Why women lie

We know it's wrong but do it anyway. Here's why women lie. 

By Teresa Pitman

Why women lie
©istockphoto/anouchka
I admit it: I'm a liar. I don't mean to be. But somehow I can't always resist the temptation to exaggerate a little (or a lot) so I look a bit more important, or fudge the truth to cover up an embarrassing moment. And I'm not alone. Lots of women lie, apparently.
"Sometimes I think lying runs in my family," says Candace Spencer,* an Ottawa mother. She thinks she may have learned from her mother that "stretching the truth makes for better entertainment."

Can we blame our tendency to lie on our parents? Ann Cameron, an honorary psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, goes even further when she suggests that lying probably runs in everyone's families. "Lying is very pervasive. Most people lie, and most lie a lot."

The truth is, lying is part of every culture. Cameron points out that not all truth is welcomed or appropriate: Parents teach children to express gratitude for all gifts, for example (even if little Harry really hates the sweater Grandma knitted for him). And friends usually don't tell you that you have unhealthy eating habits (if they did, you might stop spending time with them).

As women, we lie for all kinds of reasons. But is lying really a good solution in any situation? No, says Cameron. That's because lying to solve a problem can create an even bigger one. Here are some common reasons why women lie and (in case you recognize yourself in some of these scenarios) some ideas on how to be more honest in your own life.

Helping someone
The lie: Cathy brings her son to school late day after day, but skips the required trip to the office for a late slip and attempts to sneak him into the classroom without the teacher noticing. If she can get him in before the teacher takes attendance, the lateness won't go onto his report card. From her point of view, nobody is getting hurt.
The problem: Jennifer Hupp,* an educational assistant, says Cathy's son is the one hurting. "Imagine the emotional stress on the child trying to sneak into class each day. He is old enough to know that it is not right but is torn because his mom tells him not to go to the office to get a late slip." Cathy's lie – meant to protect her son (and herself) from the consequences of lateness – is making his life tougher.
A better option: Recognize that this chronic lateness is a problem, and make a new plan to get to school on time. The solution is not to lie your way out of the consequences but to solve the problem at the root.

Protecting others
The lie: Donna sometimes tells her mother that she needs to work on the weekend so she can't visit. Her mother lives on her own and is often lonely, so Donna is afraid she would be hurt if she said she would rather relax in front of the TV or even just read a book after a busy week.
The problem: Donna feels guilty about her lies. "I really should go visit her," she says. "She has done so much for me. It's time for me to pay back some of that."
A better option: Plan a schedule of visits or phone calls that allows the me-time you need, as well as some visits with Mom. This will help foster a more honest relationship. Focus on the time you do spend with your mom and stop beating yourself up if you need to take a weekend away. If you force yourself to visit, you could be building resentment – and that doesn't make for a great visit anytime.

Seeking acceptance

The lie: Candace says she used to tell exaggerated stories about her vacations in order to have exciting news to share with friends. "I felt like if I didn't do anything important or exciting, my friends would get bored with me. Lying about what I have done or plan to do helps me feel more like part of the group."
The problem: Julie Ward, a relationship coach in Toronto, hears stories like Candace's all the time. "We have this underlying fear that if we show the truth about who we are, we won't be loved." If we get caught in our lies, our relationships are often damaged. But even if we don't get caught, Ward says we don't do ourselves any favours by stretching the truth. "When we create false stories, the lies increase our feeling of not being good enough."
A better option: Be yourself. "We can only really get closer when we connect through communication and talking through these tension-causing topics," says Ward. "Lies will kill any relationship over time."

Protecting yourself
The lie: Anne spent most of her childhood in trouble with her very strict parents. To avoid harsh punishments, she quickly learned to lie and cover up her misbehaving. That habit has carried on into her adult years. At work, when she accidentally damaged the photocopier, she snuck back to her desk without saying anything. When her boss asked what happened, she said she didn't know; she wasn't even in the photocopier room.
The problem: Many of us learned to lie because strict rules and tough punishments encouraged it. Victoria Talwar, a researcher at McGill University, compared children from two schools in West Africa. One school enforced strict rules with corporal punishments such as slapping; the other had more relaxed rules and no physical punishments. Talwar found that children from the stricter school lied more often and were better at deceiving others.
But lying to protect yourself can also lead to anxiety about getting caught, says Cameron. "When possible, the best strategy is to tell
the truth, because if you lie, you have to keep track. And if you lie a lot, you're bound to stumble over your deceptions. There are pragmatic reasons for honesty."
A better option: Brace yourself, admit what you did, then apologize. It will feel scary at first, but people will value your honesty and sincerity.

Avoiding a fight
The lie: Vicky is the spender in her marriage; her husband, Mario, is more frugal and tracks all of their bills and receipts. When she overspends on an item, she uses cash, then hides what she bought and tells Mario she took out the cash to loan to a friend.
The problem: Ward says that arguments are ultimately less damaging to the relationship than lies. "In relationships, the goal is intimacy, and that requires trust in order to be open and honest. If you feel you must lie to your partner, then either you don't trust him or you don't trust yourself. You can't have true intimacy when there are things that are hidden between you. It's like building a wall, even if the other person doesn't know you've lied."
A better option: Let your partner know that this difference in spending philosophies (or whatever issue you are fudging) is causing a problem between you, and talk it
out – with a counsellor if necessary.

Dodging questions
The lie: After not seeing anyone since her last relationship ended more than two years ago, Candace started talking to her friends about dating again. Her initial experiences didn't go well, but men quickly became the topic of conversation, and her friends would ask over and over: "Have you gone online yet?" "Have you tried a bar?" "What about this guy or that guy?" So Candace lied about being in a relationship, saying she was now involved with a man she knew. "I just needed them to leave me alone."
The problem: "We say, ‘I had to lie because they wouldn't stop talking about it.' We often believe our own lies about why we lie," says Ward. But over time this dishonesty can destroy any relationship.
A better option: Candace has missed a chance to define some boundaries in her relationships. She doesn't have to talk about her dating life if she doesn't want to, but she is avoiding saying so by telling a lie –
and blaming the lie on her friends.

The lying habit
One of the problems with lying is that it gets easier the more you do it. Dan Ariely, a professor at Duke University, calls it the "What the hell?" effect. If you've told one lie, you're inclined to feel that you might as well tell more. In one study, Ariely gave participants genuine handbags, but told half the women theirs were knockoffs. Those who thought they had the fakes told more lies than those who believed their bags were the real thing.

It's all about trust
Whatever our reasons for lying – fear of punishment, self-protection – trust is the underlying issue. There are times when you would trust someone more if you know that person would lie to protect you, says Cameron. The person you trust is the one who considers your best interest.

"Everything we communicate in words has the potential to either build trust or damage trust," says Cameron. "If we exaggerate or deny things that are true, we might lose some trust. When you become known as a liar, trust is damaged." But focusing on honesty alone isn't realistic, given the cultural and societal nuances involved. According to Cameron, "The question we should be asking is not, How can I be honest at all times, but, How can I build trust in all of my relationships? That's the focus."

*Name has been changed.

Do you think you have a problem with lying? Here are some tips on being a little more honest.

This story was originally titled "Why Women Lie" in the June 2013 issue.

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