Are You Lying to Your Spouse

January 29, 2018

We face a dilemma in our marriages: Do we lie and keep the peace? Or, do we share honestly and risk conflict?

We’re all tempted to lie. Whether it’s a response to “Do these pants make me look big?” or “Did you remember to pay the gas bill?” or “What were you doing last night?”, we’re just one remark away from a rip in our relationship. Small rips over time add up to huge gashes in the fabric of our marriages, resulting in a lack of authenticity, increasing emotional distance, and eventual complete separation.

''Small rips over time add up to huge gashes in the fabric of our marriages.'' Share on X

Why do we lie?

One of my favorite relationship experts, Dr. Ellyn Bader, outlines four stages of marriage, each of which present unique challenges to honesty:

Stage One: The Honeymoon
Stage Two: Emerging Differences
Stage Three: Seeking Freedom
Stage Four: Together as Two

Dr. Bader says that in each stage we’re challenged to either 1) increase our level of honesty with one another, or 2) increase our level of deception. For instance, in the honeymoon stage, we can choose to honestly address differences as we learn more about each other, or we can keep pretending that everything is perfect. In the freedom stage, we can honestly negotiate how much time we spend together, or we can pursue “freedom unhinged” in which anything goes and we ignore our true desires.

In Bader’s view, at the root of all lies are:

  • The desire to protect ourselves – usually when we want to avoid emotional distress, such as reflecting on a painful self-truth.
  • The desire to serve ourselves – usually when we’re trying to gain an advantage of some type over our spouse.

When we choose to lie, our focus is inward, on ourselves.

Honesty is risky

Dr. Bader’s approach reminds me that I take a risk every time I share something with my spouse.

When I disclose, I’m opening my personal armor, choosing to let my spouse see something previously hidden (whether consciously or not). My spouse then has his own choice: He can open his own armor, sharing more of himself with me, or he can take advantage of my openness and hurt me.

Is the risk worth it?

Only you can answer that for your relationship. But for me, and the hundreds of people I’ve counseled, honesty isn’t just the best policy, it’s also the path to more richness in the marriage – to more embraces, more laughter, more shared secrets, more delight in living every day.

''Honesty is a path to more – more embraces, more laughter, more shared secrets, more delight.'' Share on X

But a warning comes with the honesty user’s guide: Sometimes the truth hurts. When you open up to your spouse, you’re making a commitment to hear what they say. That’s part of the deal. Even when it hurts.

So what do you do when the truth hurts?  Dr. Bader suggests you remind yourself of these things when you’re hearing hard truths from your spouse:

  • Deep down, I’m glad they’re being honest.
  • Even if I don’t like what I’m hearing, listening gives us a better chance to work this out.
  • I’ll listen now and take time to digest it later, as part of a bigger picture.
  • This isn’t all about me – there’s a reason they need to tell me.
  • Maybe they felt they couldn’t be honest before now. I need to stay open, so I can hear the reason.

Yes, this approach takes a courageous commitment. And, no small amount of time. But I believe – no matter what marriage stage you’re in – this approach will make your relationship stronger.

For a deep-dive into truth-telling in your marriage, I recommend Dr. Bader’s book, Tell Me No Lies, cowritten with Peter Pearson, Ph.D., and Judith Schwartz. Or if you want to take steps immediately toward a stronger marriage, call my office or schedule a quick 15-minute Discovery Call to learn more.

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  1. Kit

    Great post. My partner and I are beginning phase 4. I wish every couple were educated about truths like these at the beginning of their relationship, so as to navigate the choppy waters when they arise. Most people just abandon ship, which leaves in it’s wake a tremendous amount of pain, confusion, unresolved personal issues and poor behavioral patterns.
    My partner and I had to learn this the hard way, but it’s beginning to look positive now. I’m grateful for your ongoing commitment and expert advice to relationships.

    • Kim Bowen

      Thanks for the positive feedback, Kit! Good for you both for taking the time to learn how to navigate your maturing relationship. I wish you many happy years ahead, Kim.