Are fibs deal breakers?

My boyfriend tells white lies and avoids unpleasant topics. Is that downright dishonest -- or just kind?

By Cary Tennis

Published May 13, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Reader,

I'm serious about having the punk conversation, and have received some interesting mail already. I'm answering a "regular" letter today but will be turning to the above topic intermittently in the coming weeks. -- ct

Dear Cary,

So many people in the dating world talk about "deal breakers," their list of no-no's that immediately ousts a potential partner and ranges from "no drug-addictions" to "no socks with sandals." I have trouble making ultimatums, life just seems too complicated. It makes sense to have some boundaries, but this is love, not border patrol.

On the top of this list are always: no cheating, no abuse, no dishonesty.

Cheating and abuse I can draw a red line at. But never telling your spouse that no, their nose hairs aren't too noticeable? I find this idea to be completely unrealistic and wonder if smug couples who claim to be always 100-percent honest with each other are in fact lying to themselves.

My interest in deal breakers stems from this: My boyfriend of three years, an otherwise kind and emotionally open guy, lies. No, he doesn't secretly gamble away his savings or have illicit affairs, but he habitually whitewashes to save face. Especially when he's ashamed of his actions. For example, he'll lie about watching porn even when I've told him I don't mind. Or he'll cover up when he's met up with a female friend when I'm out of town (a completely platonic situation, but he's been burned by over-sensitive jealous exes). He lied about having unprotected sex in a past relationship (he's ashamed of a reckless teenage decision). He's lied about the state of his bank account, preferring to overdraft instead of taking initiative and asking me for help on rent that month. In one spectacular display of inertia, he didn't tell me when a married female friend of his developed feelings for him and sent him a love letter, instead continuing the friendship with her as if nothing had happened and letting me stumble across the letter where he left it, stuffed "out of sight, out of mind" in a junk drawer. The fallout from this particular event could have been avoided by calmly explaining the situation to me and having a heart-to-heart with her.

These sorts of awkward events and bad decisions occur in everyone's life, but throw in his nervous coverups and my preference for open communication and you end up with a witch's brew of misunderstanding between us.

None of his lies are deliberately deceptive or bad enough to initiate a breakup. But it keeps happening, even after long heart-to-hearts and countless promises. It feels like having a partner in Lie-oholics Anonymous who can't stay on the wagon. I sometimes don't know if I should even bother asking him a question when I'll doubt the truth of his answer. He can't seem to break the habit of avoiding uncomfortable topics by lying about them or covering up. As an explanation, he's cited a few rough relationships in the past, his Southern upbringing and that awful fear that if you aren't perfect the people you love will leave you. He's a people-pleaser and afraid of being judged. This makes sense, and he's tried talking things out with a therapist to get to the bottom of his fear of conflict, but I can't seem to convince him I'm not his mother or some vindictive ex. What I DO want is for him to trust I will accept his flaws ... but it's getting harder and harder to believe he can do this.

We're all flawed and motivated by self-preservation, so I am trying to be patient and understanding. After all, back in the early days of my grandparents' marriage, my grandmother nearly left her husband for his drinking. But she didn't. He aged and matured into a wonderful and humble man whom I admire for his warmth, humor, grace. My boyfriend, too, has some of these good-as-gold qualities, though he still has a lot of learning to do. And our relationship has so much to stay for. Most of all, I don't want to smugly make a list of my deal breakers and grade potential partners like they're a naughty student or a faulty appliance. (This one has a faulty knob, send it back and get a new one.) I don't want love to be conditional. (I will love you until you mess up.) But the hurt of being routinely lied to diminishes my feeling of safety in the relationship.

How much of our well-being should we sacrifice in the fight against our partner's weaknesses? When do we need to protect ourselves with deal breakers, and when do we find the strength to be forgiving without them?

Let's Make a Deal

Dear Let's Make a Deal,

Great question. The deal aspect of this leads me to think that maybe a harm-reduction approach is better than a deal-breaker approach.

Also: Is what we call "openness" and "honesty" a universal good, or is it a narrow cultural construct? Are we correct in expecting everyone to recognize and abide by our standard of what "openness" and "honesty" is? Or is there some cultural imperialism implicit in our assumptions? I say this particularly because your boyfriend comes from the South, and I come from the South, and my wife is ethnically German and Austrian, and we all have different notions about what "telling the truth" means.

I have some instinctive sympathy for his inability to tell the truth when it is uncomfortable. On the other hand, as a 12-step veteran, I have had to tell a lot of uncomfortable truths, and feel that many families and relationships are harmed by the constant hum of avoidance. Indeed, what looks like good manners to some looks like laziness or cowardice to others. So it's hard to know if it is right to insist that he say certain things. It doesn't sound like he is deceiving you for any personal benefit, but more to spare your feelings and avoid his own embarrassment. Embarrassment, shame, guilt, all these feelings that can come up when we tell the truth -- they can be much more intense for feeling types (NFs, SFs) than for thinking types (NTs, STs, etc.) (I am using the Myers-Briggs shorthand; if you're not familiar with it, you might look into it and see if he is, perhaps, an INF type.)

If we underestimate the power of personality type, culture and upbringing when we evaluate character, we can make mistakes about a person's motives. We tend to think that one's cultural beliefs are just like baggage or notions that can be changed, especially here in America, especially here on the West Coast, where we are continually reinventing ourselves. We tend to think if we just change them, then presto we'll change our behavior. But what if it's not that simple? What if it goes deeper? What if people who are raised differently really see the world differently? What if what sounds like honesty to you sounds like a crime against humanity to him? What if he has been conditioned so deeply, not just by experiences in adulthood but by early childhood, that his very survival depends on avoiding unpleasant truths? It could be pretty hard to change that.

A good couples therapist might be able to guide the two of you through some sessions where you, experimentally, reveal things that unconsciously you fear will destroy all civilization if they are revealed. After a while it might become easier to reveal things. But part of that process would entail, ideally, expanding your mutual understanding of reality itself -- expanding your sense of its subjectivity.

Core beliefs are hard to change because they're hard to articulate -- because we aren't aware of having adopted them. They come to us with our mother's milk, so to speak.

I sure wouldn't break up over this. It's not such a good thing. It makes it hard for you and him to understand each other, and it raises trust issues. But I suspect it's more cultural, philosophical and existential than pathological.

Cary Tennis

MORE FROM Cary TennisFOLLOW @carytennisLIKE Cary Tennis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Boyfriends Dating Deal Breakers Honesty Lying Relationships Romance Since You Asked Truthfulness