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Trust is a fragile. Secrets and lies jeopardize trust and can damage us and our relationships – sometimes irreparably. We all tell “white lies.” We say “I’m fine,” when we’re not, compliment unwanted gifts, or even fib, “The check is in the mail.” But in an intimate relationship, emotional honesty includes allowing our partner to know who we are.
Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT is a marriage and family therapist. She is a relationship expert and author of "Codependency for Dummies" and "Conquering Codependency and Shame: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You," as well as five ebooks. She has worked extensively in the field of addiction and codependency. Her philosophy is to encourage each person to determine their own abstinence and treatment objectives. Her work is informed by training in Self-Psychology, Voice-Dialogue, Dream Analysis, Jungian Therapy, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Somatic Work, EFT, and Hypnosis.
Honesty is more than simply not lying. Deception includes making ambiguous or vague statements, telling half-truths, manipulating information through emphasis, exaggeration, or minimization, and withholding information or feelings that are important to someone who has a “right to know” because it affects the relationship and deprives that person of freedom of choice and informed action. Although we may consider ourselves honest, few of us reveal all our negative thoughts and feelings about people we are close to. It requires the courage to be vulnerable and authentic.
The Cost of Secrets and Lies
Most people who lie worry about the risks of being honest, but give little thought to the risks of dishonesty. Some of the ways in which lies and secrets cause harm are:
- They block real intimacy with a partner. Intimacy is based on trust and authenticity – the ability to be vulnerable – “naked” not only physically, but emotionally.
- They lead to cover-up lies and omissions that can be hard to remember. These mount up, and if the truth comes out, it may be more hurtful than the original secret. The longer the truth is hidden, the greater becomes the hurdle of revelation, for it would bring into question every instance of cover-up and all times the innocent partner relied upon and trusted the betrayer.
- Because of number 1 and 2, above, the secret holder normally feels guilty, or at least uncomfortable, during intimate moments with the deceived person. Closeness and certain topics tend to be avoided. Avoidance may not even be conscious and include things like being preoccupied with work, friends, hobbies, or addictive behavior, and doing activities that leave little opportunity for private conversations. The deceiver might even provoke an argument to create distance.
- Universally, honesty is valued as a moral norm, although the context and specifics may differ among different cultures. When we violate religious or cultural norms by hiding the truth, we experience anxiety generated by guilt. Despite our best efforts at hiding, our physiological reaction is the basis for electronic lie detectors.
- Violation of our values leads to not only guilt about our actions, but also it affects our self-concept. Over a long period, deception can eat away at our self-esteem. Ordinary guilt that could be reversed with honesty now becomes shame and undermines our fundamental sense of dignity and worthiness as a person. The gap between the self we show others and how we feel inside widens. (See Conquering Shame and Codependency)
- Ways of managing guilt and shame create more problems. We hide not only the secret but more of who we are. We might build resentments to justify our actions, withdraw, or become critical, irritable, or aggressive. We rationalize our lie or secret to avoid the inner conflict and the danger we imagine awaits us if we come clean. Some people become obsessed with their lie to the point that they have difficulty concentrating on little else. Other people are able to compartmentalize their feelings or rationalize their actions to better manage dishonestly. Compartmentalization and denying, rationalizing (“What my partner doesn’t know won’t hurt him/her.”) or minimizing (“I only did it once.”) are psychological defenses that help us deal with inner conflict and an undesirable reality. They can be so effective that the liar is convinced that lying supports the relationship. He or she may not want to face the hurt or choices that the truth could precipitate.
- Not surprisingly, beyond mental distress, research reveals that lying leads health complaints.
- The victim of deception may begin to react to the avoidant behavior by feeling confused, anxious, angry, suspicious, abandoned, or needy. They may begin to doubt themselves, and their self-esteem may suffer.