When is a Lie, a LIE?

Category: Weekly Columns

Who hasn’t heard or used the expression, “Oh, it’s just a white lie?” I sure have. Why do we mitigate the lie we’ve done? Are there good and bad lies? Is it wise to lie sometimes? The answer is, “Yes.” Like so much in life, there’s a grey area and that is what I’d like to explore.

If a man with a gun is chasing someone and he passes you and asks, “which way did that a**hole go,” wouldn’t you think pointing in the opposite direction would be a wise thing to do?

When your wife is feeling insecure about her looks or weight, do you think that telling her how awful that pimple really appears is a good idea?

Let’s look at the little “white lies” that we do as parents. Do we tell our children that Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy aren’t real? Should we?

With the recent horror in Colorado, how much should we discuss with our children? Do our younger kids need to know every gruesome detail about the world … right now?

I think we all know the answers to these questions. But, sometimes there is a very grey area. Let’s consider the following scenario and consider the right thing to do. I will bet you that men and women will have seriously different responses to it!

A husband or wife – it doesn’t matter which – is on a business trip. He or she goes to the bar and has a bit too much to drink. At that particular moment, the marriage isn’t so good and he or she may have left home on the heels of a stupid fight. Being a little drunk, he or she succumbs to the “charms” of the person in the next barstool and the next morning, he or she wakes up not remembering a thing. Exiting quickly, horrified, and ashamed, he or she leaves.

Upon returning home, the at-home spouse innocently asks, “So, how was your trip?” The business traveler simply replies, “Fine.”

The possibly cheating spouse is truly horrified and doesn’t even remember the name of the person he or she may have slept with. What is undeniable is getting drunk and waking up in someone else’s bed.

What follows for the transgressor is deep introspection, perhaps some therapy, and an increased effort to renew the marriage on all levels.

Should that spouse reveal what happened? What good would it do? If the other partner doesn’t ask anything, is it okay to just let it go? IF the other spouse does ask if you did anything wrong, should you confess?

Not an easy scenario, is it? My supposition is that most women would say that telling the truth is the best response to this scenario while most men would say keep it to yourself. What do you think?

We actually live life more in the grey than in the black and white of simply “Yes or No” or “Right and Wrong:” especially in our relationships.

Another facet of this discussion is the concept of unconditional love. I would suggest that most of our deep and most important relationships actually have VERY conditional love. I wrote about this in my column, All Love IS Conditional. Using the infidelity scenario as an example, most couples would agree that beyond the marital vows, there is a conditional agreement to be faithful.

Other marital agreements are about who does what around the house, who will stay at home with the kids, if either can, and who will pay the bills. There is an expectation of respect, honesty, care, affection, and so much more in a marriage. Heck, it’s as much of a business contract as any formal deal. It’s just less formalized.

The same applies for our children. I expect certain things of my boys. If one of my boys hurt someone – God forbid – I would still love them, I suppose, but that love would be severely diminished. The parent of a killer has to think less of their offspring. The spouse of an abuser has to also think less of theirs.

Everything in life is conditional and suggesting that we should love anyone unconditionally is foolish. Okay, love your dog that way – since they mostly love us that way in return.

I don’t “do” politics; I just thought this was funny

Life is complicated. Lying is not a good thing. But, sometimes it is. Raising kids is hard. “Hardly” anyone would say being a parent is fun, but most parents will experience great joy along the ride. The same can be said for marriage. Being faithful may be a challenge for some, but the rewards usually outweigh the sacrifice.

There is a reason that men live longer when they’re married. Ironically, there’s also a reason that women do so much better than men when their husbands die. It’s all quite a puzzle.

While I suggest telling the truth is usually the best practice, when my wife asks which dress makes her look less fat, I ALWAYS answer, “Honey, you look gorgeous in both of them!”

