Why Lying Can Be Good for a Marriage

I can't tell you how sick of moral absolutism I am. Every time I turn around, here comes another expert telling me not to do something I need to do—like stress eating or staying up all night or letting my son sleep in my bed. I need these things for my life to go smoothly. I understand why they shouldn't become habits. But come on: eating General Tso's chicken at all hours of the night cannot always be bad for you. And now there's this new spate of advice talking about how lying is bad for a relationship. That is my line in the sand. Marriages cannot exist without dishonesty. They can't. If married people had to be completely truthful with one another all of the time, the divorce rate would skyrocket and the drive for gay marriage would stall indefinitely. I don't want to sound like Erma Bombeck, but you cannot be completely honest with a person you spend so much time with. Husbands and wives have an unprecedented ability to get on each other's nerves—not only do they know each other really well but they also spend a lot of time together doing things like changing dirty diapers, trying to find a plumber on an early Sunday morning, and filling out income-tax forms. To end lying in marriage under these kinds of circumstances is tantamount to ending sex in marriage. I am not suggesting that all lying is good. Adultery, "sexting" with your college boyfriend, saying you're in a meeting when you're at the racetrack, or telling your spouse that your parents are dead when they live in Boca are not acceptable lies. I'm talking about fibs. Things like "You look like you lost more weight" or "You're right—that person from work is a dummy" or "I love spending time with your friends." Here's why:

1. Spouses are always trying to trick you into admitting something they think you secretly believe. The only defense is a lie, especially when you really do believe it.
A long time ago, my husband and I had tickets to a Hall & Oates show. I love Hall & Oates. But on the night of the concert, Cory came down with an illness that landed him in intensive care for a few days. And to this day, my husband really thinks I would have preferred to drop him off at the emergency room and go by myself to the concert. Now if I were being perfectly honest with him, I would say, "Well, I seriously thought about it. But I decided I loved you too much." You can't say something like that to your spouse. If I said that out loud, this is what Cory would hear: "I wish I'd dumped you at the ER. Getting to hear 'Sarah Smile' is much more important than whether you live or die." So I lie and say, "Your health is the most important thing to me. If you're OK, I'm OK." Oh, and for those who are wondering how I can admit this in such a public forum, it's easy. I'm going to lie and say I didn't do a column this week.

It goes both ways too. For years, I've been trying to get my husband to admit he hates my chili. I know he doesn't like it. I can't remember why I'm so convinced of it—he eats it but something just isn't right. If he's lying (and I am positive he is), he's only doing it to spare my feelings, so I should let it go. But I can't. I ask him about my chili at all hours of the day and night, hoping I'll catch him off-guard and the truth will fall out of his mouth. I've ordered chili from here to Houston and every time I ask him to take a bite, he says mine is better and I give him the third degree. How is mine better? Why is mine better? Would you bring it to a desert island? Every other couple I've ever met does this as well. Haven't you ever heard a friend say to his wife, "I thought you liked doubles tennis" or "You never said you were allergic to my cologne"?

2. Spouses should remain constantly vigilant of subtext.
One of the less-fortunate things that happens to couples of long standing is that you lose the ability to beg for compliments—and you forget to give them. There's only so much time in a day. Between work and kids and house stuff and other people stuff, we barely have time to say good morning and good night, never mind "you are the love of my life" or "you're pretty." And after a while, it becomes too late to ask your other half if you look good in red. I mean, it's embarrassing, right? So to get around that, couples ask different questions to get at the same point. For instance, take the famous query "Does this make me look fat?" What's really being asked is "Have I become less attractive to you over the course of our relationship?" And that is why the answer is always no, even if it's not technically true. That's also why answering yes usually results in a big fight and somebody sleeping on the couch.

3. Spouses need lying for venting purposes.
Spending day after day with the same person results ineluctably in nerves being plucked. I don't care if you are Buddha and you married Gandhi. Something your partner does on a daily basis drives you crazy. For instance, my spouse hates that I throw my clothes all around the house and never (ever) pick them up. I can't stand that Cory poaches my iPod accessories. As two cohabiting adults, we encounter tons of stuff like that: someone scrapes their knife, the other one hums to get to sleep, his wife absolutely refuses to recycle, and her husband thinks the living room is his man cave and won't let anybody else watch TV. The only way to deal with this situation is to exaggerate your annoyance out of the realm of truthful responses. For example, instead of lecturing me on picking up and folding my clothes, Cory simply says, "The next time I have to pick up your pants, I'm going to douse them with gasoline and throw them out the window." Or from my end, it would sound something like, "If you have my iPod charger, I'm sending you to Bolivia in a box." Now all of that is a lie—nobody goes to Bolivia in August. But it's the only way to express your minor irritation without it blowing up into a big thing involving tears and people feeling unappreciated and taking positions just to be right.

I feel for radically honest relationships. I'm sure those people think they're happy but I know they're not. Marriage needs some illusion. I'm not talking massive deceptions and complicated conspiracies (think "hiking the Appalachian trail"). But you do need lies to take the place of the hormonal rush you got when you first met. That hormonal rush may get you into a relationship, but it's the little lies that keep you there.

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