My Boyfriend Tells Lots of White Lies. What Should I Do?  

Thank you for your wisdom on the subject of finding and keeping a man. I am one of those women who has been unknowingly making men feel bad about themselves forever. I met a great man a year ago and he treats me really well (has good character). I have realized recently that I don’t feel I can totally trust him, as he is a people pleaser.

I have realized recently that I don’t feel I can totally trust him, as he is a people pleaser.

I don’t think he’s intentionally untrustworthy or lies, but his main motivation is to keep people happy, including me. This is great on the one hand, but on the other hand, he tells small white lies, has trouble opening up and communicating his feelings, and withholds information at the risk of upsetting me. I have trust issues from past relationships and finding it hard to move emotionally forward with this guy. Can you please help?

Many thanks,
Sunny

Your letter reminds me of a predicament faced by a client named Anne in New York City. She was in her early forties, wanted to start a family, and was dating a nice middle-aged divorced man who treated her like gold. However, his ex-wife did a number on him and brought out a lot of his insecurities, which still surfaced despite his solid relationship with Anne.

I remember her asking me virtually the same question you did – and I remember being challenged by it. See, I’d like to think of lying as a purely black and white issue, since, for me, personally, it is. But it’s not my job to impose my values on everyone; rather, it’s to understand how real people actually work in real life. Case in point: a 53-year-old woman is tempted to lie about her age and make herself 49 on Match so she can be seen by more men via the dating site’s algorithm. Is she a liar? Unethical? Probably lying about something bigger? Not in my book. To me, she’s simply insecure that telling the truth will sabotage her ability to meet enough desirable men. So while I don’t encourage lying – I think it’s a corrosive slippery slope –  I try to avoid being judgmental about these type of white lies without greater context. It sounds to me, Sunny, like you do as well.

With Anne, I encouraged her to lean into the relationship even more. If her guy’s ex-wife was supremely critical and made him feel he had to lie to keep the peace, the way to get him to be more authentic was by being more supportive and accepting. Sure enough, this worked like a charm. Anne let him know he was safe, to tell the truth, and, in return, she got a more confident and honest man. They later got married and are, to the best of my knowledge, still together.

Your situation is slightly different because you added issues of opening up, communication, and past baggage on top of the little white lies. Each of those individually is a yellow flag, which, collectively, adds up to a potential red flag for your relationship.

Each of those individually is a yellow flag, which, collectively, adds up to a potential red flag for your relationship.

I suppose you can make the argument that all of these things are intertwined – most likely, they are. But then you’d have to make the argument that it’s a wise idea to build the foundation of your life on someone you don’t totally trust. Objectively, it’s not.

There are lots of good people who do bad things. You don’t have to marry them.

My recommendation is to confront him with your feelings in a tenderhearted but honest way. You’ve got a small laundry list of trust issues with him that you need to iron out in order for the relationship to continue to grow. If he wants to start now by owning up to them and making them right, you have a fighting chance to succeed. And if despite your efforts to give him the benefit of the doubt, you still don’t feel comfortable, you are well within your rights – and highly encouraged – to find a man whose character is impeccable. Life is hard enough. You can’t afford to doubt the person who is closest to you.

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Comments:

  1. 1
    Jeremy

    Is it that you don’t trust him, or is it that you aren’t attracted to him?

    Whether or not we are attracted to “people pleasers” depends on our attachment mechanism, IME. People pleasers tend to have anxious attachment mechanisms. And this can be totally repellent to people with avoidant attachment mechanisms, who view such behavior as dishonest rather than reassuring. You write that you’ve had a string of unsuccessful relationships but have recently met a man who “treats you well.” Treats you well – you didn’t write that you find him attractive, arousing, amazing, or anything like that – you wrote that he has good character and treats you well, and that’s what drew you to him. Yet you don’t like him because in spite of his treating you well, you don’t trust him. Because the fucker is so damned concerned about making everyone happy! Yet his making you happy is what drew you to him! So….what is it exactly that you want? Is it that you are anxious that he isn’t being totally honest with YOU that he wants to make you happy and you fear that a time will come when he stops, so you’re looking for reassurance of his honesty in that regard? Or is it that you think HE is anxious and his anxiety is turning you off, because he isn’t the sort of man you’re naturally drawn to? I ask again, is it that you don’t trust him, or that you’re not attracted to him?

    My step father-in-law is the biggest people-pleaser I’ve ever met. So much so, that when we first met I was sure he was hiding something. No one could be that nice, that self-effacing. Surely he must be hiding something. Who is the real man, hiding beneath? The answer, after 15 years of knowing him, is that the real man is the man who prefers to please rather than be pleased. Who would do ANYTHING for anyone he loves. What is important about him is not whether, in the moment, he’d deep-down prefer not to be doing you the favour, but rather that in spite of that preference he just does it. That’s who he is. The honesty of the forest is more important than the white lies of any given tree. And forcing him to be honest about each given tree would only stress him out, as he has an anxious attachment style and will never act like an avoidant, nor should he at this point in his life. He was lucky to find a woman who wanted exactly that sort of partner. Are YOU that sort of woman, OP?

