We Need to Tell Our Partners What We Need from Them

March 30, 2020

There are lies—and then there are lies. Some lies are self-serving, covering up bad behavior to avoid negative consequences. Other lies are benevolent, trying to save someone from hurt feelings or information that will harm them.

While most philosophers maintain that lies, in general, are bad or wrong, some are willing to make ethical distinctions between different lies based on their effect or motivation, considering benevolent lies to be less bad, wrong but excusable, or perhaps even justified.

The same goes for lying in romantic relationships. Generally, we should not lie to our partners, but many people would admit that some lies are worse than others. Self-serving lies, such as those told to cover up an affair, are obviously wrong; they compound the betrayal of adultery with deception, both of which prioritize the cheater’s selfish interests over their partner’s and deny the latter the respect they deserve.

Lying about less bad behavior—such as sneaking a cupcake when you’d promised your partner to give up sweets—could be regarded as even worse because the deception was used to hide such a minor transgression. “It isn’t the cupcake, Harold,” Sally might say. “It’s the fact that you lied about it.” And if Harold lied about a cupcake, Sally thinks, what else has he lied about?

Benevolent lies, however, are a different matter. It could be regarded as foolish to be completely honest when answering the question, “Do these pants make me look fat?” We can easily imagine that the person asking that question doesn’t expect or even want complete honesty, but rather reassurance and compassion! But there is a class of benevolent lies that, however well-intentioned and selfless, can be just as corrosive to a relationship as self-serving ones: lies told to withhold or disguise what partners need in their relationships.

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