How to lie to your wife (without getting your bunny boiled)

Honesty - without it, what have you got? Perhaps a relationship that can really work, says Tim Lott

There is a moment in my novel White City Blue when the female protagonist, Veronica Tree, is asked by a friend what she thinks is the most important thing in a relationship. She immediately replies that it is honesty, since without this nothing else can work.

Like the spiteful god that an author always is, I have arranged for Veronica, within minutes of uttering this, both to meet and fall in love with a man who is so committed to lying both in principle and practice that he not only pursues a successful career in estate agency, but also has borne since childhood the nickname Frankie the Fib. Thereafter the destiny of their relationship hinges on the resolution of the following conundrum: when, if ever, is it right to lie to someone you love?

I suspect that Veronica's view that honesty is the key to a successful relationship is one shared by many of her gender. And although I hope that few men are as prolific with the porkies as my Frankie, I also suspect that the collective male view of honesty within a relationship is, to say the least, more negotiable. Which is not to say that men are liars and women are truthful. Far from it.

Women pay more lip service to honesty - while finding far more subtle ways of circumnavigating it. It's simply that each camp tends to take a different official view about what makes a relationship successful. Veronica's conviction about the importance of honesty is as much a ritual proclamation as a thought-out conclusion based on the facts. On some level, she understands that too much honesty, like too much falsehood, can be poison. But it takes Frankie and his easy, guiltless forays into serial mendacity to make this understanding explicit to her. For the point about honesty and dishonesty is not to abolish one or the other, but to achieve an elegant and workable balance between the two without the corrosion of guilt or self-hatred.

Now if you are of a puritan sensibility, or a politician, you might declaim the amorality of this statement and insist that truth is sacred, in a relationship as in every other sphere of life. And you would in a sense be right, but - particularly if you were a politician - the thing you might fail to understand is that it is telling the truth to yourself that should be sacred; misleading other people can frequently be both practical and moral.

I would assert that that there is only one possible answer to "does my bum look big in this?" and that it might well be different from the answer that is formally correct. Likewise, "who's the sexiest person you've ever been to bed with?". Similarly, most men would prefer something considerably more diluted than the purest honesty in response to a heartfelt enquiry to their partner about the sufficiency of the dimensions of their wedding tackle.

So far so obvious. Everyone knows about little white lies. It is nevertheless worth pointing out that they are not occasional eruptions on a pure landscape of truth, but part of the daily business of living - not only in one's romantic attachments but in every other kind of relationship.

To move on one step, however, to murkier ground. Frankie would undoubtedly suggest that the problem with the principle of truth-telling is that it posits a rational listener. And, he might add, while it may be true to say that women are as rational as men, that is not saying very much.

Let's say, for example, that you have an attractive friend of the opposite sex whom you have known, purely platonically, for 20 years. She is currently single. You meet up now and then. Your partner feels uncomfortable about you going out on your own with someone single and gorgeous. Let us assume that this partner is prepared to admit neither her jealousy, nor the lack of faith in you that it implies. They accept the morality of your position in wanting to see your friend - but only rationally and publicly.

Irrationally, and privately, there is a different solution scenario: covert punishment. Long silences. Awkward atmospheres. No amount of pleading for a direct confrontation of the question leads to an honest conversation about it. What should you do? Abandon your friend of 20 years' standing just because your partner is paranoid? Endure the constant guerrilla warfare? Or would you just not mention anymore when you met the friend?

There is one important caveat: you can't get caught. Because lies are like sub-atomic particles - their nature is transformed when they are observed. The moment the lie becomes exposed, trust takes a tumble. But if you never get caught, all your problems are solved. So is it right or is it wrong? Frankie would say it depends on whether you get caught or not. It's right only if you don't. And so long as you don't sleep with the attractive friend, of course.

When else is lying justified? There is the famous scenario where one of you goes away - say on a business trip. One night, you meet a local of the opposite sex. Overcome by drink, you have, for the first and only time during your long and faithful relationship, a one-night stand. The next day, with no chance of ever seeing the subject of your tryst again, you fly back home to a relationship you value and treasure. But a moment of all too human weakness, if revealed, will threaten it with oblivion. You are consumed with guilt. What do you do?

Well, I imagine Frankie would say that it was an act of consummate irresponsibility to be honest and to unload your guilt. You messed up, and you will have to bear the burden of your unfaithfulness alone. To hurt your partner so that you can feel better about yourself through a search for their forgiveness is something he would find ludicrous.

You may be beginning to suspect that I am hiding my own sentiments behind the smoke screen of one of my characters. And I have absolutely no comment to make to that. Because the important thing - Frankie would say - is that while you're lying, you must keep the illusion of truth intact. If you're not a good liar, don't lie at all. And in the event of any future partner of mine reading this article, I want to make it clear that it is not a manifesto. I haven't got Frankie's talent for it.

Which may or may not be a shame. Because every relationship has to believe that it is truthful, while simultaneously acknowledging on another level that it cannot be so. It is a trick with mirrors. You cannot have perfect honesty, because it is selfish and it does not take into account human weakness. But you must have trust, because without it a relationship loses its most essential glue. It's just one of those paradoxes.

To speak personally - at last - I believe very strongly in honesty in a relationship while never quite hitherto succeeding in achieving it. I certainly know that my attempts to be honest have sometimes cost me dearly. Being honest means allowing yourself to be vulnerable. If you show your cards and your partner is participating in a different game, then you can be played for a sucker, which is why we all begin lying in the first place.

Perhaps it all starts in the playground when you reveal something intimate to your best friend, who at that age acts as a proto-partner. I remember times in my childhood when I would reveal something painful to someone I considered my close confidant, only to find it later the subject of derision all over the school.

Being honest gives people power over you; the same principle applies in marriage. Until you can overcome that childhood fear of betrayal, then you will never be honest in an adult relationship. Thus it is that lying isn't usually a failure of morality. It's almost always a failure of courage.

Tim Lott. 'White City Blue' is published by Viking, price pounds 9.99.

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