spring/summer 2006, no. 7
Intimacy, Deception, Truth and Lies: The Paradox of Being Close
by Tim Cole
Our romantic relationships are seldom what they seem. We all want a relationship that is built on openness, intimacy, and trust. But, in truth, our relationships do not always work that way. Secrecy and deceit are just as essential as truth and honesty, when it comes to matters of love and romance (Miller & Stiff, 1993; Solomon, 1993).
Viewed in this light, our intimate relationships can be seen as a paradox: People tend to be more truthful and more deceptive with those they love.
Telling the Truth is Necessary
Our intimate relationships are designed to create many rewards including both physical and emotional support (Sarason & Sarason, 2001). But, in order to obtain the benefits that intimate relationships provide, it is necessary for two people to know each other well (Cole and Teboul, 2004). It is not possible to create beneficial outcomes in a close relationship without a great deal of shared knowledge and intimacy.
Romantic partners create intimacy by spending a lot of time together, watching each other react in different types of situations, and by being open, honest, and candid with each other (see, for review, Cole & Teboul, 2004). People have a fundamental need to be understood (Reis & Shaver, 1988), and our desire to be understood becomes even more intense as we get closer to each other. The more you tie your fate to someone else, the more important it is to understand what that person is like — how they think, feel, and behave (Cole, 2002). This helps explain why we get so frustrated and upset when we think that someone close to us does not understand us. If you really want to upset a romantic partner, one of the best ways is to pretend that you do not get where he is coming from, that you do not understand her point of view, that you do not know what he is talking about, that you do not get her jokes, etc.
Deception is a Necessity
Although telling the truth and being understood are important in our romantic relationships; inevitably, deception is also needed, even in the best of circumstances (Miller & Stiff, 1993, Solomon, 1993). Romantic relationships involve two special features which allow lies, deception and secrecy to flourish: abundant opportunity and the need to deceive.
As we get close to another person, we intentionally and unintentionally provide a partner with a great deal of information about ourselves — revealing who we are through both our words and deeds. As mentioned, creating this kind of intimacy or shared knowledge is critical, as it serves as the foundation for a lot of important rewards.
Because relationships provide so many important rewards, it should come as no surprise that people are inclined to view their romantic partners in a positive light (Fletcher & Simpson, 2000; Murray, 1999). We place a lot of trust in our romantic partners; we think we know them better than we actually do (Miller & Stiff, 1992).
But while our trust provides us with a sense of security and comfort, it also lays the ground for betrayal and deceit. Research shows that as we become more trusting, we also become more confident, but less accurate at determining when the truth is being told (Levine & McCornack, 1992; McCornack & Parks, 1986).
Every study shows that lovers are terrible at telling when their partners might be lying. Detecting deception with anyone is difficult to do (Levine, Park & McCornack, 1999), but lovers manage to take this failure to a spectacular low (Levine & McCornack, 1992; Stiff, Kim & Ramesh, 1992).
More importantly, lovers are not only terrible at spotting lies, but they have a hard time acknowledging this fact (see, for review, Cole, Leets, & Bradac, 2002). Lovers like to think they can tell when the truth is being told, but, this is not the case. Typically, it is easier to see this type of behavior in a friend than in yourself. We tend to question why a friend can not see a lover’s blatant lies, while trusting our own lover’s version of the truth.
When it comes to matters of the heart, to borrow a quote, people are "often wrong but rarely in doubt" (Griffin and Tversky, 1992, p. 412). This “truth-bias” (Levine & McCornack, Stiff et al., 1992) or “blind faith” provides the perfect opportunity for romantic partners to engage in deception: After all, who makes a better victim than someone who is eager and willing to trust everything you have to say?
Not only do close relationships create a wonderful opportunity for deception to occur, they also create the need. While romantic relationships offer many rewards, they also tend to be overly constrictive. Everyone has felt the constraints of a close relationship from time to time; quite simply you are no longer free to do what you want, when you want, and with whom you want (Baxter, 1990).
And not only do close relationships create unwelcome constraints, but as we get closer to someone else, telling the truth often becomes more difficult, complicated and costly (see, for review, Cole, 2005). Romantic partners can be demanding, overly inquisitive, and they often respond poorly when the truth is revealed (Cole, 2001, Lippard, 1988). So, rather than argue and fight about every issue that may arise, deception is often the best way to deal with the constraints that intimacy creates.
Although few people like to acknowledge it, deceiving a romantic partner is often the most efficient and effective way of maintaining the rewards we get from our romantic relationships while dealing with problems and constraints that such relationships impose.
So how do we decide when to lie to a lover?
Most of the time we do not intentionally think about misleading our partners; rather, such decisions are governed by our emotions and just seem to happen when the right situation presents itself. Our decision to deceive often occurs in the background — outside of our immediate awareness — with little thought, effort, or planning — we lie (Fiedler & Walka, 1993; Lippard, 1988; McCornack, 1997).
When you take a step back and put it altogether, the picture that emerges about intimate relationships is somewhat contradictory: Because our romantic relationships are so rewarding, yet so constrictive, we are simultaneously more truthful and more deceptive with those we love. Additionally, we place the most trust in the person who is most likely to deceive us, just as we are most likely to deceive the person who loves and trusts us the most. These are just a few of the paradoxes that emerge when taking a close look at the use of deception in our romantic relationships.
All in all, our romantic relationships are held together by a delicate balance of both candor and deceit — both are critical to making our intimate relationships work. g
Tim Cole (Ph.D., University of California, Santa Barbara 1996) is an associate professor of communication at DePaul University where he teaches courses on close relationships and deceptive communication. He is also a contributor to Truth About Deception — a nonacademic website that examines lying, cheating, and deception when it comes to love and romance.
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