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How to Effectively Deal with Dishonesty and Lying in a Relationship

In a time of prolific scams and deepfakes, we've become suspicious as an unfortunate fallout. But what about your personal and professional relationships? Have you ever felt that knot in your stomach when you suspect someone isn't being honest with you? The experience is often wrapped in lots of discomfort and uncertainty.

Confronting a person you suspect of lying—whether it's your teenager dodging responsibility, your spouse lying by omission, or a friend who didn't show up as promised—can feel like walking a minefield…. blindfolded! No one knows how the person will react, and how you approach them can determine the outcome.

Estimated reading: 6 minutes

Believe concept with LIE highlighted at the center of the word believe.Heartmanity is proud to partner with outstanding companies that we wholeheartedly recommend so this post may contain affiliate links. You can read our full disclosure here.

Blog Contents
Reasons We Hesitate to Confront Lying
A More Compassionate View of Lying
Lying as "Misbehavior" Driven by Human Needs
So Why Do People Lie in Relationships?
Looking at Dishonesty Differently
How to Successfully Confront Someone About Lying (Step-by-Step Process)
Closing Thoughts

Here’s my take on lying. Perhaps it might even shift the way you view lying in your relationships.

Before we explore strategies for dishonesty, let’s look at common reasons people don’t take action, even when someone is suspected of lying.

Reasons We Hesitate to Confront People Suspected of Dishonesty

Confronting someone about lying is a daunting task many of us naturally shy away from. Here are seven common reasons why we often fear this conversation. Which ones do you relate to the most?

Fear of Conflict: Many fear confronting a lie could escalate into a major conflict, potentially damaging the relationship irreparably.

Doubt in Your Perceptions: Sometimes, individuals are unsure if the other person is actually lying, leading to uncertainty about whether it’s worth bringing up.

Reprisal Concerns: There is a fear that the accused might get upset and even retaliate, making the situation worse.

Loss of the Relationship: Especially if the person is a loved one or a close friend, there's a concern that questioning the person’s integrity could disrupt or even end the relationship. The unknown—which feels unsafe—magnifies the intensity.

Self-Doubt: Confronters may worry about being seen as accusatory or mistrustful, which can be internally conflicting. Not taking any action appears safer.

Protecting the Person’s Feelings: The thought of possibly being wrong, hurting the person’s feelings, or creating emotional turmoil can feel overwhelming.

Change in Group Dynamics: If the situation involves a family (or a team in the workplace), there's a fear that confronting one person might disrupt peace and create divisions. When we have to live or work with these people every day, we don’t want to be the one that rocks the boat.

These fears—all understandable—make it challenging to address dishonesty directly, even when it’s necessary for the health and integrity of our relationships. There are many subtle ways that we accommodate dishonesty on a regular basis.

A More Compassionate Approach to Lying

You’d probably agree that every relationship depends on honesty to build trust.

That’s true.

However, through many experiences and conditioning, we’ve been taught that “lying” is BAD, BAD, BAD.

We’ve done a poor job of effectively responding to dishonesty in our culture. Children are often punished and shamed, which is the opposite of what will help them summon the courage to be honest. It’s not just reprisal that children and adults fear; it's not knowing how to get their needs and desires met in a more appropriate way.

A man lying and denying it with a Pinocchio shadow in the background.

I hope to shed some light on your view and, perhaps, learn to respond to lying differently. (I’m not talking about compulsive lying or those seeking to do harm; what we’re talking about here is for everyday challenges in relationships, personally and professionally.)

Lying as "Misbehavior" Driven by Human Needs

Dr. Rudolph Dreikurs and Dr. Alfred Adler asserted that all human behavior, including lying, is a form of communication and is driven by underlying needs. From their perspective, lying is not inherently malicious or immoral but a strategy to achieve social safety or overcome feelings of inadequacy.

