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Hax: Where does white lie turn into flat-out lie?

  • Article by: CAROLYN HAX
  • January 28, 2014 - 2:23 PM

Dear Carolyn: The other day, I discovered my boyfriend had lied to me about riding with a female co-worker to a college football game in another state (he claims they only drove together and didn’t see each other at any other point during the weekend). He has apologized profusely and said he never told me because he didn’t want me to think anything was going on between them when it wasn’t.

Would this be considered a white lie? Or just a flat-out lie?

And when is it considered OK to lie in order to protect someone’s feelings? I have a feeling he should have told me the truth in this situation.

Carolyn says: Of course he should have. Boyfriend of how long? Thanks.

Dear Carolyn: We have been “talking” for more than a year now, but he was hesitant to start a new relationship because his old one of three years didn’t end so well (she started seeing someone almost immediately after they broke up). But we have been officially dating only five months.

Carolyn says: That helps, thanks. The short answer is, flat-out lie.

The long answer starts here: You’re new to each other, he’s been burned before, and the details of your story (hitching rides, “girl co-worker”) point to a high probability of youth.

There are few circumstances where flat-out lies aren’t a serious problem, but being young and insecure in a new relationship can be one of them.

Some people hit adulthood ready to tell the whole truth about themselves without fear of rejection or other repercussions, but in my experience they’re the exception. For many (most?) young people (and some old ones), fear of consequences is powerful motivation to spin.

Of course, spinning backfires: If seeing the real versions of each other would break you up, then you don’t belong together in the first place. It can take some hard experience, though, for this idea to override fears of getting “caught.”

So. If your boyfriend in fact didn’t stray but genuinely feared your reaction, and if experience (dysfunctional family, bad relationships, low self-esteem, your past overreactions, combinations thereof) taught him to associate truth-telling with punishment, then that would mitigate his lie.

Once. If he’s telling the truth now, he can be forgiven, once, for misjudging you as someone who preferred a sanitized version of events.

Once, because now you let him know that you want complete honesty: No matter how bad the truth, it beats a lie. Live it, too, by being truthful and by receiving hard truths gracefully. A lot of people demand honesty but then greet it with rage or silent treatments or a thousand verbal paper cuts whenever the subject comes up. Don’t be that girlfriend. (Or the self-consciously “cool one”; that’s another column.)

But, do recall my saying his lie “can be” minor. It can also, obviously, be serious. It’s possible his “nothing happened!!!” is just another lie. Or, he could have a lie-first reflex that he can’t or won’t fix.

You won’t know whether this is a fixable problem or a deal-breaking one without context. If you don’t have enough yet, then accept what he says, then let time show you how well acquainted he is with truth. That’s what dating is for.

E-mail Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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