  • @MimiBakerMN

    I’m definitely a woman and agree, if someone cheats, it should be put out there. I shouldn’t have to ask after every business trip specifically, “oh, how was your trip? Did you have any sexual relations with a woman whether sober or drunk?” And then do I have to be specific as to what I define as ‘sexual relations’? Would that be a gray area too? We’re grown ups, let’s act like it. As for our kids, I want to teach them to be honest themselves because then their “white lies” won’t have to be built upon. I do agree that there are gray areas. If I were planning a surprise party and was asked specifically by that person if I were doing so…I’d blatantly lie straight to their face. lol See, that’s MY gray area! =) If it’s of importance, then I won’t lie.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      The problem becomes, “What is YOUR gray area and what is MINE?” – I always appreciate your candor, Mimi!

  • ginavalley

    I don’t lie to my kids, but sometimes I have to get very
    creative with the truth to make sure the truth is building them up and keeping
    their dreams alive.  I’ve never lied to my
    kids about Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. 
    They’ve always known those are make-believe.  I want my kids to know that I am always
    truthful with them.  They can count on

    I guess I’m in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” camp on stupid
    one-night stands.  In general, I would
    say that sharing about a one-time stupid transgression does more harm than
    good.  But, in this age of eternal STD’s
    I think your partner’s health needs to be considered.  At very least one would need to discuss
    possible ramifications with one’s doctor.

    If the only purpose confessing serves is to make the
    confessor feel better than it is pointlessly hurting his or her partner.  I wouldn’t want to know about a one-time
    stupid decision.  I haven’t cheated on my
    husband, but I can’t imagine he would want to know if I had.

    If the encounter makes the encountee (I wonder if that’s a
    word!) reconsider his or her relationship with his or her spouse then that is a
    whole different situation.  If you are
    cheating because you are unhappy in your relationship, you need to explore that
    unhappiness. You might still be wise to keep the transgression a secret, rather
    than causing needless, pointless pain, but you need to explore the “why’s” of
    the cheating.

    Once you tell someone something you cannot “untell” it.

    I do believe in unconditional love, but respect and honor
    are very conditional, IMHO.  You scenario
    re: a child committing a horrendous act is a good example.  I can’t imagine one of my kids doing so
    (well, some of mine are teens right now, so I guess I can imagine!), but if
    they did my respect for them would dissolve.  My love for them would remain intact, just as
    it does now when they act in less than integrity or honor-filled ways.  But, maybe that is just semantics and we are
    saying the same thing.

    Have I lied to my husband to protect his feelings or to help
    him feel better about himself?  Yes.  Has he done that with me? Probably.

    Sometimes kindness trumps absolute honesty.  We’ve been married a long time.  Knowing when to be absolutely honest and when
    to error on the side of kindness is probably why.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      We think very much alike, Gina…I like that. LOL…I lied to my kids about a hamster they had once. They were very young. They left the cage open and the hamster escaped. That night, I found the hamster – licked to death by one of our dogs. I buried it. When they discovered the hamster gone, I told them it had probably escaped to “freedom” in the backyard and did point out that they’d not taken good care of her by leaving the cage open. Later, when they were older, I told them the truth. They were VERY glad I didn’t tell them the truth at the time…

      • ginavalley

        Well, Bruce, I’d say that since death is a kind of “freedom,” what you told your kids was true, from a certain point of view. Definitely wise that you did not share the details when it happened. 
        It does seem that we think very much alike. Will be interesting when we come upon a topic we’re on opposite sides of 🙂

        • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

          That is inevitable but I know we’ll treat each other with respect, even though you’ll be WRONG!

          • ginavalley

            Lol! Funny, but I was thinking the exact same thing, except, of course that you’ll be wrong. 🙂

  • Arlee Bird

    I think it depends on the scope of the story being told and the intent in telling it.  Sometimes telling the lie is the most convenient route to take if the repercussions of telling it are not too dire if one is discovered in the lie.

    Yes, all human love is conditional.  I find it somewhat annoying when someone insists they have an unconditional love for someone else.   Some love is difficult to diminish, but everything has its limits.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      We agree, Arlee – completely!

  • David Weber

    Is “I don’t ‘do’ politics” a lie, since by posting the cartoon, you are in fact “doing politics”?