  2. 2
    linda

    I feel like she could be talking about my boyfriend! Gosh – he is such a people pleaser and has a hard time pinpointing his feelings and then expressing them. Right now, I am in the backlash of this because he’s having second thoughts about us – 2 months after a conversation (I led) where we both agreed that we wanted to move forward and progress our relationship even deeper. It’s like it took him 2 months to finally have feelings about it. It’s incredibly frustrating. At this point, I’m not entirely sure that we will make it. My belief is that this is who he is/ how he will always act (he’s a former theater actor). He craves approval, does not want to rock the boat, and does not want to hurt anyone I also know that his ex put him through the ringer the last few years of his marriage and he harbors a lot of guilt over leaving her (they share custody of a little girl). So, while I’ve come to accept that he’s not a great communicator, what I am having a hard time with is the delay in processing emotions. Because, they always catch up to you – no matter how hard you try to run or distract!

    1. 2.1
      mikkie

      things would be fine its just a matter of time …..why come so far and give up so soon? you can make things work believe me. just make sure when things are good, you never forget your struggle.

    2. 2.2
      Clare

      linda,

      I find your comment interesting because I was having a conversation with one of my guy friends last night where we were talking about the exact thing you mention: “It’s like it took him 2 months to finally have feelings about it…. So, while I’ve come to accept that he’s not a great communicator, what I am having a hard time with is the delay in processing emotions.”

      My friend was telling me about research he has read which talks about how connections between the parts of the brain that feel and the parts of the brain that communicate are made very early on in girls. But these connections are far less developed in boys. This is why men have such a hard time talking about feelings – it’s not that they don’t want to help, it’s that they can’t. They’re simply not good at it, and it doesn’t make sense to them the same way it makes sense to us.

      My friend was saying that a man can talk about his feelings, but it generally takes him much longer to figure it all out and find the words.

      Women feel better by talking about feelings; men feel better by doing. My friend and I were talking about how men bond over shared activities and over feelings of accomplishing something.

      This conversation was very enlightening to me because it explained how I could have what I believed to be a very heartfelt conversation with a man, and yet days or weeks later, it would be as if the conversation never happened. I believe this is because the man is simply not connecting with what I’m saying the same way I am. When you wrote this in your post: “he’s having second thoughts about us – 2 months after a conversation (I led) where we both agreed that we wanted to move forward and progress our relationship even deeper” what jumped out at me was the words “I led“. Very likely you thought you were communicating at the same level, but you were actually not on the same page at all.

      Personally, I cannot imagine a conversation initiated by a woman about “progressing our relationship even deeper” which would yield the results she wanted. I would love to be proven wrong, but in my experience, men simply do not work this way.

      I don’t know anything about your relationship, so I can’t say whether this is it for you, but I am not all that surprised that it took your boyfriend two months to figure out how he felt. And I would say you need to look at his actions, and not his words, to determine whether he wants to go further with you or not.

  3. 3
    Joy

    Sunny,

    Your question reminded me of my own experience with a partner who lied. Each time he lied, I would smile. Why? Because I did not have to dig into much of their behaviors I could not settle for. In about a month and a half there were so many lies colliding everywhere. The exit was very easy. I knew that the longer I waiter, the bigger the lies mountain would grow!

  4. 4
    Mrs Happy

    I suspect that if you’re the type of person who likes blunt honesty, being told lie after lie, however small or well-intentioned, will erode the closeness you have with your boyfriend in the long term.  You’ll end up feeling detached from him, and angry that he can’t or won’t stop lying to you.

    When I ask questions it’s often because I need to act on the information so gathered.  I make decisions that way.  To be around people who repeatedly lie about minutiae really annoys me and derails my problem solving and planning.  In my opinion, if you are going to lie (and most people do), make it worth it.  Make it big, rare, and for the highest of reasons.  Lying about the little crap burns bridges for nothing.

    People-pleasers tend to be anxious, and anxious people are exhausting to be around.  If that’s not you, or not something you can tolerate, this is a big problem for any future serious long-term relationship with this man.  Also, if you marry, he’ll sometimes start sacrificing your wants, in order to please other people, because you and he will become a unit in his mind, and for him it’s okay to de-prioritise himself.

    I’d ask him to stop lying to you, and see if he can.

    1. 4.1
      Clare

      Mrs Happy,

      I don’t mean to pounce on you, but this: “anxious people are exhausting to be around” is not super helpful.

