Deception in Romantic Relationships: A Review of the Literature

Valerie Stinson

November 30, 2005




Introduction

Deception is overwhelmingly common.  In its most minor, inconsequential form, deception is an everyday part of social life.  For example answering “very well, thank you” to the question “how are you?” when one is in a foul mood or not feeling too well is deception, though relatively unserious.  A very broad definition of deception might even consider wearing makeup to be deception.  Then at the other end of the spectrum, outright falsifications have the power to be exceedingly important and can result in very serious consequences.  When serious deception is discovered, not only are there often severe social consequences such as termination of friendships or romantic involvements, but there can be monetary and even legal consequences, for example if a person was caught lying on a tax return.  The consequences of deception can range from trivial to life changing, for both the deceiver and the deceived. 

As suggested above, deception can take many forms.  The most common and least offensive is the white lie – a small lie relating to an unimportant matter to be polite.  Omission involves intentional failure to disclose significant information.  Blatant lying, or falsification, is deliberate communication of information that is known by the deceiver to be untrue.  Distortion bends the truth, either exaggerating or minimizing facts to mislead the target of the deception.

As children, most people are taught that lying is wrong.  However, in the context of close relationships, and in particular, within romantic relationships when honesty is often considered to be the foundation of mutual trust and satisfaction, the use of deception is remarkably common.  In fact, 92% of people can remember lying to their significant other (Cole, 2001).  But why would people knowingly engage in a behaviour that is considered morally wrong, and so socially undesirable, especially when the consequences can be so serious?  In my opinion, most forms of deception are hurtful, and therefore deceiving another could be considered an aggressive act.  I wish to understand how individuals justify their deceptive behaviour toward those they are supposed to care about the most.  The aim of this paper is to investigate the use of deception in close relationships, the consequences of deception in romantic relationships, the reasons behind it, and how deception is discovered.

 

Deception in different types of relationships:

Metts (1989) did a study to investigate deception within close relationships.  There were two main purposes to the research.  Previous research suggests that individuals in developing relationships, when there is an attempt to learn more about each other (high information seeking), falsification (outright dishonesty) and distortion (“bending” of the truth) are more common than in established relationships when information seeking is less common or in friendships when the demand for intimacy isn’t as strong, and in those types of relationships omission (intentional failure to disclose all pertinent information) would be the more common type of deception.  To investigate the extent to which the type of deception is related to the type of relationship was the first purpose of the study.  The second purpose of the study was to determine what reasons for deception are common in close relationships, and to see if any reasons characterize specific types of relationships.

            To answer these questions, the results of 357 questionnaires completed by American university students were coded and analysed. The study found that falsification was the most common type of deception in close relationships, and the most frequent reason for deception was avoiding hurt to the partner.  Within married couples, they found proportionately more occurrences of omission and less instances of falsification than compared to other types of relationships.  In terms of the reasons for deception, dating couples reported more reasons aimed at protecting their resources, avoiding stress or abuse from their partner, and avoiding damage to or termination of the relationship.  Married couples on the other hand, were more likely to deceive their partner in order to protect the partner’s face/self-esteem.  Finally, the study found that partner-focussed reasons (protecting the partner from pain, as opposed to protecting the relationship) were related to high levels of relational satisfaction, closeness and perceived partner commitment.

One criticism of this study involves the method used to elicit information about the participant’s own deception.  The use of the word “lying” may have led to an overestimation of cases of blatant lies (falsifications), as omissions and distortions may not be as closely connected to the meaning of the word lie as falsifications are (Coleman & Kay, 1981, as cited in Peterson, 1996).  Also, as is common in psychology research, the study was based on a sample consisting of university students and a few other adults, and this brings into question the relevance of the study… Do the results apply to all communities, or are they specific to the university world? 

Further research could investigate the point at which dating couples begin to use less falsification and become more concerned about the partner’s face rather than protecting resources.  It would also be interesting if the study had included an investigation of deception before couples were actually dating (courtship phase), however realistically, this would probably be impossible in terms of recruiting participants. Overall, however, this study provided insights into the use of deception in romantic relationships at a time when the focus of research on close relationships was based on openness and self-disclosure, and research on deception focussed on children and dishonesty between strangers (Peterson 1996).

 

Types of deception and relational satisfaction:

We now know the types of deception that are common in various stages of relationship development, but how do different types of deception relate to relational satisfaction and commitment? 

