Marital harmony through lying? More like fibbing, but yes.
The strongest relationships and marriages, no doubt, are built on a foundation of truth and honesty. But just as doubtless, the walls on that foundation end up festooned over time with little scraps of misdirection.
That’s the theme of Elizabeth Bernstein’s Bonds column in today’s Journal, which takes a look at fibbing between married couples. “We fib to avoid conflict,” writes Elizabeth. “To gain approval. To save face. Or just to be kind. (Show me a man who tells his wife she looks fat, and I’ll show you a man headed for a night on the couch.)”
While women freely told Elizabeth about ploys such as putting newly bought clothes in dry-cleaning bags before walking in and putting takeout food in pots on the stove before dinner, she found she had a lot of difficulty getting men to tell the truth about lying, even under a cloak of anonymity. But eventually, some examples emerged:
“Pressed for specifics, my male sources finally owned up to fudging the truth about working late (to meet friends at a bar, sneak in a ballgame or take a walk alone),” Elizabeth writes. “They also said they fibbed about how much they drank at a party, how fast they drive, whether they find their female friends attractive, how much they like their significant other’s cooking or outfits—‘After she’s changed 10 times, you’ll say yes to anything to get out the door’—and yard work.”
Beyond those minor shadings of the truth, beneficial lying can aid more somber marital situations. Elizabeth tells of one woman who, when her husband put off having a potentially serious testicular lump checked out, mused about what she ought to do for a (fictional) lump she said that she found in her breast. The husband “went ballistic,” and the ensuing conversation helped him realize he should head to the doctor for his problem.
For myself, I find that lying is less about willful deception and more about the intended truth that turns into a lie through inaction or forgetfulness. One of the men Elizabeth talks to cites that great philosopher George Costanza, of “Seinfeld”: “It’s not a lie if you believe it.” For example, last night I really believed I was going to go to bed at a decent hour right after quickly typing up the Juggle post you’re reading now, but I was gripped by a not-uncommon wave of procrastination and ended up staying up until after 1. That retroactively turned my “I won’t stay up too late” into an untrue statement, but it didn’t start out that way. Honest.
Let me be clear to readers: There are two things that are unforgivable in my world. Lying to me and stealing from me. Both are trust issues, and I dislike finding out that either has happened to me. That said, readers know who my wife is. Up until this last year in school she was blogging right here. So the question remains about lying and does it help or hurt a marriage?
That depends. A fib is nothing more than a little, white lie, and it generally doesn't hurt anyone. A direct lie is something that's unforgivable, in my eyes, because that means that my wife can't come to me about something out of concern as to how I might react. (Let's just say that while I do tend to have a longer fuse than I did years ago, I do tend to get upset at certain things. That, however, has never happened between Marcie and I.)
We all tell little, white lies. Telling a friend that you can't attend their party this weekend because you have plans, or don't feel good is just one example. No one is really hurt by it. But when confronted about something such as "where were you late last night" is one of those things where it could seriously hurt the marital bliss a couple shares with one another.
We try to be absolutely honest and open with one another, but we can tell when the other isn't being entirely forthcoming or if they're holding back because they don't want to hurt the other's feelings. That is something as old as time. We have a rule in our house that we can go to each other and tell each other anything -- anything -- that's important, no matter how hurt the other might be. We will work through whatever it is, no matter how hard it might be.
But as for the occasional fib? Well, let's just say that to maintain harmony in the married home, those aren't half bad to avoid the fight or the hurt feelings. Do they help solidify the marriage? I think they do. As the old adage goes "don't sweat the small stuff," and in my opinion a fib on occasion let's you not sweat the small stuff.