Honesty is Still the Best Policy

I stumbled upon an online article in “Daily Mail,” written by a UK journalist, called “Can love survive without the little white lies?” It starts with the idea that there are some things best left unsaid, like unedited opinions about a partner’s idiosyncrasies or personal characteristics. Okay, that’s fair, though I don’t think considerate restraint should be called lying. But the article goes on to talk about other lies in relationships— false expressions of love, secret bank accounts, secret friendships, and affairs—then makes statements like the following:

“From childhood onwards, we are bombarded with the message that honesty is always the best policy . . . Yet despite such attitudes about the evils of lying and the virtues of honesty, the truth is that lying pervades human life. Many of our social relationships are based on little white lies we tell each other. . . . We deceive our children (Santa and the tooth fairy, to name the most obvious), only to be deceived by them in return (‘I didn’t break my sister’s favourite [sic—Brit spelling] toy.’ ‘I have done my homework.’ ‘Of course I haven’t been smoking.’) We are all liars: we lie to others, and we lie to ourselves.”

The article continues: “. . .another friend, who is a therapist . . . believes that lying, to some degree, is essential to preserve intimate relationship. ‘Marriages cannot exist without dishonesty,’ she says. ‘I think it is a myth that couples are happier the more truthful they are. I think the opposite might be true.’ Later, the author clarifies that her therapist friend “stressed that not all lying is good.”

Marriages cannot exist without dishonesty? Not all lying is good? Thanks for making that clear, but did someone really say that?!?! Once more (echoes of Isaiah 5:20) we come face to face with a world where good is called evil and evil, good.

First, let me clarify. Personally, I understand lying to be the distortion or withholding of truth with the intention to deceive, in order to exploit another or to avoid personal responsibility. So to lump together saying “you look great” to someone who doesn’t, with lying about an affair is ludicrous. To put the Santa myth on a level with a child’s lying to hide smoking is absurd. Lying to exploit someone else or to avoid responsibility for one’s own actions is never constructive or defensible in any relationship. Honesty, however, does not require total disclosure of every uncharitable thought or opinion. Failing to distinguish between discretion or tact, which may limit total disclosure, with outright deception to avoid the consequences of one’s own behavior or to actively exploit another is unhelpful and leads to the foolish and destructive conclusion that we “need” to lie to have a relationship,

I hope we’re smart enough to see the difference between dishonesty/cheating and tact/restraint. Honesty in a relationship is essential. Let me repeat, HONESTY IN A RELATIONSHIP IS ESSENTIAL. However, honesty does not require the “brutal truth” some use as an excuse to be hurtful or just plain rude.

(Check out a previous post on a related subject, “It’s Not Just Communication.” And if you’re interested—YouTube won’t let me embed the video, probably because it’s a movie trailer—but, if you’re interested, click HERE to see a brief segment from the new movie, “The Invention of Lying.” I haven’t seen the movie and I am not making a recommendation of the movie, but this clip is relevant to this topic.)

  1. Pops says:

    When talking extremes, it’s easy to see the difference. But what about the gray area that lies somewhere in between the two? In basketball, there’s the touch to locate the opponent – no harm, no foul – and the elbow to the face. It’s easy to tell that one is okay and the other wrong. But what about the pushing and leaning? How do you draw the line? How do keep away from the slippery slope?

  2. Lili says:

    You’re right, “Pops,” I would find it tough to make those kinds of calls in a basketball game. And while I readily acknowledge that life can present gray areas, I also am confident that MOST of our questions about honesty can be answered if we (honestly) consider these two questions:

    1-Am I withholding or distorting the truth to exploit or manipulate someone?

    2- Am I withholding or distorting the truth to avoid responsibility or legitimate consequences for my choices?

    Those two questions really do clear up a lot of what might be considered “gray areas.”

  3. Pops says:

    Yes, the two questions do work well. And if it weren’t for the near-infinite human capacity for self-deception, they would work very well indeed.

    One’s idea of “legitimate consequences” can unfortunately be twisted, both by self-deception as well as by improper training. A person with ingrained low self-esteem, for example, might consider abject humiliation and being outcast as legitimate consequences of their every action, or perhaps even their existence.

  4. Lili says:

    Another insightful point. Everything works better when we’re healthy. Everything is more complicated when we’re not. In my experience working with people, I’m happy to say, I do find that people who are sincerely trying to be honest generally can be.

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