Conflicts — 21 April 2013
Detecting deception in intimate relationships

Having a truthful and honest relationship with a partner is a basic expectation of pairs. Most partners believe that they know their beloved well enough to detect lying or deception, should it occur. When they discover that the mate had been dishonest or disloyal, they are surprised, incredulous and feel betrayed. They are also disappointed in their inability to have detected the deception sooner.

Surprisingly, researchers found that people’s ability to detect deception is lower in intimate relationships than in other connections. Drs. Timothy Levine and Steven McCornack of Michigan State University researched how people detect lies. They found that relational closeness and trust in the other’s truthfulness actually reduced one’s ability to detect untruths.

In love relationships many mates believe that truth is healthier and superior to a modified truth, even if the former may be hurtful or devastating to the mate. Oscar Wilde said, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

According to McCornack’s Information Manipulation Theory, “Most deception is accomplished verbally through some combination of a) the omission of information, b) the falsification of information, c) ambiguity in how information is presented, and/or d) strategic evasion away from sensitive information.”

Omission of information occurs since every individual wants to stay in the best graces of the beloved and avoid losing the partner’s positive regard. A boss’ negative review, a colleagues’ disapproval, making errors or not living up to one’s own standards may be withheld for emotional self-preservation and maintaining the relationship status quo.

Falsification of information by altering data or details is intended to either prevent discomfort or hide one’s less than acceptable feelings or actions. Saying to a wife, “I went to lunch with the new colleague to help her get oriented to our company’s systems and procedures,” may cover an agenda of personal interest.

Ambiguity in delivering information serves to reduce suspicion and increase the illusion of one’s full disclosure to the mate. “I was called again today about our high school reunion encouraging me to attend since the organizers are worried about a low turnout – I am not sure if I am interested in going.”

Some partners stay silent or evade responding when the honest answer may cause the mate or the speaker to feel threatened, insecure or shamed. “Was she the love of your life?” “Do you sometimes wish you had married your college boyfriend?” A partner who is enamored by a third party may evade the spouse’s questions to preserve a secret affair.

A spouse who finds out that he/she was lied to, deceived or left in the dark, is likely to feel deeply betrayed, discounted and alone and may also feel shame about having the truth elude him/her.

  •  Understand that truthfulness is a virtue when accompanied by honest conduct.
  • Realize that deception is intended to spare a mate hurt and ease one’s shame about inappropriate conduct or feelings.
  • Pride yourself for trusting and not detecting deception. It is a tribute to your decency.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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