Is it a lie if you tell the truth, but don't reveal everything? This is a contentious issue, especially in relationships where there's fractured trust. At a glance, lying by omission might not seem like such a big deal. So what if you didn't mention every single person at that party you went to? And so what if you don't divulge every single text you conversation you have to your significant other? Lying by omission in itself isn't a huge deal. But what makes it a big deal is what you're omitting.
Let's explore how this can greatly impact your relationship.
What Does “Lying By Omission” Mean?
Lying by omission involves omitting one or more important details to create a misconception. This includes not correcting other people’s misconceptions.
Let’s imagine you went to the supermarket after work, bumped into your ex-girlfriend, and went back to her apartment for passionate no-strings sex.
Then, your wife asks why you were home late…
- If you tell her you went to the bar with your work colleagues, that’s an outright lie (also called a lie by commission).
- If you tell her you went to the supermarket (without mentioning your ex-girlfriend), that’s a lie by omission.
- If you tell her you went back to your ex’s house (without mentioning the sex), that’s also a lie by omission.
If she accuses you of cheating and you say “no comment”, that would technically be a lie by omission as well (although she’d most likely suspect you did that at this point).
Of course, it’s impossible and unnecessary to tell anyone every detail of your day. It’s only a lie by omission when you deliberately leave out a detail you don’t want someone to know about.
In courts, witnesses must swear to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” By pledging to tell “the whole truth”, they promise not to tell lies by omission. It’s possible that witnesses can be charged with perjury for lying by omission, although this is rare. This is one reason why lawyers are extremely meticulous when questioning witnesses in court.
By pledging to tell “nothing but the truth”, witnesses also promise not to “character lies” or “lies of influence”. These are statements that are irrelevant to the question, usually formed to make someone assume a misconception. When making these lies, you’re technically lying by omission as well.
Why do people lie by omission?
Lies by omission are one of the most common types of lies that people tell. This is likely to be because a lot of people assume that lies by omission aren’t as sinful as outright lies. Indeed, studies have proven that people tend to be more lenient towards lies by omission. Nevertheless, the liar is still willingly deceiving someone with this behavior. As such, this can still lead to a lack of ongoing trust if they are caught.
A particularly interesting study from DePaul University in 2001 made three hypotheses about lying by omission in relationships, which all turned out to be true.
These hypotheses were that people are more likely to lie by omission if:
- they suspect their partner isn’t being completely honest;
- they suspect their partner will react aggressively to the truth;
- they have an anxious-avoidant attachment style.
It’s often argued that lies by omission are told to protect a partner from having their feelings hurt. In most cases though, the liar is protecting themselves from the expected reaction caused by the hurt feelings.
Common Lies By Omission in a Relationship
Here are some examples of lies by omission told in a romantic relationship.
Failing to disclose relationship history
Most of us would want to know if our partner has been married before, or if they’ve never had a boyfriend. We’d certainly like to be made aware if they were part of a 50-person polyamorous community.
Yet, it’s common for people to omit these extreme details when first getting into a relationship out of fear that their past would be seen as a red flag.
Hiding romantic intentions
A ‘player’ might choose to not mention that he’s only looking for a casual fling or a one-night stand, instead choosing to let his date assume that a serious relationship could be on the cards.
A lot of men and women choose to not immediately share their feelings about marriage and children because they’re afraid of scaring off their partner.
Failing to disclose certain habits or beliefs that might affect the relationship
If you don’t believe in sex before marriage, that’s something you should probably tell anyone you date. If you spend every Friday night at the strip club with your work clients, that’s something else your partner will probably want to know. Deep down, we understand which of our habits or beliefs might affect a potential relationship, yet we often choose to lie about them by omission to avoid a potential argument.
Failing to disclose a financial situation
In most cultures, it’s seen as rude to ask someone how much money they’re earning. As such, we usually make a rough estimate based on people’s jobs.
Still, it’s surely a lie by omission if someone fails to mention an extreme financial situation that they find themselves in.
It’s unlikely that someone would mention if they’re in crippling debt, but they should since their partner would take on half of that debt if they got married.
