Leaving out important details to intentionally misrepresent the truth is known as lying by omission, a dishonest behavior that can negatively impact your interpersonal relationships.
Not everyone agrees that intentionally leaving out important information is lying. Some people assert that “lies” are directly untrue statements only and that leaving out details isn’t lying — it’s just not telling the whole story.
It’s true you don’t always have to include every minor detail in a story to make it accurate, but if leaving out details misconstrues the truth, it may be considered a form of deception.
In some situations, leaving out parts of a story can be just as harmful as making direct false statements.
Lying by omission is the deliberate act of leaving out important details so the truth is skewed or misrepresented. It’s the counterpart of lying by commission, or using false direct statements.
Haley Hicks, a licensed clinical social worker from Forney, Texas, explains lying by omission is a manipulation of the truth often used to cover up mistakes or avoid uncomfortable conversations.
“It’s like telling half the story, with the missing half being crucial to understanding the entire picture,” she says.
Lying by omission is common, and some research from 2022 suggests people view it as a less severe form of dishonesty than lying by commission.
Examples of lying by omission
When it comes to intentionally leaving out details, there’s no clear line where a statement crosses over into the realm of lying by omission. In general, deliberately leaving out any relevant information to create an ideal truth can meet the criteria of lying.
Remember, a lie isn’t defined by the level of harm it causes. A lie is simply an intentionally dishonest assertion, no matter how minor it may seem.
Examples of lying by omission include:
- telling a new romantic partner you’ve just left a long-term relationship but not mentioning it was a marriage
- accepting a restaurant invite from a friend and saying you’ve been there before but leaving out that it was previously with someone they dislike
- telling your partner you had fun golfing with friends but not mentioning you ran into your ex
- saying you felt unappreciated at your old job but not explaining you were fired for napping at your desk
Lying by omission can negatively impact your interpersonal relationships.
Loss of authenticity
When you’re misrepresenting the truth in a relationship, Flannery explains it’s as if you’re wearing a mask that prevents a genuine connection with the other person. You’re offering what you think you “should” be based on what you assume your partner can tolerate.
“Any affection is given and received through this masked false self,” he says. “This can lead to cold distancing, feelings of inadequacy, and will almost guarantee a deterioration of the relationship’s communication and intimacy.”
A relationship built on manipulated truth might not be able to grow or progress, Hicks cautions.
“Without full disclosure, parties cannot make informed decisions or come to an understanding about issues or topics related to the relationship,” she says. “As a result, communication will suffer, and the bond between them may slowly crumble.”
Environment of distrust
Ultimately, once lying by omission is discovered, it can cause a breakdown of trust that can be just as damaging as any bold-faced lie.
“Lying by omission will also lead to distrust,” says Dr. Forrest Talley, a licensed clinical psychologist from Folsom, California. “Trust suffers, and the person who was deceived will then be more cautious about accepting further disclosures as 100% truthful.”
He adds that many people become more guarded and distant. Depending on your partner’s personality, they may become chronically suspicious or increasingly possessive.
There’s no single reason why you might regularly lie by omission. Flannery indicates the behavior stems from a conscious or subconscious decision that the relationship isn’t safe enough for authentic interaction.
But what drives this decision can be very individual.
“This idea can be rooted in past hurt or trauma experienced in relationships that have taught the lying party that certain people, situations, or relationships cannot be trusted with unedited information,” he says.
For others, lying by omission may be founded in a place of low self-worth. If you don’t believe you’re worthy of love and connection, or you’re terrified someone will abandon you if you show your true self, these feelings can encourage you to hide things from others.
If your relationship has deteriorated from lying by omission, all may not be lost, depending on the damage from dishonesty and its underlying causes.
Building trust isn’t always easy, and the elements involved in trust can vary in each situation.
- truthful information
Based on these ideas, tips to regain or build trust include:
- seeking professional guidance, like with a couples’ therapist
- cultivating open, calm communication strategies
- balancing relationship power dynamics
- focusing on transparency and honesty
- maintaining confidentiality
- acting with empathy and compassion
- sharing decision-making
- discussing relationship goals as well as current concerns
- showing vulnerability
- honoring and following through with your commitments
- engaging in acts of altruism
- discussing personal boundaries
- admitting when you’re in the wrong
- learning to say “no” when you don’t want to do something
- building your self-esteem
Not everyone believes that omitting details is the same as lying, and it’s true there can be a gray area when it comes to divulging information.
Not every detail is necessary for accuracy, but deliberately misrepresenting the truth by hiding some of the facts is considered lying by omission.
Learning practical communication skills, focusing on honoring your commitments, and seeking professional guidance can help you rebuild trust if lying by omission has damaged your relationships.