Peterson (1996) elaborated the research of deception in intimate relationships by investigating the frequency of use of 6 categories of deception (blatant lying, distortion, omission, half-truths, attempted deception and white lying), exploring the relationship between frequency of the 6 lie types by each partner and the level of relational satisfaction.  Peterson also investigated how adults morally evaluate the 6 types of deception by intimate partners, whether any relationship existed between relational satisfaction and the use of deception to avoid conflict, and if so, if it is a better predictor of relational satisfaction than frequency of deception alone.

The study analysed the results of questionnaires completed by 80 Australian university students.  Peterson found that each type of deception, excluding white lies, was considered morally reprehensible in terms of blame, guilt and dishonesty.  Of the 6 types of deception, white lies were used most frequently and blatant lies least frequently.  Relationship satisfaction decreased with frequent use of deception, by either partner, excluding white lies. It was also found that couples who believed lying was preferable to arguing lied more frequently, using deception as a form of conflict avoidance.  A very interesting, though indirect, finding of this research is that individuals in intimate relationships are more likely to excuse their own unsuccessful attempts to lie than their partner’s.  They consider their own attempts at deception to be less blameworthy and morally reprehensible than their partner’s, and this is a clear double standard.

The most useful finding of this study however is that couples who were the most satisfied with their relationships were the least likely to behave deceptively, and perceived their partner as being honest as well.  This suggests that open and honest communication is very important in healthy, satisfying intimate relationships.

The results of this study provide some fascinating elaborations of previous research, in particular the relationship between relational satisfaction and frequency of deception as well as use of deception as conflict avoidance and relational satisfaction, which, as suggested by the author, could be useful in marriage counselling settings.  Also of potential practical applicability in counselling settings is the effect of the partner’s perceived deception and relationship quality. 

However, further research on these topics is necessary.  In particular, the results of the study should be investigated within more representative populations. As with all research done within university populations, the results may not be relevant in a more diverse, representative population.  Furthermore, research that investigates anything to do with relationships in questionable when the sample consists of university students, because at university age the respondents have relatively little experience in romantic relationships and their use of and ability to detect deception, as well as the consequences to the relationship, may be subject to change as they mature and gain more experience.

 

Are deceivers as successful as they consider themselves to be?

The research examined up until this point helps to understand the types of deception used in romantic relationships, and the use of lying and how it relates to relational satisfaction, it brings up the question of how often deception is detected and how often it is successful, and also what other factors besides the stage in the development of the relationship might be involved in the type and frequency of deception.

Boon and McLeod (2001) investigated individuals’ perceptions of their deceptive ability and their attitudes toward deception.  In their investigation, four questions were addressed.  First, they looked at the extent to which romantic partners think they and their partner are successful at deceiving each other.  Secondly, they investigated whether or not individuals have favourable attitudes toward deception in romantic relationships, and if their attitudes depend on the context of deception.  Third, the examined whether or not individual’s beliefs about their own and their partner’s ability to deceive successfully and their attitudes about deception in close relationships predicted the type of deception strategies they employ.  Finally, the researchers investigated if an individual’s beliefs about their ability to deceive and their attitudes toward deception predicted their responses to suspected deception.

            To conduct the study, 107 undergraduate students at an American university who were currently involved in a heterosexual relationship or had been in the past completed a questionnaire.  The results showed that people believe that they are successful when they deceive their partners and that they are better deceivers than their partners.  They also found that attitudes about deception are quite variable, but the majority of respondents had a conditional view of the acceptability of deception in romantic relationships.  Individuals who had a strong belief about the importance of complete honesty in close relationships were less likely to use falsification, and were more likely to use jokes or sarcasm to deceive their partners.  However, their attitudes about deception and their beliefs about their own or their partners’ success at deception did not influence their use of omission, distortion or non-verbal deception.  Finally, the results found that the strength of the participant's belief that honesty is important was related to the likelihood that they would accuse their partner of lying and attempt to confirm their suspicions, and their attitudes about their own ability to lie influenced their reactions to their partner’s suspicions.