When someone lies, they might be attempting to avoid conflict, gain approval, or protect their self-esteem. These actions are attempts to belong or feel significant within their social groups. As a person climbs the ladder of Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs, lying is replaced with emotional maturity and elevated motivations.

When we view lying through this lens, it becomes clear that most lying is a symptom of unmet needs, wavering courage, or a lack of emotional intelligence rather than exploitative behavior.

This perspective suggests that to address lying effectively, one must look beyond the act itself and consider the emotional or psychological voids the individual is trying to fill.

Approaching a lie by creating safety for the person and responding compassionately without judgment will immediately invoke dramatically different outcomes.

You might wonder how I know or why you should listen to me.

I’ve been applying this approach for decades in my marriage, as a parent, and in my work while coaching kids, teens, parents, and even teams and leaders of large corporations. When people feel accepted, they open naturally.

It all boils down to providing our brains safety.

When our focus is on understanding and addressing the root causes of the behavior, it leads to more constructive ways of addressing the relationship challenge.

Master Your Emotionally Intelligence!

So Why Do People Lie in Relationships?

Why DO people lie? And how can we address it effectively without relationships blowing up?

People lie for various reasons, ranging from the desire to protect themselves or others from harm, to gain an advantage, or simply to avoid uncomfortable social situations. Often, these lies are commonplace and considered benign, intended to "save face" or spare someone's feelings.

These so-called "white lies" might involve complimenting an unflattering outfit or overstating your enthusiasm for a gift. They are generally deemed harmless because they intend not to deceive for manipulative reasons or with forethought but to avoid conflict, maintain social norms, or protect someone’s feelings.

What about lying by omission? How many times have you kept information from your spouse just because you didn’t want to get hassled about spending money or swinging by the brewery for a beer with friends?

Or what about people who photoshop pictures to look more attractive when posting on social media. Isn’t this also deception?

We all want to put our best out to the world, often masking what we believe to be unacceptable or unlovable. And if we stuff our emotions, it's challenging to know the right path or work through conflicts in relationships.

Related reading: "How to Have Difficult Conversations with Your Spouse—Successfully!"

A young woman hugging a her husband while texting on a phone.

Will all the couples I have coached over the years, dishonesty often stems from needs or desires a partner feels uncomfortable with or ashamed of, so they hide them. We have not been shown how to process big feelings like anger, shame or guilt, so our actions squeak out sideways instead.

In a relationship, we can want something different and still not know how to tell our partner. For example, one may be bored in their sex life; instead of openly talking about it and allowing the desire to bring them closer, a fling or an affair ensues.

Or perhaps a person is having difficulty with overspending; instead of enlisting their partner's support, they might hide it, which creates mistrust and distance in the relationship.

Compassion encourages individuals to express their challenges, needs, and emotions more openly, fostering greater honesty and transparency.

Since the brain highly values psychological safety and belonging, when we feel threatened, e.g., by social humiliation or rejection, it is natural to want to cloak the truth.

Looking at Dishonesty Differently

When watching a TV series recently, a line from one of the characters branded my mind like a Montana rancher brands his cattle with a hot iron. I couldn’t shake it!

“High gloss covering a low truth.”

Lying is a low truth.

Telling the truth requires emotional maturity and often tremendous courage.

And honesty necessitates safety.

However, people must be honest with themselves before they can be honest with others, which is why emotional intelligence is so important.

Lies often bridge the gap between a person's current reality and insecurities with their growing personhood and future potential.

For instance, a person might exaggerate their capabilities at work as they strive to master technical or social skills, or they might downplay their struggles to appear more stable while they seek help or develop more confidence.

These lies can be seen as a protective layer for self-preservation, buying time as individuals work on aligning their reality with their aspirations.

While still deceptive, these “lies” stem from wanting to belong or improve oneself, not from a desire to exploit or deceive others. This form of lying highlights the complexity of human growth and the sometimes blurred lines between reality and aspiration.

