I told my girlfriend a harmless lie ... and now she's sure to find out

I told her my grandparents don't live in America. But now we're going to visit them -- in America.

Published August 8, 2008 10:23AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am American but I am now living in a foreign country. I speak the local language, and I met a girl who is from here and does not speak English. She is now my girlfriend.

When we first met, in order to make myself seem more interesting to her, I made up a story about how my grandparents were born in another country, moved to American to raise my father, and then moved back to their country of origin. My grandparents are in fact American and still live in America. It was stupid, but, as is normal, the lie became deeper and bigger as time went on.

Now my girlfriend and I are going to America -- I have been away for over a year -- within a week to visit my family, and of course I will have to introduce her to my grandparents because it will be my grandfather's birthday and they are having a get-together at their house. I told my girlfriend that my grandparents still maintain a house in the States to explain away why we are going to their house, and that they decided to come home to see me, but I am beyond anxious because am racked with guilt over having continuously lied to her over this.

So should I tell her the truth before we go to the States (and how should I approach telling her the truth). I am afraid that if I tell her the truth she will break up with me for having lied, and obviously I want to avoid that because I love her very much. Conversely I am afraid that she will find out on her own and perhaps break up with me. The chances are somewhat lower that she will find out considering that she does not speak English, but she is also not stupid, and there are any number of ways in which she could figure out that what I told her is not true.

I don't see an upside in hoping that she will not realize the lie and I will get away with it, because if there is a future with this girl, obviously the lie will become even more deep and unmanageable. Please help. How should I approach this?

A Big Fat Liar

Dear Big Fat Liar,

You know, I answered a letter not too long ago about a lie and I said that lying is a way of gaining power. It's a way of making people do things, of making things turn out the way we want. That is true. But our motives -- what we want to happen -- can render certain lies sort of harmless and endearing.

So in a relationship, on the one hand you're trying to get something. And on the other hand you're trying to just be the best person you can be. So I suggest you try to be the best person you can be and let the chips fall where they may. In other words, ask yourself, What is the kind, honest, good thing to do? In this case, the kind, honest, good thing to do may be difficult and a little embarrassing, but it is also sort of charming.

That's not to say I know what she'll do when you tell her. But I imagine a speech something like this. I imagine your telling her pretty much what you told me: "When we first met, in order to make myself seem more interesting to you, I made up a story about how my grandparents were born in another country, moved to America to raise my father, and then moved back to their country of origin."

That is strange and charming and pathetic all at once. I suppose a person might be mad, but it's just so odd that I don't see how she could even be that mad. It does not cast you in heroic light, or make you seem more interesting. It's more like you had taken time to make up a story about how your dad once went to the store and realized he'd forgotten his wallet so he drove home and got it and then went back to the store. Or is it just me?

I don't know what kind of relationship you and your girlfriend have, how well you communicate, how well she knows you, what kind of person she thinks you are. But if she thinks you are a little odd and charming, this would be right in line. On the other hand, if she thinks you are a totally straight-arrow guy, this might throw her.

In courtship we try to show ourselves in the best light. What's funny about this lie is that you would think it placed you in a better light to say that your grandparents moved to the States to raise your parents and then moved back. To me, it's sort of like George Costanza of "Seinfeld" talking about his appreciation of the word "manure" -- how it's, um, just "ma" and "newer." You know? Like, really great. Yeah. Never really thought about it like that.

So I think you ought to just tell her. Otherwise you're going to be nervous the whole trip. But when you tell her, frame it right. Give it context. Tell her how smitten you were, how much you wanted her to like you, and how you now realize what a dumb mistake it was, and how it's a ridiculous lie anyway, and how you are throwing yourself at her mercy and you hope she does not behead you or feed you to the lions or whatever is the punishment for harmless lies in her native country.

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