            I think the results of this study, while not overly surprising, are important for 2 reasons.  First of all, the finding that people believe themselves to be more successful at deceiving their partner than their partner is at deceiving them has been obtained.  In contrast to other studies where this finding was obtained, Boon and McLeod offer some possible reasons why this is.  This provides some material for further research, and indirectly suggests a direction in which to move in terms of detection of deception.  Secondly, this study incorporated the participant’s beliefs about the importance of honesty and their own ability to deceive.  Although the authors didn’t specifically comment on it, this also provides a direction for further research.  This study found that the individuals who have strong beliefs that honesty is important are less likely to use falsification, however, are their perceptions of their partner’s use of deception accurate or do they overestimate their partner’s honesty?

            Despite these positive points regarding this study, there is, as always, the caution that university students may not be representative of the entire population and so research conducted within a university student sample cannot be carelessly generalized to the public.  I also feel that the study would have been more interesting if it had taken gender as an independent variable.  Gender role stereotypes might influence the participant’s beliefs regarding the value of honesty, their beliefs concerning their own deception ability, and their perceived ability to detect deception.   

 

Detection of deception in close relationships:

            When people are being deceptive, they make a conscious effort to conceal their dishonesty and appear as if they are telling the truth.  For this reason, detecting deception can be difficult. 

            In Fatt’s (1998) paper, he details the ways in which deception can be detected, what cues are associated with deception, and differences in people’s beliefs about their own and other’s deception.  He also discusses what kinds of people are better at lying than others, what factors influence the success of a lie.

            To summarise the conclusions of the article, the face is essentially useless in detection of deception because it is very easy to control, however the body and vocal cues such as tone, pitch, speech rate, etc., are not as easily controllable and are therefore much more likely to leak cues of deception.  Individuals who believe that lying is a necessary evil and a part of life (high Machiavellian individuals) are more credible liars when motivated than individuals who think deception is inexcusable (low Machiavellian individuals).  Shorter, prepared lies are less prone to detection than long, elaborate or spontaneous lies, although too much preparedness can negatively affect credibility and give the impression of being rehearsed.  Women are considered to be superior to men in the ability to associate changes in body movements and speech rate with deception, and consistent with other research, most individuals consider themselves to be better at controlling their deceptive behaviour than other people.  Finally, men and women may differ in terms of changes in body movements when lying.  For example, women may increase leg and arm movement, while men may decrease such movements when being deceptive. Speaker dominance also influences what changes occur in deception.

While Fatt’s paper is interesting, it is very brief and does not provide a lot of detail about any one aspect of deception.  It is not a research paper, nor is a review of the literature.  It is really no more than a brief summary of wide range of topics relating to detection of deception. 

            I found that the paper did not offer any new insights into the field, or suggest any future research.  While the title of the article suggests that it is focussed on gender differences in detection of deception, the section that discusses gender differences in deception is relatively small and not very informative.  Furthermore, it describes more the differences in cues of deception that differ between men and women (or even less specifically, low-dominant and high-dominant speakers), but does not really describe the differences in the ability to detect deception between the sexes. 

            Fatt (1998) concludes his article by stating that further research on the non-verbal aspects of deception is crucial in today’s world, however no suggestion as to what should be studied, or what direction should be taken is offered. 

            The detection of deception is only the first part of what could potentially be a serious incident in the relationship.  The reasons for the deception and the seriousness of the deception could lead to very serious relational discord.  With that in mind, research based on relational outcomes following discovery of deception will be investigated.

 

Motivation for lying and relational outcomes following deception:

            Cole (2001) conducted a study to investigate the reasons people use deception in romantic relationships, the consequences for the relationship following deception.  Three possible motivations for deception were considered:  reciprocity, conflict avoidance and intimacy needs.  Since relationships are generally highly reciprocal in many domains, including information sharing, the researchers propose that individuals will behave deceptively when they believe their partner is being deceptive, or put another way, when an individual believes a valuable resource (information) is being withheld, they will reciprocate.  They also proposed that deception might be motivated by a fear of partner disapproval; to avoid conflict, individuals might use deception.  Finally, they proposed that individuals who fear intimacy or abandonment might deceive their partner to control intimacy either positively or negatively.

            The study analyzed the results of questionnaires completed by 128 heterosexual couples at an American university.  They found that each of the three proposed motivations for deception were supported.  Perceptions of partner dishonesty were correlated with lower levels of relational satisfaction and commitment, and deception was used as retaliation.  Similarly, deception (by the participant) was related to lower levels of intimacy and closeness, and deception was found to be motivated by avoidance of punishment.  Individuals who were more uncomfortable with intimacy were found to be more likely to use deception, supporting the hypothesis that deception is used to control relational intimacy, and individuals who feared abandonment were also found to be more likely to use deception.

