If you were to go up to 100 people and ask them to list important relationship traits, "trust" is likely one that would pop up more than a couple of times. Mistrust can destroy otherwise healthy relationships, so many people abide by the saying, "Honesty is the best policy." But is it really? Should you always be 100% truthful with your partner?
The answer is, understandably, complicated. "It's contextual," says Yamonte Cooper, EdD, a licensed professional clinical counselor. "You don't necessarily have to disclose everything, because you want to have boundaries. And you don't have to vomit out information about every experience within the framework of being honest." Of course, Dr. Cooper isn’t advocating for outright lying. He is, however, bringing up an important point. In the early stages of a relationship, it’s not necessary to disclose information that isn’t important to the partnership under the guise of honesty.
Here's a good example: If you bump into an ex while grabbing your morning coffee, and you have a quick chat of no consequence, don't feel like you need to immediately fire off a text message to your current S.O. to let them know. "If your partner is so distrustful that they need to know of every interaction, then there are deeper problems to deal with," Dr. Cooper says. "It's up to you to make the call [about what's important]," he says. "You've got to protect yourself in the beginning. It's all about maturity."
But when the relationship becomes serious, and more is at stake, the idea of lying becomes a little hairier. "The short answer is no — you should never lie to your partner," says Susannah Hyland, a licensed psychotherapist in NYC. "I'm even wary of white lies, because why not just be honest?" White lies can have to do with anything — be it whether or not you like your partner's cooking, or if their sibling gets on your nerves.
"You don't necessarily have to disclose everything, because you want to have boundaries. And you don't have to vomit out information about every experience within the frame work of being honest."
Dr. Yamonte Cooper, EdD
According to Hyland, it's better to figure out a way to communicate these issues with compassion than to stash them away. "It's healthy to be honest, because once a partner is harboring or hiding something, other feelings or resentments grow from it, which eventually become radioactive [within a partnership]," she says. "It's just important to have honesty with kindness and empathy." So take the example of having tension with your S.O.'s sibling. Hyland suggests saying something along the lines of, "I feel uncomfortable around your sister when she doesn't leave a tip, because I have beliefs about tipping and what it means to people."
That said, it's also important to consider why you're choosing to share that information, how it might affect your relationship, and whether or not it's really important enough to mention, according to Dr. Cooper. "Maturity plays a big part in deciding whether or not to be honest," he says. If your S.O. has a close relationship with their sister, for example, you might do your relationship more harm than good by being "honest" about an issue that's relatively trivial in the scheme of things. There's really no hard and fast rule, so you'll have to take it case by case.
Of course, bigger lies, like hiding an affair or the fact that you were laid off, are less ambiguous, as these aren't "white lies," and your partner generally needs to know the truth about them for their own well-being within the relationship. When you do decide to come clean, Hyland says to proceed with caution. "Be careful with your timing, and be accountable for your actions," she says.
And keep in mind that admitting your truth should be a separate conversation from figuring out how you and your partner are going to move forward. You don't have to decide what you're going to do about this confession as soon as you make it, but in many cases, you and your partner may want to talk about how to move forward down the line. If what you told your partner is more on the serious end, it's also a good idea to have this secondary chat after everyone's emotions have calmed a bit.
At the end of the day, every situation is different, so it's important to remember that the decision to lie isn't always inherently bad. But, oftentimes, your reasons behind withholding the truth can tell you whether or not it's a good idea to continue doing so.
Ed note: This story has been updated with clarifying information about Dr. Cooper's statements.