parent, for example.
To keep secrets. Keeping secrets in relationships is generally bad, but there are more innocent applications—lying about working late to buy time to set up a big surprise birthday party you’ve been planning, for instance.
To avoid talking about feelings or heated topics. Perhaps wisely, some people claim to be uninterested in or ignorant of hot-button issues to avoid heated discussions with more vocal friends or relatives.
Money issues. Our finances are deeply personal, and closely tied to concepts such as success and self-worth. Plenty of people would rather keep the truth about their financial well-being to themselves.
To cover up an affair. An affair is probably the biggest secret someone can attempt to keep because it is widely considered taboo in most relationships.
To assert control. Generally speaking, individuals in positions of power may use lies to maintain the unequal power dynamic, while those seeking power may use different lies in their attempt to seize it.
How lying destroys relationships
Trust is fragile. The more we trust another person, the more we open ourselves up to hurt if that trust is broken.
“When trust is eroded, it places a fracture on the relationship,” Rutowicz said. “When this foundational building block is not repaired, it can lead to break up, separation or divorce down the road.”
Another way lying destroys a relationship is by blocking intimacy, Rutowicz said, which is a core component of a healthy relationship. Without intimacy, a relationship will struggle to survive.
Lying can also lead to one partner feeling insecure, which can have a deleterious ripple effect.
“The violation can eat away at the other partner’s self-esteem, eventually leading to arguments and possible withdrawal of connection to their partner,” Rutowicz said.
White lies vs. major lies
Not all lies are created equal. Telling your spouse you like her shoes when you really don’t is one thing—hiding the fact that you blew your joint savings account at the casino is another.
“It is widely believed that everyone lies on a regular basis,” Rutowicz said. “Non-pathological lying is commonplace and not a sign of concern.”
Mark said determining whether a lie is a little problem or a major red flag boils down to trusting your gut.
“If you feel like the lie deteriorates the trust in the relationship, it’s a problem,” she said. “If it doesn’t feel like it’s impacting your trust for your partner, a little white lie that you like their shoes when you don’t isn’t the worst thing.”
Rutowicz said it’s important to be on the lookout for signs someone is a pathological liar, which could indicate they have narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder.
“A pathological liar will lie for no clear reason and with no benefit to themselves,” she said.
You might be wondering what “no benefit to themselves” means. Rutowicz offers this example: When you lie to your partner that a meal they prepared tasted great when it really didn’t, you benefited because you felt better that you didn’t hurt their feelings.
If your partner lies and there’s no clear benefit, you could be dealing with a pathological liar. For example, if they say they took the subway home from work when you saw them get off the bus—something almost no one would have motivation to lie about—that may be a sign of pathology.
What to do if you encounter lying in a relationship
Think your partner might be lying? Rutowicz said the first step—before taking any action—is to check the facts.
“Just because someone appears to be lying doesn’t mean they are,” she said. “Make sure you’re checking your source and not jumping to conclusions or assuming.”
If you take this step and still believe your partner is lying, Rutowicz recommends having a calm, composed conversation with your significant other.
How to get the truth out of someone isn’t always easy, so keep the following pieces of advice in mind:
Pick a convenient time. “Don’t decide to have a conversation when you’ve just come off of working an 18-hour day and you’re starving,” Rutowicz said.
Start off gently. This means approaching the conversation with love, strength and confidence. “Ground yourself in why you fell in love with your partner in the first place,” Rutowicz said. But also remember that you and your feelings matter, too.
Keep it conversational. Rutowicz said this means asking open-ended questions and not accusing your partner of anything from the get-go.
Write it down. Some people communicate better when they’re able to write their thoughts down on paper, Rutowicz said. If this applies to you, consider writing a note to your partner that you can read aloud.
Use “I” statements. Mark said it’s crucial to approach the conversation with “I” statements.
“Tell them that you’re concerned for the health of your relationship and that you value them being honest with you because it makes you feel cared for and respected,” she said.
If you realize your partner is lying, it’s important to set healthy boundaries that you can both agree on and adhere to, Rutowicz said.
If the lying continues to be problematic and your relationship is suffering as a result, consider meeting with a couples therapist. Lying in a relationship could be serious, and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Trust and lies in a relationship cannot coexist
Not all lying is created equal. Your spouse telling you they loved your homemade muffins when they didn’t isn’t akin to them lying about their finances or their troubled past.
Problematic lying in a relationship—which is anything beyond the commonplace white lie—erodes trust, and trust is the backbone of any solid partnership. If you sense that your partner is consistently being evasive or deceptive, it’s important to calmly approach them in order to tackle the problem head on and nip it in the bud before it gets worse.