Reader W.J. asked:

Last week my boyfriend changed the password on his phone, but told me he didn’t. Why would he lie to me about something stupid, and then stick to his guns, even though he’d been caught in the lie?

Dear W.J.:

talkin' talkin' talkin

What's he really saying? Image: djcodrin / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I have to start by saying that this isn’t just a problem with guys. Ladies lie, too. But there’s been a rash of my girlfriends telling me their boyfriends have been lying, and it’s an interesting question to delve into, so I thought I’d use my degree in linguistics and give you a few ideas you may not have considered before.

Lying is a personal choice, and it would be a lie to say one never engaged in it personally. White lies, big lies, cheating lies, fibs… everyone who has ever lied has had a personal reason for doing so. There are even honorable reasons for lying, like not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings. Sometimes you don’t even know the reason you’re lying, which is what I think is going on with your bf, and what I want to explore in this post.

The issue with guys lying in particular can have several psycho-cultural explanations. While some of those lying, cheating boyfriends I mentioned earlier can be chalked up to sheer narcissism (there is absolutely no other explanation for the guy caught cheating red-handed on Valentine’s Day and still denying it happened), there may be something more subtle, and much less sinister, at work.

Whatever reasons your bf lied are completely his own, and pretending I know what they are does both of you a disservice. But it’s a blog, and I’m not his therapist or yours, so what’s the harm?

There’s a linguistic theory about the role of hierarchy in male communication. Please note that it doesn’t hold true for every case, for every man, but as a generalization it can be useful to consider. Whereas women are often raised to use talking and chit chat as a tool for reinforcing community and agreement, men are often raised to use talk to communicate hierarchy. (I won’t even get into the nature vs. nurture debate in this situation.) Boys employ playful jabs much more often than girls do — watch a group of children on the playground and see how much more often the girls are concerned with sharing and inclusion than the boys are. Girls use “we” and try to include others to establish and maintain community; boys use jokes and put downs to establish dominance.

What often happens later in life as men and women try to live together is that women continue to use language as a communal tool and men continue to use language as a way to establish hierarchy. What’s going on in a conversation between a man and a woman may in actuality be completely different from what they intend, and neither party may be aware of what’s going on.

Let’s say Joe and Lucy have been dating and living together for several years. They’re comfortable with each other, but things haven’t necessarily been totally smooth lately. Lucy wants Joe to spend more time with her and less time with his buddies playing video games. She also wants him to quit drinking so much and go to the gym with her, too.

Lucy thinks she’s asking Joe to do something for the two of them — the team or community. She thinks that spending time together is a great idea, and going to the gym together will be good for their sex life, too.

Joe probably thinks spending time together is a great idea, too. And what man doesn’t want a better sex life? However, what Joe may be hearing is that Lucy is trying to be the top dog in the situation. By instructing him to change things in his life that aren’t really problematic, she’s trying to prove her rank in the hierarchy, and to prove that this rank is above Joe’s. She’s not making suggestions to improve their life together — she’s trying to take control.

Instead of doing what Lucy asks, Joe gets a bit more distant or starts to ignore her. Lucy, not seeing a problem with her communication style, just asks him again. This is where the wife-as-nag comes from. “Why don’t you take out the trash?” “Why don’t you fix the gutters?” “Why don’t you go to the gym with me?” Joe may not even be able to put into words why he doesn’t want to do any of these things, but both he and Lucy are aware now that he really doesn’t.

Notice that both parties are equally innocent and guilty in this scenario. Neither is willing to change how he or she hears or says things to communicate better with the other party. Of course, neither realizes that there’s anything wrong with their own communication style to begin with.

Why is this interesting in the case of your boyfriend and lying? If he feels that you’ve been trying to “run his life” lately (telling him to come home earlier from work; telling him to spend more time with you and less time with his friends), he may be expressing his frustration at being “put down” by creating an alternate truth that he can control and sticking to it. He probably couldn’t explain it to you, either; he just knows something doesn’t feel right. Maybe you mean well, but you’re hurting his feelings by asking him to change things.

This may not excuse a lie, but I have a feeling this lie is a lot more benign than some. If he feels like you’ve had too much control over his life lately, this may simply be a way of him trying to regain that control. Certainly changing the password on his phone points to that — you’re in his business too much, and he needs to reassert his independence.

If you’ve been talking a lot lately about “important relationship decisions”, take a step back and re-evaluate how you’re communicating with your boyfriend. Remember that he may not see your style of communication as “inclusive” and “non-threatening”. Try to imagine what it’s like to have someone telling you what to do, and how you’d feel about that.

At the same time, let your boyfriend know that you’re trying to understand his point of view, and that he may be listening to your voice with a different ear than you thought he was. Reframe how you’re thinking about things and see if you can find a more constructive way to communicate what you mean. Communication is a two-way street, and it’s not like your willingness to change how you talk is going to magically fix everything. Just making him aware of the situation and giving him an outlet to discuss it could help immensely.

If he keeps lying or lies to you about something bigger, well… there’s always narcissism to consider.


2 Responses to “lying”

  1. June 8, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    This is insightful. Of course there are exceptions to this sexual stereotype, but it’s generally true. I know that I react this way when I feel the need for independence. I feel strongly justified in being defensive and asserting my independence even though I look back at many of these instances and see that I was irrational when considering a broader perspective.

    • 2 Zkeller
      June 8, 2010 at 2:36 pm

      As insightful as this entire post may be, you never happened to mention Ocam’s razor. It could simply be that he’s changed that password on his phone because he’s talking/texting with someone you don’t want him to. He could simply be a cheating bastard. Most males aren’t smart enough to simply change the name of a female in our phone while keeping it unlocked. My point of view is that he’s keeping something from you, but that’s just my opinion, and I could be wrong.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

post everyone else likes best

topics i’ve written about

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 195 other followers


%d bloggers like this: