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Tangled Webs We Weave: Big Lies, Little Lies

If I were to ask you if you lie, what would you say?

No? Sometimes? It depends on the situation?

The truth is that everyone has lied. Anyone who claims never to have lied is, in fact, lying. There is a perceived difference, however, between telling little “white” lies and being an out-and-out liar.

Lying happens for a variety of reasons and in certain circumstances can actually be seen as an accepted form of social interaction. Consider the friend who asks, “Don’t you like my new car?” You can say, “No, I don’t. It’s ugly and you paid way too much,” but what would that do? It won’t change their purchase, it won’t bring you closer and, in all likelihood, will hurt your friend’s feelings unnecessarily. So you fib and say, “Yeah! It’s great!”

The so-called “white lie” is leveraged routinely to spare someone’s feelings. As individuals we often do a quick, mental cost-benefit analysis on brutal honesty vs. a soft untruth. When the result is needless insult or pain, it is understandable for many to err on the side of the lie. When asked if this is okay most would say, yes, this little white lie is totally fine.

But what about a husband lying to his wife when she asks, “Are you cheating on me?” Should he own up and say, “yes” if he is, or is it okay to lie?

There are those who would wonder what good can come from confessing to cheating, applying the same logic to this situation as they would to the situation with the friend and the car. What would be accomplished by telling her? It won’t change anything and it would only hurt her, so we might as well lie. Is lying in this circumstance socially acceptable? Most would answer “no” to this scenario.

So where do you draw the line?

That’s not an easy answer. The problem is that the line between the white lie and flat out dishonesty gets really blurry really fast, and little lies often lead very quickly to much bigger ones. Most people consider the difference between blurring the truth and sheer dishonesty to be the reason or intent of the lie. Lying to cover up bad behavior or to stay out of trouble is unacceptable and probably going to come back to bite you, whereas the “white lie” is something you do to protect someone.

The truth is that white or not, both types of lies are disrespectful and insulting to the person you are lying to. And neither of them are really doing anything positive for the person on the other end.

Even little lies tend to be more about the liar than the person being lied to. You may believe you are being thoughtful and attempting to spare someone pain, but the truth is that you are actually trying to avoid an uncomfortable conversation.

Telling your friend you don’t like their new car may seem like a pointless thing to do and therefore justifies a little fib, but really that fib is just keeping you from having to explain your point of view and how and why it differs from theirs. By lying to them you are also undermining your friendship with the assumption that they can’t handle hearing your honest opinion and still remain your friend.

There is also a toll taken on those who lie, big or little. The initiation of a lie automatically sets up a requirement for its maintenance. Maintaining a deception is mentally taxing and almost always is more work than it’s worth. There is no easy out either. Once the lie is told, if it isn’t maintained you run the risk of losing the trust and respect of the person to whom you have lied. Trust and respect are earned, and once damaged they can be very difficult to repair.

Although many will tout the acceptability of the white lie, it is advisable to think hard before going down that pathway. Is it really worth it to set yourself up on any level for having to keep up a deception? And is your relationship really so fragile that being honest will destroy it?

If the answer to that is yes, your mental energy would probably be better spent on strengthening that relationship rather than undermining it with lies.

Tangled Webs We Weave: Big Lies, Little Lies

Kurt Smith, Psy.D., LMFT, LPCC, AFC

Dr. Kurt Smith is the Clinical Director of Guy Stuff Counseling & Coaching and writes a blog about the issues facing men (and the women who love them). As an expert in understanding men, their partners, and the unique relationship challenges couples face today, he regularly appears on The Huffington Post, NerdWallet and PsychCentral. Dr. Kurt is a lover of dogs, sarcasm, everything outdoors, and helping those seeking to make their lives and relationships better. Check out his weekly tips on Facebook or Twitter.

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APA Reference
Smith, K. (2018). Tangled Webs We Weave: Big Lies, Little Lies. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Nov 2018 (Originally: 14 Nov 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Nov 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.