We know that honesty is the best policy in all relationships. In healthy romantic relationships, partners directly discuss their desires, thoughts and feelings. They share private information. Revealing ourselves to our partner breeds intimacy, and honesty strengthens our connection.
But what about white lies? Are white lies OK or damaging to healthy relationships?
White lies are actually extremely common in healthy relationships, according to Susan Orenstein, Ph.D, a licensed psychologist and relationship expert in Cary, N.C.
Orenstein defined white lies as “omitting the complete truth to spare someone’s feelings.” A white lie is an innocuous lie. In fact, she said, sometimes, a white lie is just being kind.
It’s your wife wondering if you can see her wrinkles, and you replying, “you’re as beautiful as ever.”
It’s your husband bringing you breakfast in bed, fruit overripe and French toast undercooked, and you saying it’s delicious.
It’s your partner clearly giving it his or her all, and you not wanting to hurt his or her feelings.
In other words, white lies are about “overlooking certain things in the name of love and understanding.” They’re about offering reassurance. Orenstein referred to it as a collusion we make with our partner to prop each other up.
“It’s an implicit mutual agreement couples can create to say ‘we’re special,’ ‘we’re the in crowd,’ ‘and I’m incredibly lucky.’ We can cherish each other and honor each other by acting as if our partner is the most beautiful, smart, loving person in the whole world; that we would choose him or her over anyone else; that we made the right decision and we’re not looking anymore.”
White lies are not OK when something actually bothers you, and you want your partner to change it (and they can), Orenstein said.
She shared this example: Your partner regularly buys you pricey jewelry, which you don’t like. Instead of saying you love it, you clearly communicate how you feel.
According to Orenstein, effective communication includes telling your partner you appreciate the gesture or intention along with an alternative that could make it even better.
For instance, “I know you wanted to get me something special for our anniversary, and I know you put a lot of time and thought into it. Honey, I know I just wouldn’t wear it. Can we return it and use that money to go on a trip together?”
White lies also don’t work for important things. “Your partner has the right to know about serious issues like health conditions, finances, romantic feelings toward others [and] career instability,” Orenstein said.
She stressed the importance of having a collaborative partnership that includes joint decisions and explicit agreements. “When it really matters, have an open, honest conversation.”
A critical time to have honest conversations is when you’re dating or in the premarital stage of your relationship, she said. Talk about the kinds of information you want to know and what you don’t. Talk about whether you’ll tell each other everything and how you’ll make decisions.
Orenstein has found that the most stable and healthiest couples confide in each other, and make decisions together – decisions that are “good for both them and good for the relationship.”
White lies also aren’t serious deceptions. And deceptions are damaging to the relationship.
A serious deception, Orenstein said, is about protecting yourself, not your partner. This includes everything from cheating to having a gambling problem to telling your partner nothing is bothering you when you’re actually feeling resentful, she said.
Keeping secrets and withholding your feelings from your partner often sabotage your relationship. The best course of action is, again, to talk about it. “If you can verbalize your struggles or your frustrations, you’re doing your partner a great favor because you two can directly address the issue together instead of avoiding the issue.” Avoidance slowly chips away at relationships.
As a whole, white lies are OK. They’re even beneficial — if they’re about being sensitive to your partner, she said. “White lies are not OK when they’re meant to protect you, to hide things or cover up. There’s a big difference.”