    I think we humans have a moth-to-flame attraction to lying–well, a great many of us do.  I actually remember the first time I lied to my parents (my mother).  I was between 3 and 4 yr. old.  I don’t remember the topic or subject, but  it was did I complete a certain task.  I said yes, even though I hadn’t.  My mother took me at my word.  I thought, “Hey, this is a pretty sweet deal, I say ‘x’ and she believes me!  I think I can work this to my advantage in the future.”  And ever since, I have had to fight hard not be, as a general rule to, a lying hairball.

    The deception that creatures other than humans engage in occurs for purposes of safety (think of a chameleon that changes its colors, or a forest creature with fur that blends into the habitat).  I would imagine that human deception occurring by and through the use of the spoken word has some kind of similar bioneurological roots.

    I have found what is called strategic ambiguity to be a useful tool. This is lying without actually lying. The best illustration is a recent commercial for Carbonite, I think it is, the website for backing up your digital documents.  In the commercial, a husband says to his wife that he will be busy all day that day backing up documents.  She is off to some activity outside the home and wishes him well in his tedious, time-consuming task.

    As soon as she leaves, he acccesses Carbonite, hits a button and backs up everything.  The next few shots show him at an amusement park, at a gym, doing all sorts of fun things.  In the last shot, he is back in the kitchen where he and his wife went their separate ways.  “So, did you spend the day backing up your stuff?” she asks.  “I handled it, yes,” he replies with strategic ambiguity, not wanting to let her know that this task actually is one he can (thanks to Carbonite!) can do in five minutes, not 5-8 hours.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      Ha! It’s a “white lie” – you hit the nail ON THE HEAD, Professor! Boy, do I love those words, “Strategic Ambiguity” – I think I will borrow them, regularly!

  • http://twitter.com/CoachLee Leanne HoaglandSmith

    There is a Yiddish Proverb – A half truth is a whole lie.  

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      I love those proverbs…thx for sharing it, Leanne!

  • http://brianvickery.com/ Brian Vickery

    How about “you’d look more gorgeous in NEITHER of them” – sorry, couldn’t resist, but that is the kind of line I’d lay on my wife of 23+ years.

    Not a fan of lying. Regarding the cheating spouse, gotta come out with the truth and deal with the repercussions. Of course, I’m a guy that feels that infidelity is the worst betrayal, so that could blow up the relationship unless the other spouse was incredibly forgiving and selfless.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      Or, “I couldn’t possibly decide between the two as you look gorgeous in both of them!” As far as the infidelity issue, there’s no doubt it’s just DANGER under any circumstance!

  • http://www.inclinedesign.info CASUDI

    As follow up research to this post I suggest everyone read  (if you have not already read it) “The Honest Truth about Dishonesty ~ How we lie to Everyone ~ especially ourselves” by Dan Ariely.  It’s very revealing and right on topic.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      Thanks Caroline…this topic seems to stir people!

  • http://reallycooldad.com/ Stephen

    I am sure we all lie, to some extent. Is it harmful? Not always. But it is all in our intent.

    When we lie, but our intention is to protect someone or to add to their experience, then we can be forgiven. Your “which-dress-is-best” or Santa Claus examples show this nicely. We simply want our spouse to know we still adore her, and we want our children to experience giving and good will. There are plenty of examples, and to call it ‘lying’ exaggerates the issue.

    When we lie, and our intention is to hurt or deceive others to our advantage, then we are truly being liars. Cheating on your spouse is exactly why this matters, and this is what covers the proverbial ‘grey area’. A momentarily cheating spouse—for all their claims of “protecting the other’s feelings”—is really just avoiding the issue and covering their own butt.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      I agree with EVERY word your wrote, Stephen. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

  • Marc Zazeela


    Obviously, there are very few truly black and white issues. Lying to protect someone’s feelings might be ok under certain circumstances. Lying about one’s whereabouts, if deceptive or deceitful, is most definitely wrong.

    I think context has everything to do with it. Of course I would not tell a 4 years old that Santa is a myth.

    In most cases, I feel it is best to avoid situations where you might feel compelled to lie. Once you have established a pattern, it can be difficult to break.


    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      Well put, Marc!

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