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To Lie or not to Lie

by Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.(more info)

listed in holistic psychotherapy, originally published in issue 35 - December 1998

Today's column comes from a discussion I had recently with an acquaintance, let's call him Herbert. Now Herb is very much in love with a wonderful woman, but despite that, he still seems to have an eye for the ladies.

Herb brought up one of the oldest dilemmas in the annals of love: If... just IF, he were to sway from the path of faithfulness to his beloved sometime in the future, should he tell her about that one false step? The general question is – should an act of infidelity be confessed? For Herb the answer, after much soul-searching, was clear: yes, of course he would tell his partner of his transgression.

Choosing to go with Truth, Herb granted that there is not only the moral law to consider, but also the psychological and practical consequences. Is a lie sometimes a better course of action for both parties?

This is a perennial conundrum. The Truth-sayers claim that honesty is always the best policy, since sincerity is the basis for a healthy personal relationship. For these people, to tell a lie would undermine in a very fundamental way the communication between two intimate souls.

The opposing, and perhaps more cynical view is briefly – what she (or he) doesn't know won't hurt.

The proponents of the "Lying is OK" side feel that their view is more practical and realistic – to lie is better than to burn. Confession, they say to honest Herb, is bad for the soul and detrimental to everyone. No contact between two people can ever be 100% open, there are always white lies, and to expect perfection is only to set oneself up for disappointment and disaster. People always need to keep a small secret space for themselves in any dyad, so why expect 100% compliance? Further, Herb's critics assert that he is merely trying to assuage his guilt about his extra-marital affair by passing it on to his partner. Why punish her? Such confessional ploys usually result in a sadistic torture game for the partner who is forced to listen to it. Why do you want to give her all the dirty details, Herb? In reality, they claim, people prefer not to hear the truth about such things, because, well, for one thing, what is Truth, anyway?

One man who takes this "open" view is my colleague Jake. Jake is a sophisticated New Yorker who thrived and survived the flower-power days of the 1960s, and lived to tell about Woodstock. Now he has a large practice, and takes a practical approach to life and love, devoid of what he calls the excess baggage of guilt and recrimination.

At one time he studied with Buddhists and continues to apply their teachings. Jake reminds me that the Buddha said, on the question of telling the truth: one should ask oneself first, "Is it kind?" and "Is it necessary?" and "Will I regret it?"

He pulls out an example from his long experience, showing why, at least in his viewpoint, deceit may be better than truth-telling. His brother Sam, a successful artist, had had a long affair with a divorced nurse, both in their 50s. For years they had met regularly two or three times a week for dinner, theatre, etc. But one day, after several years of a happy relationship, she suddenly decided to call it quits. He was hurt, but moved on with his life, eventually meeting other women, but no one to take her place. Then just as impulsively, ten months later she showed up at his studio, begging him to forgive her and take her back. Sam was happy to do so, and they continued as before, perhaps even happier than ever. But she began to constantly question him whether he had had other women during the time she wasn't around.

Following his brother's advice, Sam lied, saying, "No darling, of course not." But she kept asking and nagging, always adding strongly "I won't be jealous or angry, I just want you to tell me the truth." So Sam kept asking his brother – shouldn't I tell her the truth? But Jake, sticking to his philosophy, replied "No, never!" But Sam, a soft-hearted man finally gave in to her entreaties one winter evening as they sat drinking cognac in front of his blazing fireplace. Even though she had promised many times she wouldn't get upset, when he revealed that Yes, during the long months of his loneliness, he had had sex with two women, both one-night stands, she went berserk! Screaming and screeching, she grabbed a knife and started slashing his paintings. The cognac glass was thrown at his face.

Jake's point is clear – it's better to lie; that way no one is injured. Now two years after the final outburst, both Sam and the nurse are in much worse shape. He is lonely, depressed, and much overweight, while the angry nurse has become an alcoholic.

The other side would argue that their relationship was doomed anyway. When one starts to lie about an act of infidelity, this automatically lowers the communication between the partners and destroys the basis for being together. In this viewpoint, complete honesty is the only way; your partner will pick up nuances of dishonesty even if you aren't aware of it, and these inevitable changes lead to a downward spiral, eventually disrupting the relationship.

Ultimately, each person must, of course, solve this problem in a way which he or she feels comfortable with. General rules don't apply.

And don't forget that some spouses deliberately plan an act of infidelity precisely in order to break up a deteriorating marriage. When uncovered, there is a sense of relief. Instead of having to directly tell the partner: "I want to leave", it is achieved instantly by a fait accompli. Having an affair and getting caught is for some a clean way to make a definite break without having to discuss and decide.


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About Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.

Dr Sheldon Litt is an American psychologist who trains professionals in modern methods of psychotherapy. He has taught at many universities in northern Europe. He was trained by Fritz Perls at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.S. Litt, Inedalsgatan 25, S-11233 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: +468 651 2489 Email:

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