            Cole’s study offered evidence of two important notions: deception is often a sign of relationship problems, and the best relational outcomes occur in situations when partners do not deceive each other and trust that each other are honest. 

            The advantage of this research is that both partners in the couple were interviewed.  Therefore, the results of each participant could be compared with the results and beliefs of their partner, and this way the researchers were able to distinguish between the perceived dishonesty and actual dishonesty in each pair.  Few studies of deception are able to compare the actions of one partner to the reactions of the other in this way.  Interesting relationships were uncovered in this way, for example, it was once again found that generally, individuals assume that their partner is more honest than themselves. 

            Unfortunately, due to the restrictions of the recruitment process used (couples that had been dating at least 4 months), nothing was learned about the use of deception and the motivations behind it in the beginning stages of the relationship.  Also, since all the couples recruited were currently in relationships, none of the sample involved couples who had separated from each other as a result of deception. Another criticism of the study is that once again, the sample consisted of university students.  Similar research should be conducted in varying settings, and include relationships in all stages, and people with varying levels of relational experience.  Also, it would be of interest to investigate the use of deception in other kinds of romantic relationships, such as homosexual relationships or those that take place over the internet.  Finally, research comparing the uses and motivations behind deception in long distance romantic relationships might be worth investigating.

 

Consequences of deception in romantic relationships: Attachment styles

In terms Jang, Smith, & Levine (2002) conducted a study to investigate the relationship between attachment styles and relational outcomes following deception.  Two important questions were considered.  First, is the deceived partner’s communication pattern following the discovery of deception related to his or her attachment style?  And secondly, is the deceived partner’s decision in terms of relation continuation or termination related to their attachment style?

Based on the three types of infant attachment styles proposed by Bowlby (1979, as cited in Jang, Smith & Levine 2002), the three adult attachment styles considered in Jang, Smith & Levine’s study are secure, anxious/ambivalent, and avoidant.  Individuals with a secure attachment style are trusting and forgiving, and tend to expect positive outcomes from relationships.  Individuals with anxious/ambivalent attachment styles, on the other hand, are highly aware of negative affect towards their relational partner, and tend to avoid discussing upsetting issues out of fear of jeopardizing the relationship.  Finally, individuals with avoidant attachment styles have a tendency to protect themselves by repressing negative affect and avoiding their partners when distressed. 

The study analyzed the results of questionnaires completed by 213 undergraduate university students.  The researchers discovered that individuals with a secure attachment style were more likely to talk to their partner directly about the deception.  By discussing the event, they were unlikely to terminate the relationship and generally had positive relational outcomes.  Individuals who displayed an anxious/ambivalent attachment style had a tendency to avoid discussing the deception directly, but did continue to communicate with their partner about other things.  Individuals with avoidant attachment styles tended to avoid their partner altogether following the deception incident, and were also the most likely to terminate the relationship.  However, other factors were found to influence the decision to terminate the relationship.  The best predictor of termination was found to be the importance of the information.  However, avoiding the partner and not communicating was also a significant predictor of relationship termination.

This study provides some interesting insights into the consequences of deception in romantic relationships, and their results could prove to be helpful in counselling settings.  Of course, further research is required to investigate the findings in larger populations, outside of the university community.  The researchers do not overestimate the value of their findings, however, and they themselves outline the following three limitations of the research.  First, the study focussed on the attachment and communication styles of the partner who was deceived, and therefore the influence of the other partner’s communication and attachment styles were not included in the investigation although they are likely to play an important role in relational outcomes.  Secondly, the research was based on retrospective accounts, and in light of the emotional subject matter of the study, the accounts can not be relied upon as being complete or entirely accurate in all cases.  Thirdly, the study was based on only one conceptualization of attachment styles, although there are others with somewhat different categories of attachments (Jang, Smith & Levine, 2002).

In my own opinion, I think the study would have benefited if the researchers had also investigated the type of deception involved, and how the deception was discovered.  I believe both these factors would influence the relational outcomes.  It would also be interesting to see if the relational outcome differed depending on the length of the relationship prior to the deception, since commitment would likely be higher in more established relationships.  Finally, investigation of the results in terms of gender might be a good starting point for future research.  Attachment styles and the relational outcomes related to them might be partially dependent on the gender of the participants. 