      I know it was a generalization that you were using to make a point, but as a person who struggles with anxiety sometimes, I can honestly say that no one has every described me as being exhausting to be around. That is because I take responsibility for my anxiety, and many anxious people are the same. They strive not to make their anxiety other people’s problem.

      1. 4.1.1
        Jeremy

        I think it’s about perspective.  Avoidant people really do find anxious people exhausting.  If you begin with the base assumption that “I’m independent and so should you be, I don’t need anyone and neither should you,” then people who do feel they need things from their partner become draining.  The more avoidant, the less tolerance for anxiety.  Which is why I find it so mystifying that so many anxious women are so attracted to avoidant men.  It’s like moths and flame.  I would never date an avoidant woman.  Not the sort of partner I need.  Because what I call “validational meta-goal,” Amir and Heller would call “anxious attachment.”

         

        Personally, I find women on the anxious side of secure (or the secure side of anxious) to be the best partners.  They tend to be warm and giving as opposed to cold and aloof.  Of course, step too far to the anxious side and you get all kinds of head games and tests, so everything in moderation.  My point is just to say that if you tend to the anxious side, be aware that people on the avoidant side will find you exhausting – and if you tend to the avoidant side then people on the other side will think you’re a bit of a jerk.  Rather than dating the wrong people and making up excuses as to why they will treat us badly in the future, better to just understand attachment mechanisms and the type of partner you want.

      2. 4.1.2
        Mrs Happy

        Dear Clare,

        I didn’t intend to hurt the feelings of anyone with significant anxiety and am sorry for doing so.

        My comment was intended to be helpful for people getting into a relationship with someone so anxious they behave erratically, i.e. lie about irrelevant things.  This type of anxious, insecure person can be extremely draining to couple with.  I wanted to warn the OP to evaluate carefully in this regard.  It is easy to miss how anxious a prospective partner is during courtship, and not appreciate how exhausting their constant anxiety will become.

        Some people manage their anxiety and consequent behaviours better than others.

        1. Marika

          Mrs Happy

          Like Clare, I have some anxiety issues which crop up particularly in dating (not so much at work, with friends or family). Like Clare I’m also aware of it and try to manage it in various ways and also try not to put it onto the other person.

          I’m saying that upfront as a disclaimer, I suppose, for what I’m about to say next – which is that everyone’s style of interacting has its downsides (and upsides). Yes, anxious people can be emotionally draining at times, I get that, but they are also typically very good at (and interested in) reading their partner’s emotions and needs, and will often go to great lengths to be helpful, accommodating and kind.

          More avoidant people can be calmer and less dramatic, and don’t need emotional support. But they have their (significant) downsides too – as I know well from dating them. They are hard to read and can come across and cold and uncaring – or running hot and cold. More secure people have fewer of these downsides, but are by no means perfect either.

          I think you would find an anxious person difficult to be with, from what I’ve read on here, but other people find other ways of relating more difficult.

        2. Clare

          Mrs Happy,

          I understand, and I agree with you. Like most other qualities, anxiety is on a spectrum. People with low level to moderate anxiety, or people who manage their anxiety well, can make great partners.

          But I fully appreciate what you are saying about someone whose anxiety is more uncontrolled. I myself have been in two relationships with men like this. I was initially taken by their warmth and devotion to me, and the fact that they seemed so much more emotionally available. But it wasn’t long before their insecurities started running the show, and this turned into a huge hot mess. The one relationship I was in for over a year, and it was so draining and exhausting reassuring him all the time that it took me months just to get my energy back when I broke up with him. I also found myself getting irrationally angry in that relationship because I was always on the defensive. Awful. So yes, I appreciate what you are saying.

          For me, the key pieces to look for with anxiety are degree and awareness.

        3. Clare

          Marika,

          “Yes, anxious people can be emotionally draining at times, I get that, but they are also typically very good at (and interested in) reading their partner’s emotions and needs, and will often go to great lengths to be helpful, accommodating and kind.
          More avoidant people can be calmer and less dramatic, and don’t need emotional support. But they have their (significant) downsides too – as I know well from dating them. They are hard to read and can come across and cold and uncaring – or running hot and cold. More secure people have fewer of these downsides, but are by no means perfect either.”
          Marika, I find it so interesting that you say that because today I was having an anxious spell. In actual fact it has been coming on since Monday, and today I finally felt it subsiding and coming under my control. This kind of thing happens to me every couple of months I would say, and this time, like many other times, I was able to successfully ride it out without taking it out on anyone else. Anyway, I was thinking as I was driving that, yes, I have these spells from time to time. And yes, they are challenging for me to deal with (and sometimes a little for others, although, as I said, I really try not ever to lash out or make it someone else’s problem – awareness is key). The feelings can be quite debilitating.

