I was struck by Elizabeth Bernstein's recent article that ran in the Wall Street Journal, "The Little Lies Spouses Tell." Her point is well-taken that it might be best to not hurt the feelings of one's significant other and that a lie instead of the truth in these instances is effective. However, based on my ongoing research, I believe that women and men frequently lie in different ways and for different reasons. One cause for a gender divide when it comes to telling the truth is that we live in a patriarchal society where despite the great gains for women, men still have more agency. And those who wield more power have more choices and opportunities that exist simply by virtue of their status.
There is a complexity to how female lies manifest: Women keep secrets and lie to protect the secret. The secret exists for the sake of appearance, to avoid judgment, scrutiny and criticism. When we are raised to be good girls -- good girls who always 'get it right' and never have any problems -- it's sometimes easier to not reveal any pain, turbulence, disappointment or trouble in one's life. In the study I conducted for my book, Little White Lies, Deep Dark Secrets, I found that:
- More than 80 percent of women advocate beneficial lying -- meaning that the lie is more important than the truth.
Surely, there are a few familiar lies that are no-brainers; the ones women tell about age, weight, mothers-in-law, flawed friendships, botox or cosmetic surgery. The more serious lies that women tell include how they truly feel about a romantic relationship, about being a wife, about infidelity (including an affair of the mind), about motherhood and about their own accomplishments. Add to this the dark secrets -- eating disorders, abuse, incest, paternity and addictions. Women have said they feel the need to lie about how a child is doing in school or at work. Others have spoken of covering up her lost job or, more disturbing, covering up her husband's lost job. The decision is to tell friends and family that the new position is that of 'consultant.'
And, of course, from girlhood onward, in part, we have learned to lie from our mothers. The majority of women with whom I spoke remarked that their mothers taught them the value of saving face by lying as a method of preserving oneself, a way of avoiding the shame that can follow the truth.
Then there are the lies we tell ourselves, the self-deception that women hold onto as a coping mechanism, as a means to get through. Wishful thinking goes hand-in-hand with self-deception -- women do this when they are in denial or when the truth is simply too arduous to tolerate.
When we consider all of the above, we see that female lies manifest as a woman's quest for reprisal, a way to avoid being evaluated and found wanting. Yet, even with an understanding of the behavior, the question becomes, when is it simply wrong to lie? When is the lie harmful, not helpful -- when is the gig up? If we ponder the consequences of certain lies and know that there are profound repercussions, then it's time to quit the double-dealing and to consider that the truth has significance and may serve us better.
Susan Shapiro Barash is the author of Little White Lies, Deep Dark Secrets: The Truth about Why Women Lie and most recently, The Nine Phases of Marriage.