 

Gender differences in reactions to partner deception: An evolutionary perspective

Not only might gender influence the relational outcome following deception, but there are sex differences in what types of deception are considered more upsetting. 

In a study that considers this gender variation, Haselton, Buss, Oubaid, & Angleitner (2005) conducted 3 studies to investigate the Strategic Interference Theory.  The theory in based on evolutionary psychology, and suggests that certain negative emotions were evolved to defend people from deception and reduce its consequences. The researchers investigated the differences between the upset caused by various deception situations in men and women.  They found that, as they predicted, women were more upset than men by deception involving exaggerated ambition, exaggerated status, resource deception, pre-sex and post-sex commitment deception, and exaggerated kindness.  Men on the other hand were found to be more upset than women when the deception involved sexual access, exaggerated sexual desirability and concealed sexual infidelity, and concealed sexual fantasies involving other men.  There was no significant difference between men and women’s upset when the deception involved concealed emotional infidelity, age deception, hiding emotions, exaggerated sexual enjoyment or concealed previous involvement.  Both sexes rated concealed sexual infidelity among the most distressing forms of deception.

            The results of the study are intriguing.  The differences in upset between the sexes in relation to the various forms of deception provide strong support for the strategic interference theory.  As predicted, women are more upset than men when the deception involves resources, commitment, since these are important to women’s sexual and reproductive success in evolutionary terms (women desire long term commitment and resources from men to aid in child rearing).  Men are upset more than women by deception involving real or imagined sexual infidelity, which is theoretically important to men’s sexual and reproductive success in evolutionary terms (men are uncertain about paternity of their children and fear sexual infidelity).  Many of the other studies involving deception in romantic relationships ignore differences between the sexes in their reactions to deception, and the beauty of this study is that it not only recognizes that differences exist, but it defines where the differences lie, provides a theoretical perspective to organize and understand the differences and also finds situations where there is not too much difference between the genders.  Research should follow to expand on the findings, determine if the results are found in varying cultures and age groups, and if the differences exist even in established long term relationships.  I am curious whether or not the results are actually the result of evolutionary adaptations, or if gender role stereotypes might be involved in the differences found. Research attempting to distinguish the actual source of the differences would be of interest. 

 

Conclusion

            Deception in romantic relationships is a common occurrence, and the dissolution of many relationships is the direct result of some type of deception.  The types of deception common in romantic relationships vary based on the influence of many factors, as does the motivation for the deception, the manner of detection, and the relational outcomes. There is no simple paradigm for deception in close relationships, in each case it is different and the consequences cannot be accurately predicted, though they are often severe and life altering. 

            However, it is clear that people continue to engage in deception, even knowing the potential consequences.  Humans are imperfect, and everyone lies to some degree in certain situations.  Deception is an unavoidable part of social interaction, and a great amount of energy is invested in discovering the truth.  This is evident not only in the amount of time individuals personally invest in trying to detect deception, but in other aspects of life.  Police and other intelligence agencies have developed a wide range of technologies designed to detect dishonesty, and what are criminal court trials if not impressive attempts to discover who is being honest?        

            Obviously, there is a great deal left to be learned about deception, particularly within the context of romantic relationships.  The topic should continue to be researched in psychology because of its importance in our daily lives and the power it has to provoke great changes in people’s lives.

 

 

 

References

 

 

Boon, S.D., & McLeod, B.A. (2001).  Deception in romantic relationships: Subjective estimates of success at deceiving and attitudes toward deception.  Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 18, 463-476.

 

Cole, T.  (2001). Lying to the one you love: The use of deception in romantic relationships.  Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 18, 107-129.

 

Fatt, J.P.T. (1998).  Detecting deception through non-verbal cues: Gender differences.  Equal Opportunities International, 17, 1-9.

 

Haselton, M.G., Buss, D.M., Oubaid, V., & Angleitner, A. (2005). Sex, lies, and strategic interference: The psychology of deception between the sexes.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 3-23.

 

Jang, S.A., Smith, S.W., & Levine, T.R. (2002).  To stay or to leave? The role of attachment styles in communication patterns and potential termination of romantic relationships following discovery of deception.  Communication Monographs, 69, 236-252.

 

Metts, S. (1989). An exploratory investigation of deception in close relationships.

Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 6, 159-179.

 

Peterson, C. (1996). Deception in intimate relationships. International Journal of Psychology, 31, 279-288.