The Honesty Paradox: Exploring The Boundaries Of Truth In Relationships

While open and honest communication is vital in relationships, there are also cases when the seemingly innocent phrase 'I'm just being honest' can unintentionally erode your connection.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 17, 2023

Honesty is an incredibly powerful tool to improve your well-being. A 2021 study conducted on 693 participants found that people who practiced honesty were more likely to have higher levels of self-control and life satisfaction. In addition, the study showed that people who lie less often in their day-to-day lives reported having a better social support system compared to those who weren't as honest.

The positive effects of honesty — including self-control, life satisfaction and social support — create a powerful triad that can significantly enhance your chances of being in a happy and healthy romantic relationship. It's safe to say that honest people make better partners.

Yet, we know that couples sometimes deceive each other. A classic study of 128 couples published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that a romantic partner may be inclined to lie for the following reasons:

  • Reciprocal exchange of information. For instance, if your partner shares a deeply personal experience or thought with you, you may feel obliged to share a similarly meaningful anecdote, regardless of whether it is wholly factual.
  • Avoiding punishment. For instance, if you haven't got to a household chore that your partner expected you to complete, you might make up an excuse to avoid a fight.
  • Beliefs about attachment. For instance, if your partner has an avoidant style of attachment, they may feel uncomfortable being vulnerable with you, which could lead them to keep secrets.

So, what does honesty with your partner really look like? Are there degrees of honesty? Is the occasional white lie going to undermine your partner's trust in you?

Here's one way to think about the "right" amount of honesty, according to research.

There Are Actually Two Types Honesty In a Romantic Relationship

A 2013 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that there are two types of honesty in every relationship, each with its own causes and consequences. They are:

  • Obligatory honesty, which means that you and your partner have rules that require you to disclose certain information to avoid lying or deceiving each other. This involves rules around things like sharing your prior sexual history or financial health with your partner.

  • Discretionary honesty, which means that you and your partner have rules that allow you some flexibility in how you manage information, depending on the situation and the potential consequences. This involves rules around things like minor deceptions — for example, perhaps you don't want your partner to know about your family issues that have very little to do with your relationship.

Between the two types, discretionary honesty is where the line between being honest and being too honest begins to blur. The study found that while most couples were able to agree on what information requires obligatory honesty, discretionary honesty required more judgment and sensitivity from the partners.

Sometimes, being too honest can hurt your partner or your relationship, especially if the information is irrelevant, unnecessary or harmful.

Let's say your partner has been supporting their sibling through a complicated and messy divorce. Ideally, discretionary honesty should apply in such a situation. Your partner is not liable to disclose every detail of the separation as it does not concern your relationship.

More importantly, it may be unnecessary, or even harmful, for you to voice your opinion on the separation. Judging the relationship from afar or saying what you feel about either partner will most likely not help. Your honesty, under such circumstances, may only hurt your partner.

On the other hand, being dishonest can also damage trust and intimacy, especially if the information is relevant, important or beneficial to the relationship, like being transferred to a new location for your job or spotting early warning signs of a serious illness.

Here are two suggestions that will help you figure out how to be on the same page with your partner about honesty.

  1. Communicate about communicating. Discussions about what you should, could and shouldn't share with your partner are a great way to ensure that your expectations from the relationship match with those of your partner. For instance, getting into details like the number of sexual partners you have had may seem trivial to you, but it may be important to your partner. In such a situation, both partners must be willing to compromise and reach a consensus on whether the number-of-sexual-partners discussion is obligatory or discretionary.
  2. Respect your partner's need for privacy and autonomy. We can sometimes fall into the trap projecting our own experiences onto a partner. If you find yourself doing this, understand that your experiences are subjective to you, just like your partner's experiences are subjective to them. Your views don't need to match, but you must both be willing to respect each other's attitudes towards things, honesty included.


Honesty in a relationship is crucial, but that doesn't mean you should throw tact out of the window. Sometimes, phrases like "I'm just being real with you" can come off as insensitive, mean and stubborn. Ultimately, when it comes to being honest with your partner, it is the willingness to maintain open, respectful and sincere communication that truly matters.