Do White Lies Help or Hurt Your Relationship? (2024)

One night, my wife and I were getting ready to go teach a marriage enrichment class. “How do I look?” she asked. “You look nice,” I said, and then realized I hadn’t looked at her. Pretty harmless, but an honest answer would have been more meaningful. She did look nice, but I hadn’t bothered to check.

A white lie is usually a trivial falsehood said in a tactful way. Sometimes white lies are offered to flatter, and some to avoid hurting feelings: “You are such a Romeo,” or, “I am fine!” Other white lies consist of things unsaid, like allowing a partner to believe something that isn’t true. Back when I was getting to know my wife-to-be, I had gone on a campout with friends, including girls who were our dates. She heard that I had gone, and asked what guys talked about on camping trips. Since I was becoming interested in her, I didn’t really want to mention that we had dates, especially since she knew mine. I dodged and said, “Um, guys just talk about sports.” She later found out what happened and was hurt that I hadn’t told her the whole story. I rationalized: “I never claimed that I didn’t have a date… er, exactly.” But she was right. I was skipping a detail that was fair for her to know, since our relationship was progressing. It would have been awkward, but not as awkward as the conversation we had later when the truth came out.

Distance and Deception

Small lies can have big consequences. Mary Kaplar created the awesomely-named Lying in Amorous Relationship Scale (LIARS), which assesses attitudes about lying. Kaplar assumed that lies for altruistic reasons, like avoiding conflict, would not harm a relationship. However, she was surprised to find that even nice lies hurt relationship satisfaction. Kaplar concluded that people should be direct, even when the truth isn’t fun, rather than telling soothing, white lies.

This is because lies cause distance. False accusations and exaggerations are clearly harmful, but even lies to flatter or get close can backfire. One study asked participants to keep written records of their social interactions for a week. They rated these on how meaningful the relationship was, the type of interaction, whether there was any deception, and what the other’s reaction was if there was deception. Lies were usually nice, like, “You look great!” and for emotional reasons like keeping the peace. Most journal keepers told one to two lies per day (of course, it is possible they were lying about how often they were lying). However, the truthful exchanges were rated as more enjoyable than the deceptive ones.

The researchers concluded that “everyday lies violate the nature of close relationships. If people’s presentations of themselves to another person are so distorted as to be deliberately misleading, and if they hide and fake their feelings and opinions … then their relationship with that person may no longer be a close one.” Deception puts a person in a different mindset. It’s fake and weakens the threads of the intimate bond. It doesn’t leave the liar feeling good, either. If you tell your spouse you worked really hard when you didn’t, you might get thanked, but it isn’t validating to be praised for a put-on.

It is not hard to lie to those we don’t care about. We can easily tell the salesman at the door that we are in the middle of dinner when we aren’t, but we have a harder time looking our spouse in the eye and lying. People are most honest with spouses and children, and less honest with friends, acquaintances, and especially strangers. Distance makes it easier to lie, which is why more lies happen on the phone or in texts than in face-to-face conversations. If your date cancels via text, you might be more suspicious than if she or he talks to you about it. It is harder to lie with the whole body. If lies are easy in a relationship, then it is not doing well.

Relationships move forward and become more intimate through honesty. I have done a role-play in classes where I invite people to come up and pretend they are on a blind date. It is funny and awkward as they ask each other questions. The point is that strangers start with basic information and go deeper only as they feel comfortable and connected. It would be weird if a new acquaintance immediately started sharing their deepest secrets. Two people become one pair through honesty, and an intimate partnership requires integrity in small and significant ways.


Adapted from Jason Whiting. Love Me True: Overcoming the Surprising Ways We Deceive in Relationships. Cedar Fort Publishing, 2016

Mary Elizabeth Kaplar, "Lying Happily Ever After: Altruistic White Lies, Positive Illusions, and Relationship Satisfaction," (doctoral dissertation, Bowling Green State University, 2006).

Bella M. DePaulo, Deborah A. Kashy, Susan E. Kirkendol, Melissa M. Wyer, and Jennifer A. Epstein, "Lying in Everyday Life." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 70, no. 5 (1996): 979-995.

Douglas C. Derrick, Thomas O. Meservy, Jeffrey L. Jenkins, Judee K. Burgoon, and Jay F. Nunamaker Jr., "Detecting Deceptive Chat-Based Communication Using Typing Behavior and Message Cues," ACM Transactions on Management Information Systems (TMIS) 4, no. 2 (2013): 9.

Do White Lies Help or Hurt Your Relationship? (2024)
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