By clinging to idealized aspects of ourselves, we are not only seeking to fit in but also be internally motivated to grow into the person we’re pretending to be. Gradually people transform aspirations into reality. Thus, the old expression, “Fake it until you make it.”

In our interpersonal relationships, "innocent" lies act as a scaffold supporting our personal development. Being true to ourselves while interacting in the social world is a continual dance.

Therefore, allowing a person grace and compassion when they haven’t built the emotional maturity yet for full disclosure helps them build the muscles of emotional literacy and the courage to be more and more honest.

Lying is easy; honesty is loving.

Two women sitting on the floor smiling at each other and talking.

Our goal?

To create relationships—so sweet, life-giving, and precious—that no one would jeopardize them by lying.

Related reading:The Truth About Lying and What It Does to the Body.”

How to Successfully Confront Someone About Lying

Approaching someone about lying, especially when guided by emotional intelligence and understanding, can be managed more effectively with a thoughtful, step-by-step approach. Here are the steps.

STEP 1: Prepare yourself.

Reflect on why dishonesty bothers you and what you hope to achieve by addressing it. This preparation helps you approach the conversation with more clarity.

STEP 2: Choose the right time and setting.

Find a private place to talk, ensuring all parties can speak without outside pressures or interruptions. Also, consider each person’s emotional state and readiness.

STEP 3: Address the issue gently with clarity.

Let the person know how important the relationship is to you (if it is). Use "I" statements to describe your observations and express your feelings about how their words or actions affected you (without accusing them). Remember to address the behavior, not the person. For example, "I felt frustrated when I noticed that what was verbally agreed to didn’t match what actually happened."

If you are concerned that they may react, you can begin by saying, “I could have been unclear or unrealistic in my expectations. My intention is to create better communication and honesty in our relationship, not to fault.” or "It's possible I'm off base, but I wanted to revisit what you said about."

STEP 4: Listen intently without interruption.

Provide the other person with a safe space to share their experience and perspective. By actively listening, you demonstrate respect and a willingness to understand their reasons, fostering a more open dialogue.

STEP 5: Encourage honesty in the relationship.

Express your desire for transparency and discuss ways to ensure better communication. This suggestion might include setting specific expectations for honesty or establishing more open lines of communication. Clearly state the importance of honesty on trust in your relationship and express your desire for honesty in the future.

Offer support if needed, especially if the lying was symptomatic of underlying issues such as stress, fear, or insecurity.

STEP 6: Set Boundaries and Consequences.

Discuss a specific boundary or consequence of continued dishonesty if lying is a pattern. This crucial step is to vouchsafe your emotional well-being and maintain the integrity of the relationship. Healthy boundaries are a part of emotional intelligence and essential in relationships.

STEP 7: Close on a Positive Note.

Be mindful to conclude the conversation by affirming the value of your relationship and your commitment to resolving issues together. Use an encouraging and empathetic tone to resolve the issue and strengthen the relationship rather than exacerbate the conflict.

Approaching the conversation with curiosity rather than accusation can encourage others to open up about their reasons for lying without feeling threatened.

Closing Thoughts

Remember, whatever you allow will continue and degrade true connection.

The more valuable and intimate the relationship, the more honesty is required. Be brave and act with confidence; honesty is the foundation of all healthy and thriving relationships.

If you desire greater emotional intelligence, try our online course. Grow your muscles and reach your full potential. Learn to build thriving relationships—beginning with yourself!

Yes, teach me emotional intelligence!

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Jennifer A. Williams / Emotional Intelligence CoachJennifer A. Williams / Emotional Intelligence Coach
Jennifer is the Heartmanity founder and an emotional intelligence expert. She has two decades of EQ experience and is the author of emotional intelligence training and courses. As an emotional fitness coach, Jennifer teaches EQ skills, brain science hacks, and a comprehensive approach that gets results. She is happily married and the mother of three incredible grown children.

Posted in Emotional Intelligence & Fitness

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