How To Cope With Dishonesty In A Relationship

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated May 16, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Dishonesty happens for many reasons and comes in various types. A person might tell mostly-harmless white lies, questionable gray lies, or real lies that can cause harm. Dishonesty in a relationship can result in a lack of emotional intimacy, feelings of isolation, negative impacts on mental and physical health, and breakups. It can be possible to move past dishonesty in a relationship by identifying why it occurs and working to resolve the root of the issue, often in therapy. Online couples counseling may be a valuable tool for you and your significant other if dishonesty has harmed your relationship.

Are lies causing problems in your relationship?

How much do people lie?

Recent research found that the amount people lie can vary significantly. About 75 percent of participants in a study reported that they told between zero and two lies per day, with less than 10 percent telling six or more lies per day.

Unfortunately, there are no concrete body language signs like eye contact that researchers can use to objectively reveal lies. Therefore, research that does exist on a topic like this can be complex because it requires participants to be honest about something they may feel inclined to lie about to portray themselves in a better light. In other words, it can be safe to assume that most people lie from time to time—including to their romantic partners. What matters perhaps more than overall dishonesty statistics can be the types of lies people tell.

Why do people lie?

Motivations for lying can be diverse, and not all lies may be created equal. In fact, a 2013 thesis done at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee points out that deception can “sometimes [be] a necessary part” of some types of conversations. The thesis also reports a few reasons people may tell lies, including:

  • To facilitate social interactions or be perceived as polite

  • To manage the impression one makes on another person

  • To get rewards or otherwise benefit in some way

In the context of a romantic relationship, some lies may be harmless or even helpful. Telling your partner that you like their new shirt when you don’t care for it, for example, can make your partner feel good, avoid an argument or hurt feelings, and result in minimal negative repercussions. However, the impact of a lie on the dynamic between two people usually depends on its characteristics.

The three types of lies

The University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee thesis cited above posits that there are three main types of lies and that their impact on a relationship varies accordingly. They are, in order of severity:

  • White Lies. These lies are generally partial truths with “a benevolent intent” and minor consequences, if any. Most of us have told white lies before to spare someone’s feelings, boost someone’s confidence, or make a social interaction more pleasant. For example, when an acquaintance asks if you like their new haircut, telling them that you do, even if it’s a lie, is usually a harmless deception.

  • Gray Lies. These lies are false but may be used as a tool to bring about a positive impact. They’re generally more serious than white lies but are typically either justifiable or exist in a gray area where they may or may not be justifiable. This type of lie can reflect the complexity of the human experience because, like many phenomena, it may be challenging to categorize as strictly good or bad. The example of a gray lie given in the thesis is telling a lie to your boss to save someone else’s job.

  • Real Lies. The thesis states the following definition of real lies: “unacceptable lies that are malicious, self-serving, complete fabrications of the truth that hold serious consequences.” These can be easy to identify because they have a clear intention to mislead or harm someone and are usually viewed as immoral. For example, telling your spouse that you used your last paycheck to catch up on all your bills when you actually lost it at the casino can be intentionally deceitful and is likely to negatively impact them.

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How lies can harm a relationship

There’s no mathematical formula to gauge how certain lies will impact the dynamic between a couple. People can be diverse and complex, and the unique, specific context of a particular lie can make a big difference in what its effects might be. Consider also that a relatively small, harmless lie could have a significant negative impact on a couple who is recovering from major deception such as infidelity, while another couple may not have any problems resulting from the same lie. 

In general, some of the negative repercussions of significant lies in relationships might include:

1. Loss or lack of intimacy

The importance of emotional intimacy in relationships is widely supported by research. One report in the International Social Science Review points out that emotional intimacy can be crucial for human development and is likely linked to better overall health and well-being. For intimacy to exist between two people, authenticity, vulnerability, and trust can all be important. If there is significant or harmful dishonesty between two people, these three elements may not be present. This is one way in which lies can harm or even bring about the end of a relationship.

2. Feelings of isolation

This effect can work in both directions. First, the partner who is deceiving may not be able to be completely themselves with their significant other because they’re hiding something. Over time, this feeling of not being truly known or seen can wear on them. In addition, the partner who is being lied to may also—consciously or subconsciously—feel that they’re being kept at arm’s length. In the end, it’s possible for both partners to start to feel disconnected or distanced from the other, which can erode the foundation of the relationship.

3. Negative effects on mental and physical health

One study found that individuals who told more lies in their relationship experienced more mental health complaints, such as feelings of melancholy or tension. Perhaps a bit more surprisingly, they also reported more physical health complaints like sore throats and headaches. If you or your partner are routinely dishonest with each other, it could cause health problems that might impact your own functioning as well as your relationship dynamic.

4. Breakups

The end of a relationship can be a potential consequence of dishonesty. Some couples may be able to withstand or recover from different types or levels of dishonesty, while others may not. In general, it’s possible for a relationship to end because of a lie that caused irreparable damage. All the potential outcomes of dishonesty listed above—loss of intimacy and trust, feelings of isolation, and even poor health outcomes—can contribute to two people deciding that they can’t or no longer want to function as a couple anymore.

How to address dishonesty in a relationship

Can a couple rebuild trust and recover from the damage done by dishonesty? It’s certainly possible. Of course, rebuilding trust may require them to work together. In some cases, the partner who has difficulties being honest may have other challenges they need to address to turn over a new leaf. Trauma, past toxic relationships, or unhealthy family dynamics in childhood could be potential reasons for consistently dishonest behavior. Frequent lies could also be a result of a substance use disorder or another mental health condition. The person would generally need to work through any underlying causes to change their dishonest behavior.

A therapist is often a recommended resource for couples who are grappling with the impact of a consistent liar in a relationship. Whether they attend sessions individually, as a couple, or both, the counselor may help them look at potential root causes of the lies and empower them with strategies for healing old wounds, communicating more openly, and healthily resolving conflict. If you're struggling with excessive lying, consider seeking treatment; they can help you give proper therapy on how to stop lying.

Are lies causing problems in your relationship?

If you’d like to be matched with a therapist you can meet with online from the comfort of your own home, you might consider a virtual therapy platform. Through this service, you can speak with a licensed therapist on your own or together with your partner to work toward resolving the challenges you may be facing in your relationship. 

Research suggests that online therapy has similar benefits to in-person sessions, and meeting with a therapist virtually can be a helpful and convenient option for many people. If dishonesty is causing conflict or tension between you and your significant other, honest communication may be the first step toward resolving it—and a therapist may be able to help with this.


White lies, gray lies, and real lies are types of dishonesty that come with differing motivations and effects. Real lies in a relationship can have negative impacts, such as feelings of isolation, a loss of emotional intimacy, physical and mental health complaints, and breakups. However, it can be possible to move past dishonesty in a relationship. Often, this involves determining the reason for the dishonesty and resolving it. In many cases, this can happen in online individual or couples therapy.

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