By Amy Alkon
Q: I’m a 44-year-old woman who’s been dating a successful actor for a year. When we met, he told me he was 35. Well, in picking up a prescription for him, I discovered he’s actually 42! I’m relieved—but miffed that he lied. I’ve felt uneasy about being so much older (especially because his previous girlfriend was 24). He said he’d been meaning to say something and he was glad I found out. He explained that as an actor, it’s important to be viewed as young. (His agent doesn’t even know his real age.) He seems to be a good person, but I’m wondering what else he’s lied about. I don’t lie, and I don’t want to be with someone who is a liar.—Worried
A: Welcome to Moral High Ground, population: You. Wow, so that’s your real weight on your driver’s license?
The truth is, we all lie—yes, all of us—which is why social psychologist Bella DePaulo explains in her research on lying that people can’t be tossed into “one of two moral bins, one for people who are honest and the other for the liars.” DePaulo explains that you are lying whenever “you intentionally try to mislead someone.” This includes telling your friend, “I completely forgot you were performing at the coffeehouse!” or assuring her that her new haircut looks “cool and edgy,” and not like a small animal that got hit by a car.
However, there are different kinds of lies, and the kind your boyfriend told is an “instrumental lie”—a strategic lie people use to take a shortcut to something they want. This kind of lie is common to Machiavellian personalities—schemers who manipulate other people to get their way. It’s also linked to having crappy relationships, since you can’t very well be close to somebody who’s frequently pretending to be somebody else.
Ruh-roh, huh? Maybe not. Context matters—including why he lied, why he didn’t tell you and whether his lie has lots of brothers and sisters to keep it company. If he doesn’t seem to be a big truth shaver, consider that this age fibbie may be a necessary evil—a “cost of doing business” lie. (In poetry, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” In Hollywood, truth is unemployment.)
Why didn’t he tell you? Maybe because he didn’t tell you, and then he still hadn’t told you and then it seemed he was way late in telling you. If you don’t see a pattern of lying, maybe this is a sign, not that he’s a terrible person but that he dreaded disappointing you. You and he could even turn this incident into a positive thing—an opportunity to come up with a policy for honesty in your relationship. What’s especially important is making it a safe place for telling the truth—pledging to sit down and talk stuff out instead of going all explodypants over it. This includes shocking Hollywood revelations like his current one, which—frankly—is too ho-hum to even make the wastebasket at TMZ. You’ve merely discovered that the guy’s another age, not that there’s another woman—the one he’s always dreamed of being.
Q: I’m a man who respects science and tries to live rationally, and I’m dating this truly great woman who, unfortunately, is into astrology, energy healing, past lives and other ridiculousness. I try to be open-minded, and I’ve been telling myself, “Hey, people can be different and still be together.” However, she recently told me she’d seen a giant space worm out of the corner of her eye. It was 4 feet tall. Come on.—Reasonoid
A: Yes, “people can be different and still be together.” In one case, headphones made this possible—for a sweet guy who cheers up by listening to death metal but fell in love with a woman whose favorite music video scene has the von Trapp children skipping around the Swiss Alps in drapes.
Unfortunately, there’s no nifty audio technology to block out the lack of respect you feel for your girlfriend when you hear about her getting pony rides from a space slug or refusing to eat chicken when the moon’s in Aquarius. A lack of respect for your partner’s beliefs (as opposed to finding them merely odd or infuriating) is the starting line for contempt—the amped-up form of disgust—which marriage researcher John Gottman finds is the single best predictor that a relationship will tank.
So, in vetting partners, yes, it’s good to keep an open mind. However, as the saying goes, just “not so open that your brains fall out”—and you come to hear, “Hey, honey, the kids and I will be home a little late. They’re running an hour and two ritual slaughters behind at the primary care shaman.”