          However, I thought: But I am a warm person. I get along with people easily. I genuinely care about and love people with whom I form connections, and I am very empathetic to their feelings. I’m a good listener, and people like dealing with me. These are good qualities for which I am well-liked, but they don’t come without a price tag. And the price tag of warmth and caring is that situations have the power to upset and overwhelm you. When one cares deeply, getting caught up in looping thoughts can be a side effect.

          So it’s like Evan is always saying – nothing and no one is perfect. It was set up that way. Every good quality has its inevitable shadow side.

          Like you, Marika, I have dated avoidant people. And I find them impossible to be in a relationship with. I would take my anxiety over their cold disinterestedness any day of the week.

          And yes, I can attest that secure people are not without their flaws either. They are subject to the same errors of judgment as the rest of us; they just find it easier to come back to centre and tend to be more emotionally balanced.

          This post is getting long and rambling, but I will say that self-acceptance and bringing awareness to the anxious feelings and what is driving them is key for anxious people, and has been a huge part of how I have gradually been able to avoid acting out when I feel anxious. I try to have as much kindness and understanding for myself as I can muster, and I avoid people who say unhelpful things when I am feeling anxious. This is why I pounced on Mrs Happy for her comment – anxiety has never been lessened or solved by shaming it.

    2. 4.2
      jeremy

      I agree with all of your comment (from the perspective of an avoidant person/secure person on the avoidant side), except for this: “Also, if you marry, he’ll sometimes start sacrificing your wants, in order to please other people, because you and he will become a unit in his mind, and for him it’s okay to de-prioritise himself.”  This is very iffy, and depends on hedonic adaptation.  Frankly, IMO an avoidant is far more likely to do this than an anxious person – to de-prioritize his spouse because he doesn’t feel that his spouse should need to much effort.  The blunt way I see it is that the OP’s boyfriend is no more likely to de-prioritize his partner than anyone else.  But his girlfriend is rationalizing in her mind that he would – likely because she doesn’t find him/his behavior attractive and is rationalizing a way to exit without looking/feeling bad about it.

      1. 4.2.1
        Mrs Happy

        I suspect all long term spouses are guilty of sometimes de-prioritising their spouse, no matter their personality or temperament.  We all occasionally treat those closest to us the worst.

        At the moment I’m re-reading Senior’s ‘All joy and no fun, the paradox of modern parenthood’, and I just came across a researcher’s wry findings regarding experienced happiness: “Interacting with your friends is better than interacting with your spouse, which is better than interacting with other relatives, which is better than interacting with acquaintances, which is better than interacting with parents, which is better than interacting with (your own) children.  Who are on par with strangers.”

    3. 4.3
      Bunny

      I suspect that if you’re the type of person who likes blunt honesty, being told lie after lie, however small or well-intentioned, will erode the closeness you have with your boyfriend in the long term.

      This, exactly.

      I come from a very honest family and I’ve seen other parents come unglued when talking to my kids honestly.  My son’s scout master (a practicing psychologist) has even had to intervene at times because other people just couldn’t handle the honesty.  For us, saying, “That was the slowest mile you’ve ever swam,” is no different than saying “I’m hot, tired, and cranky.”  There’s no malice in the statements, they’re just facts.

      When you come from a family of origin that puts a high premium on honest, dating can be a nightmare.  You end up thinking, “Why couldn’t you just tell me you were hungry?” or “Why couldn’t you just tell me you didn’t want to attend the __________ (fill in the blank) rather than lie?  I didn’t buy tickets so you could stay home and pretend to be sick/pretend you have to work late/whatever.  If you would’ve just said no at the onset I could have saved myself some cash/went with a friend/took the kids/whatever.”

      I don’t think I’ll ever understand the incessant need to lie that some people seem to possess.

      1. 4.3.1
        sylvana

        This!

        Life would be so much easier if people were just honest. You don’t have to be rude about it, but expecting people to be mind-readers is ridiculous. In the end, all the lies and dishonesty will just erode the relationship (any type of relationship).

  5. 5
    Marika

    Clare

    Completely agree. I’m sorry you had a bout of anxiety and I hope it has now passed. As you said, if you’re self-aware and don’t burden other people unnecessarily, anxiety is very manageable. And shaming definitely doesn’t help. In fact, it has the opposite effect.

    If I’m willing to deal with a person’s flaws in dating (we all have them), I think it’s reasonable to expect the other person to deal with mine. I’ve felt guilty about that in the past, but Evan’s work (particularly the post where he talks about the woman who dumped him not being a good girlfriend) has really helped me with that.

    It’s not a case of ‘anxious people are hard to deal with’ – it’s a case of we all have our own strengths and weaknesses which we need to both manage in ourselves, and not judge in others.

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