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White lies: Fibbing in the name of love

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — Keevin of Fremont, Calif., didn't think twice before fibbing to his wife about her pork. Keevin, who is 29 and considered the family cook, had come home an hour earlier than his wife and tasted the roast she'd prepared in the crock pot earlier that day.

It was bland. So, he added salt, pepper and garlic before tasting it again. "Perfection," Keevin recalls. That night, when they sat down to dinner, his wife was mesmerized by the dish, exclaiming: "This is the best roast I've ever made." Keevin agreed.

He realizes he lied by omission, but his wife had a bad day, and he wanted her to feel better about herself.

"White lies are OK as long as you're trying to make someone smile," he says.

Some of the people interviewed for this story were reluctant for obvious reasons to divulge both first and last names, but most people in relationships do it: tell what they consider tiny, benign lies to keep the peace or salvage a partner's feelings.

But is it always harmless? Most couples and relationship experts agree that white lies in moderation and that have little consequence are fine, especially if the fibbing comes from a place of love. But, if you're a chronic white liar, you may be avoiding a conflict that needs to be discussed and resolved, says Lisa Gray, a Livermore, Calif., marriage and family therapist.

White lies are so common that AARP's relationship expert Pepper Schwartz suggests couples discuss early on whether they're the lying kind.

"You could say, 'I would prefer to save your feelings and not get in trouble so I may not tell you the whole truth all the time.' Then the partner could say, 'Forget it. I would much rather be a little upset and get 100 percent truth from you,'" she says.

Kindall Reding, a Danville, Calif., stay-at-home mom, says her husband is the most honest person she knows. "He tells it how it is," says Reding, 35. The closest he came to telling her a white lie, Reding says, is when she was pregnant and would complain about her weight.

Her husband's response? "He would tell me I was being crazy and not to worry about it," Reding recalls. "Again, almost being too honest. My girlfriends or sister, on the other hand, would be more apt to give me compliments — possible white lies — to salvage my feelings."

When it comes to appearances, white lies are harmless as long as you use good judgment, Schwartz says. "Go ahead, tell her she looks lovely in that dress," Schwartz says. "As long as you don't think it's so ugly that she'll scare someone in public." Same goes for weight, she says. But, if your partner has gained weight and it concerns you, use the "Does this make me look fat" question as an opportunity to talk about it.

"I'm a realist," Schwartz says. "There are some people who think even the slightest lie is a betrayal beyond measure. But I say, is the consequence to the relationship better with the white lie?"

As an example, Schwartz cites a person who is frivolous with money. If the partner in charge of the finances gives her a more modest economic report, it will make the relationship interpersonally and financially better, she says. "The ends justify the means a bit, but I can see how some people wouldn't agree with that," Schwartz adds.

Samantha, a Berkeley, Calif., computer engineer, does agree. Samantha, 44, told her boyfriend a winter coat was on sale to justify the recent purchase, since she already had one and worried he'd judge her for buying it. "He doesn't understand my shopping habit," she says. "Some of us need two coats."

According to Schwartz, white lies are gender-specific. Women tend to lie about how much things cost because they often take it on themselves to keep costs down in the relationship and believe men are ignorant about how much things cost for women. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to lie about work because their egos are tied up in their careers and if things aren't going well, they don't want to look weak or unsuccessful, she says.

In her practice, therapist Gray has noticed a similar trend. "I see men who say, "I don't want to burden my wife with what's going on at work or how much I don't like it,'" Gray says. "But if he does that all the time, then she doesn't really know him and his life at work." Instead of the flat reply of "fine," tell your wife how your day really was, Gray says.

Furthermore, Gray believes you should examine why you tell white lies. Are you avoiding conflict? Do you feel like you're not accepted? And most importantly: Does telling a white lie benefit your partner, or does it benefit you? If you have a long-term disagreement or can predict your partner's reaction, you may tell a white lie to avoid a discussion. But that only breeds mistrust and distance, Gray says

"People have this impression that fighting is bad and means you're not happy," she says. "But there's nothing wrong with conflict. True intimacy is knowing someone as they really are."

Most white lies are harmless. But they can become destructive, depending on the frequency and degree of the white lie. To determine if your white lies are destructive, Livermore marriage and family therapist Lisa Gray suggests you ask yourself these questions:

How often are you telling a white lie?

Are your white lies about the same issue? Are you afraid to have a discussion about it?

Do you feel like you are accepted for who you really are?

Have you communicated your needs to your partner?

Do you and your partner have good conflict resolution skills?

(c) 2010, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.).

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