The Devastating Power of Lies in a Relationship

Donald Miller

I’ve only had two friends (that I know about) who’ve looked me in the eye and told me lies. Both of them were trying to cover up mistakes. I certainly had grace for their mistakes, but I’ve wondered looking back if I didn’t have grace for their lies.

Neither of these two friends are in contact anymore. We don’t talk. Being in a relationship with somebody who lies is tough. It’s not that you don’t love them or care about them, it’s just that you can’t connect.

Without trust, there’s no relationship.

Henry Cloud and John Townsend say that people lie for one of two reasons.

The first is out of shame or fear. Somebody may believe they won’t be accepted if they tell the truth about who they are, so they lie. You can see how religious communities that use shame and fear to motivate might increase a person’s temptation to lie, then. People who lie for this reason can get better and learn to tell the truth. Until they do, however, it’s impossible to connect with them, all the same.

The second kind of liar is less fortunate. Some people lie simply because they are selfish. These liars are pathological. They will lie even when it would be easier to tell the truth. Cloud and Townsend warn that we need to stay away from these people. Personally, I think people like this are pretty rare, but I agree, we simply can’t depend on them emotionally or practically.

Still I wonder if people who lie understand what they’re doing. I think some people want grace and certainly they can get grace, but when we lie, we make the people we are lying to feel badly about the relationships and about themselves. We like people who make us feel respected, cared about and honored. Lying to somebody communicates the opposite.

Here are the things that lies did to my two relationships:

  1. • When my friends lied, I felt disrespected and unimportant. They didn’t seem to care about me or trust me enough to tell the truth. This made me feel bad about myself, as though I were not important or trustworthy enough to be told the truth.
  2. • When I found out the extent of one of the lies, I felt like a fool. Technically, my friend didn’t really lie. She just told me “part” of the truth. It was as though she were testing out whether she was safe to be vulnerable. (She told many other lies, but this was just one of them.) But it backfired. When I found out things were worse than she’d made them seem, I felt tricked and deceived. Again, without meaning to, she’d made me feel bad about myself because I felt like somebody who could be conned.
  3. • I thought less of my friends. I knew they were willing to “cheat” in relationships. When we lie, we are stealing social commodity without having earned it. People can lie their way into power, and in one instance with a friend, she lied her way into moral superiority. Still, none of the authority or moral superiority (such a thing exists, and while it’s misused, it’s not a bad thing not unlike intellectual superiority or athletic superiority. It just is. An appropriate use of those two examples of superiority might be to lead a team or teach a class.)
  4. • I felt sad and lonely. When we think we are getting to know somebody, we are giving them parts of our hearts. But when they lie, we know they’ve actually held back their hearts while we’ve been giving them ours. This made me feel lonely and dumb.
  5. • I felt like I couldn’t trust them. The only thing more important than love in a relationship is trust. Trust is the soil love grows in. If there’s not trust, there’s no relationship. When my friends lied, our trust died. As much as I wanted to forgive them, and feel like I did and have, interacting with them was no longer the same. I doubted much of what they said. Sadly, I think both of them began to tell more and more of the truth. But it didn’t matter. Once trust is broken, it’s extremely hard to rebuild.
  6. • If they didn’t confess (and in one relationship lied in their confession) I felt like they didn’t care enough about me to come clean and make things right. They were still thinking of themselves.
Here’s what didn’t happen. I didn’t think less of them, and while I was angry, I wasn’t angry because I thought they were a bad person. The person who lied probably assumed I felt such things, but I didn’t. What really happened was I felt terrible about myself and when somebody makes us feel bad about ourselves, we tend to get hurt and move away.
To be sure, somebody who lies has a lot of other stuff going on and it’s not so easy to come clean. For a liar to change, they need a lot of help. Lying is manipulation, so if a person is a manipulator and gets caught lying, they are most likely going to keep manipulating. They may tell more lies to cover their lies, or manipulate by playing the victim. They may try to find things other people have done that they see as worse and try to make people focus on that. What they will have a hard time doing is facing the truth (which would be the easiest way out of their dilemma. It’s just that they don’t know how to do it. (They’re survivors, scrappers and have learned to cheat to stay alive socially.)

 

If you’ve lied in a relationship, though, and are truly wanting to LEARN to live on the up and up, what can you do? Well, there’s plenty. Life isn’t over yet. Here’s some places to start:

• Confess. And don’t half confess (just another lie) but actually confess. This may take some time for you. You may have to sit down with a pen and paper and write it all down. Your mind will want to lie, but you have to tame your mind. It may take you some time to even understand what the truth really is. You’re going to feel ashamed and at risk, but you have to go there anyway. People are much more kind and forgiving than you think. And if they’re not, you should confess and find people who are more safe.

• Accept the consequences. You’re going to have to pay for your lies. People will not and should not trust you as much as they did before. However, getting caught in a lie and confessing a lie are two different things. The former will cost you a bit, but you can rebuild quickly. The latter will cost you everything. Another thing to consider is that the truth might have lost you a small battle, but you’d have won the war because in the long run people would have trusted you. From here on out, be willing to suffer the slight, daily consequences of telling the truth. You’d be surprised at how much less tension there is in your life when you walk openly and honestly.

• Don’t expect the relationship to be the same, but if the person doesn’t forgive you, just know you can move on. You’ve confessed and hopefully apologized and you aren’t beholden to them anymore. They need to wrestle with forgiving you and that’s now their burden. It’s an unfair burden, but we all have to face such things.

• Don’t lie anymore. It’s not important that everybody like you or approve of you. Allow people to get used to who you are. Telling the truth may mean you don’t get to be in control anymore or that people won’t like you as much. That’s fine. At least they are interacting with the real you. The deep connections you’ll make from telling the truth are worth it.


Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller is all about story. He helps people live a better story at creatingyourlifeplan.com and grow their business at storybrand.com. Follow Don on Twitter (@donaldmiller). To read more of his posts on the Storyline Blog, click here.

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