The topic of trust is an important factor in all matters of the heart — and here’s why. Men lie to women. Women lie to men. And most people agree that some lying is even necessary — to avoid petty squabbles and to grease the wheels of a relationship.
But there are crucial differences in the lies women and men tell. A study by psychologist Bella M. DePaulo of the University of Virginia found that when women lie, they tend to focus on making others feel better — such as the woman who tells her hostess that dinner is “simply delicious” even as she cringes with every mouthful.
At the heart of many men’s lies, however, is the male ego. Men lie to build themselves up or to conceal something, DePaulo says. According to psychologist Michael Lewis in the book Lying and Deception in Everyday Life, men are more likely to lie to enhance themselves than women are.
But consistent lying — even about minor matters — can unglue a marriage. Women need to know what kind of lies to watch for, when to accept the lies and when to call a partner’s bluff. Here, from my own experience and surveys, are some of the most common lies men tell women:
“Me? I graduated top of my class.”
This is a classic case of the runaway male ego, designed to present a man in the best light and impress a woman. When the lies continue into marriage, it’s not long before the truth will out.
Playwright Neil Simon recalls what happened after his first hit play, Come Blow Your Horn. Every morning he’d leave for his office, telling his wife he was writing his next play. In fact, Simon had become so engrossed in a dart game he’d devised that he had not written a word. “For two months I lied to Joan,” he wrote later. “I told her the new play I was feverishly working on was coming along nicely.”
Men have a hard time admitting failure. How our culture defines success is important to a man, so he assumes it’s important to his partner.
Normally, as trust builds, a man drops these types of lies. If he doesn’t, his spouse needs to be careful. A man who can’t be honest about his failures — at work or elsewhere — may end up blaming his wife when the going gets tough in their marriage.
“Of course I like your friends!”
The lies to make a woman fall in love or stay in love account for many truth-stretchers. In one study, psychologist William Tooke and an assistant at the State University of New York College at Plattsburgh asked 110 students at the university to look at 88 deceptive tactics — such as inflating one’s accomplishments and wearing designer clothes to appear wealthy — and reveal how often they were used in their own relationships. Men were significantly more likely than women to use such deceptions.
A man I know told his girlfriend, “You’re a great cook — much better than my mother.” In fact, his mother is a chef at a well-known New York restaurant. Fortunately for him, by the time his girlfriend discovered the truth — when they dined at his mother’s restaurant — she was so in love that she forgave his overzealous compliment.
Women sometimes aren’t as cautious as they should be when flattered. If a man insists that his wife’s parents are wonderful, she should observe whether he actually wants to spend time with them. The same applies for her dog, her kids or anything else he says he’s crazy about.
Ego-stroking statements that turn out to be total lies may be designed to cover up opposite feelings — for instance, when a man says he values his wife’s work but actually doesn’t consider it important. Such lies can signal serious problems ahead, whether it’s dealing with child care, vacation plans or career moves.
“Honey, you’re the best.”
One of the most lied-about subjects has to be sex. Perhaps that’s because it’s the area where we are most vulnerable. Here again men are likely to lie.
In the first rush of romance it makes sense for a man to engage in exaggerated praise of a woman’s beauty and sexuality. But “you’re the best” lies can paralyze a relationship.
A male colleague once confided to me that there were things he hated about his wife’s lovemaking. But he couldn’t bring them up because he’d spent years telling her she was “the greatest” in bed. By continually lying to her, he had placed real limitations on their love life — and their marriage.
If a woman feels her man is holding back on his true sexual feelings, she needs to encourage him to be open. Talking about her own preferences is a good way to begin. Real intimacy depends on truth — lovingly told — especially in the bedroom.
“No, I can’t call you. I don’t even know where I’ll be.”
These are the sad lies, the ones he tells because he’s falling out of love. The more quickly a woman seeks the truth behind these lies, the sooner she can remedy the relationship — or, if necessary, end it. As one friend puts it, “I’d rather have the ax fall than slip down the endless slope of uncertainty and frustration.”
A wife may not be sure that what her husband is saying means “the end.” She should listen closely, not only to what he says, but also to how he says it. According to DePaulo, changes in voice can be significant. She has found that people’s voices often get higher or shakier when they lie, and they are more likely to stumble over words.
“That dress isn’t too tight. It looks great!”
By and large, these are the good lies — the ones that show he cares. But kind lies can be too much of a good thing if a man habitually says only what his partner wants to hear. It sets the woman up for rude awakenings.
After all, if the dress she’s wearing really is too tight, has he done her a favor? Far better is the tactful truth: “I usually love what you wear, honey, but it just doesn’t look quite as good this time.”
Of course, the woman has to mean it when she says she wants the truth. A woman once told sociologist Annette Lawson, “I made him swear always to tell the truth. I promised him I would never resent it, no matter how unbearable, how harsh, how cruel. How could he think I meant it?”
“They’re downsizing at work. But don’t worry. They won’t get me.”
Many men still feel paternalistic about the women they love, so they lie to spare them worry. But these lies can destroy the very sense of confidence that the man hoped to create. And they can make a woman feel she is not a respected partner in the relationship.
She can demand a halt to these lies only if she isn’t engaging in them herself. One couple, both midlevel executives, were worried about losing their jobs, but neither wanted to worry the other. She waited until her husband was asleep to write job applications. He bought a second copy of the newspaper so he could circle employment ads. But the secrecy exacted a price. Eventually the wife began to wonder if her husband was having an affair.
Then one day the husband arrived ahead of schedule for an appointment with a headhunter. “There’s another candidate with her now,” the receptionist said. It was his wife.
Learning the truth helped the couple begin supporting instead of “protecting” each other. The burden lifted, and their marriage stayed on track. Incidentally, neither of them was fired.
“Sure, I’ll mow the lawn — as soon as this crick in my back goes away.”
There are few things that trouble a man more than a woman’s anger — or nagging, as he calls it — so he lies to avoid a scene. It is in “hassle-prevention lying” that men can demonstrate their greatest versatility.
“I’ll take the kids to the park — when the weather gets nicer,” he says as he goes out the door with golf clubs. “I would have scrubbed the pots, but I couldn’t find the scouring pads” — never looking under the sink.
I know of a young man in New York City who forgot his girlfriend’s birthday. When she confronted him, he claimed he’d planned a surprise all along. He grabbed the phone, called a home-shopping network and berated the representative for not sending the expensive gift he’d ordered. “If you can’t do better than this, I’ll tear up my membership card!” he shouted. Of course, the man didn’t have a card and had never ordered a gift.
If hassle-prevention lies are occasional, the woman can ignore them. But if they form a pattern, she needs to look at what the real problems are.
In his book The Varnished Truth, David Nyberg, professor of education at State University of New York at Buffalo, states, “Occasionally there is a lot to lose by telling the truth, and something to be gained by not telling the truth.” Still, it’s important to remember that lies are at heart deceptions, and repeated deceptions destroy intimacy.
Real intimacy is only possible to the degree that we can be honest about what we are doing and feeling. When lying comes to predominate in a marriage, the relationship begins to deteriorate. A husband and wife can sense the trust erode, and feel their hearts growing colder.
The healing oxygen is truth. A woman who is hearing too many lies needs to have a serious discussion with her husband. She should stress she’s ready to listen, and ask him to present his thoughts in a caring manner.
Men, for their part, need to develop the courage to drop the defense mechanisms that bolster their egos and pride, and search for true intimacy with their mates. Telling the truth to a spouse is the first step toward showing that love is more important than lies.