Interestingly, a lot of super-rich individuals choose to omit details of extreme wealth too. This is usually in a bid to avoid gold diggers and find a partner who loves them for their personality.
Failing to disclose a health condition
In an ideal world, we’d all be healthy and have healthy partners. As sad as it is to say, a health condition can be to the detriment of one’s dating life. That’s why many people choose to hide theirs for as long as possible.
And what about when someone fails to disclose that they have a sexually transmitted disease? This is arguably the worst case of lying by omission about one’s health. In fact, in many parts of the world, it’s illegal to have sex with someone without first disclosing the details of an STD.
An addiction can ruin not only a person’s life, but also the lives of those closest to them. It’s seen as shameful to have an addiction and most addictions will ruin the health of the addict eventually. It’s perhaps no surprise then that addicts try to hide their problems for as long as possible.
Failing to disclose parenthood
A lot of parents choose not to immediately bring up their children. After all, a lot of people aren’t excited about the prospect of becoming step-parents.
Failing to mention dissatisfaction about a relationship
This one is heartbreakingly common. A lot of people choose to keep their dissatisfaction about their partner’s behavior to themselves because they’re so afraid of conflict. The end result is one of two things: either the liar eventually explodes with anger or they remain in an unsatisfactory relationship forever.
Failing to mention insecurities or fears
Most people have insecurities when it comes to romantic relationships, but it’s rare that we’re brave enough to mention them.
Perhaps we’re insecure about what we look like naked or terrified of our partner leaving us for their super-attractive boss, but we don’t mention it because we don’t want to come off as insecure.
In most cases, it would be better to be honest about these insecurities, so you could work through them together as a couple.
Hiding certain purchases
It’s common for people to lie by omission to their partners about certain purchases they made, especially when they’re combining finances.
Perhaps it’s not necessary to have every purchase you make signed off by your partner. But neither a man nor a woman would be excited to admit that they made a large selfish purchase when they’re meant to be saving for a holiday or a new house.
Money is one of the biggest causes of conflict in a relationship, so it makes sense that some people might choose to try and get away with not talking about the purchases they made.
It’s common to have specific kinks and fetishes, but a lot of people decide not to reveal them to their partners. This poll of American citizens suggests that 36% have fetishes, but around half of them take at least a month to reveal them to their partner. Many fetishes remain nothing more than fantasies.
It would seem unnecessary to be ashamed of one’s kinks, considering that 76% of respondents claimed to be willing to try new things in the bedroom.
Failing to disclose their gender
The transgender population is growing rapidly in many parts of the world and acceptance for the LGBQTA+ community is at an all-time high, but many single transgendered people still decide not to disclose their trans status before the first date. It could be incredibly shocking for someone to learn this after dating or sleeping with that person.
There have been calls for laws forcing transgender people to make this disclosure before having sex with someone, but none exist in the United States as of yet.
The Impact of Lying By Omission in a Relationship
There’s an argument for lying by omission to get into a relationship, especially in this new era where both genders agree that dating has become harder.
For example, why would a man shoot himself in the foot by mentioning that he doesn’t have a car? It would be in his best interests to actually get his crush on a date and woo her first, in which case she may be more likely to forgive these unfortunate circumstances. Whether that’s in a woman’s best interests is a different argument.
Maybe it’s always the other person’s job to ask the appropriate questions before the first date. Or perhaps there’s a moral line for what should be mentioned before the first date for things to mention before getting into a relationship. A small mole on your backside? Perhaps OK to omit it. Being married to someone else? Not OK.
Either way, the DePaul University study suggested that lying by omission in a relationship leads to lower levels of commitment and overall satisfaction between two partners.
This is perhaps no surprise. Lying by omission is still a lie.
It’ll make you tense and fearful of being found out. It’ll usually lead to more lies to cover your tracks. What’s more, it’ll nearly always lead to a lack of trust when the liar is found out, and this sounds like the death knell for most relationships.
Perhaps more annoyingly, lying by omission leads to people wasting time in relationships that aren’t suitable for them.
Honesty is a pillar of all healthy relationships. So, you’re better off telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth throughout any relationship you get into.