In marriage, couples therapist Becky Whetstone likes to say there are two types of lies: Misdemeanor lies are the equivalent of a parking ticket — maybe you lie and say you love going to your in-laws’ for the holidays, then sulk the whole time you’re there. Or maybe you neglect to tell your husband that you added your high school ex on social media. It’s not great, but it’s usually not grievous either.
Then there are felonies, Whetstone said.
“Felonies are completely unacceptable acts hidden or denied that absolutely, positively will do damage to the relationship, such as cheating, verbal and emotional abuse and addictions,” the Little Rock, Arkansas, therapist explained.
The severity of a lie may be different, but the rationale for doing it tends to be the same, she said.
“In both cases, it’s an attempt to maintain our reputation as being a good and honest person, or a certain kind of person that we’d like others to view us as, or to protect ourselves from the negative reaction of others,” she said.
We know lying is damaging to our intimate relationships, but we’re all bound to do it at some point. Once we do tell a little white lie ― or a big, potentially destructive lie ― how do we tell our partners? Below, Whetstone and other therapists give their best advice.
How To Admit You Told A Small Lie
Pick the right time.
Timing is everything with this. If you know your spouse has a big work presentation the next day, table the talk. If they’re in the middle of cooking dinner, wait then, too. You want them to be in a relaxed and chilled-out mode, Whetstone said.
“Your first choice is not to spring it on your mate out of the blue, but to wait until the subject comes up organically,” she said. “For instance, your partner mentions shopping for new tires for his convertible and you confess in a light-hearted way that you replaced one of the tires yourself recently when you bumped a curb and blew out one of the old ones. Whoops.”
Delivery matters. Don’t dump information, and don’t be overly dramatic.
Once you’ve decided to share, you’ll probably be in a rush to get it off your chest. But handle things with care. Simply blurting out the truth without any consideration of how it will impact your partner is a rookie mistake, said Kurt Smith, a therapist in Roseville, California.
“Take a few minutes to think ahead of time how you’ll phrase what you’re going to say so it’s received as best as possible,” he said. “Knowing your partner, how do you think they’ll take this news? Adjust your message and the timing of it accordingly.”
Also, don’t be overly dramatic if you’re truly dealing with a small-time lie.
“Telling your partner you’ve got something you need to tell them or saying something like ‘We really need to talk’ can create an expectation that it’s going to be really bad,” Smith said. “They’ll better receive what you’re going to tell them if you deliver it more naturally. So share your lie as part of a conversation as opposed to the ‘big talk.’”
This one seems like a no-brainer but it’s amazing how often this step is overlooked, Smith said.
“If you’ve lied to or deceived your partner, then you should say, ‘I’m sorry’ and add a description to the end of it of why you’re sorry,” he said. “The humility and strength it takes to say these two words can go a long way in helping your partner hear and accept your confession.”
How To Admit You Told A Big Lie
Treat it with the seriousness it deserves.
A big-time lie deserves big-time humility. While the goal with a smaller lie is to admit to it without overstating it, with a weightier lie, you shouldn’t minimize any of it. Characterize it as the big deal that it is, and be prepared for an intense reaction from your partner, Whetstone said.
“A stance of ownership and humility must be maintained, as any sort of defense will likely intensify the reaction of the other person and do more damage,” she said. “Treat it with seriousness, then dedicate yourself to transparency, change and redemption.”
Use the Oreo method.
When it comes to confessing a lie, no matter the severity, marriage and family therapist Sheri Meyers is a big believer in the ‘Oreo’ method: You start with a chocolate cookie ― aka, something to soften the blow: “I love you and I’m telling you this because I want for us to have a strong, loving, honest relationship. I hate secrets and lies,” for instance. Then, get into the filling ― the admission of your lie, error, hurtful behavior or guilt.
“Tell your partner what happened and why,” Meyers said. “At this point, spare your partner the gory details. Reactions and questions will come up later to be answered and dealt with.”
Close with another chocolate cookie, or positive remark or action.
“Start with love. Take responsibility for what you know is wrong. Express regret and then express your desire to make things right,” she said. “Close with love. Say, ‘There is no excuse for my behavior. It is my fault. I want to focus on making our relationship stronger and better than ever.’”
Don’t blame or deflect.
When backed into a corner ― even if we’re there by our own doing― the natural response is to try to justify our behavior. But in doing so, we often deflect blame. (“I cheated on you because you haven’t been emotionally available to me since we had the baby.”) Don’t do that, Smith said.
“It’s always helpful to give an explanation to help your partner make some sense of what you’re disclosing, just be sure not to blame them for it — even if they were an influence,” he said. “Fully own your behavior, and your dishonesty is going to be better received.”
Have a game plan for after you divulge.
Your partner’s reaction to your admission may catch you by surprise. Plan for the best-case scenario and the worst one in the aftermath of this conversation, said Liz Higgins, an individual and couples therapist who works primarily with millennials.
“Have concrete actions in mind that you can begin doing immediately that would show your partner you’re serious about making healthy changes [going] forward,” she said. “And recognize that, no matter what you decide to be proactive about, your partner is still entitled to their own emotions and decisions around what they need to do, too.”
Don’t feel like you have to go it alone, either. Consider looking up names of therapists in case you both decide you want professional help following the revelation, Higgins said.
“You’ll need to explore what led you to lie versus share the truth, and realize that this may be more about you than anything lacking in your relationship,” she said. “Therapy can help with this.”
Know that it will likely get better.
This might feel like a low point in your relationship, but if the two of you commit to working through the issue, it can only get better from there. When we’re hiding something or outright lying, it inevitably affects our mood, behavior and communication, Smith said.
When you rid yourself of the burden of a lie, it’s freeing ― you can be transparent and you again ― and positive for your relationship with your partner. Plus, he said, honesty builds intimacy.
“When we’re honest with our partner, it builds connection,” he said.“Our relationship is strengthened and deepened by being truthful as well as being real that we make mistakes and aren’t perfect.”