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Romantic Deception and Infidelity

Updated on April 19, 2012

Romantic Deception

In “Deception in Intimate Relationships”, Candida Paterson examined six types of deception (omission, distortion, half -truths, blatant lies,white lies, and failed lies) with the participation of 80 romantically involved Australian students. According to her study, while white lies are the most common type of deception, blatant lies are the rarest. Her study found out positive correlation between diminished relationship satisfaction and increased frequency of lies. She also asserted that people lied in order to avoid argument.

Paterson (1996, pp. 283) noted that “students who were gaining the most satisfaction from their couple relationships w ere the least likely to conceal things from their partners by making intentionally deceptive e statements”. Nevertheless, this statement implies that relationship satisfaction leads to transparency. However, it is also possible reverse that statement arguing that couples who were more intimate and honest with each other derived more satisfaction. According to her study, except white lies, relationship satisfaction seems to be correlated with the other types of deception. Furthermore, the blatant lie w as regarded as the most dishonest. It is also very interesting to find that deception is a two-edged sword. Not only the ones who believed that their partners deceived them were unhappy; but, the ones who deceived seem also dissatisfied due to their deceptive behavior. Paterson (1996, pp. 285) stated that “When respondents ’ own self -reported frequencies of using the s ix different type s of deception were analysed individually, blatant lies, half truths, and failed deceptions were all statistically significant negative predictors of satisfaction.”

The major flaw of Paterson's research is that the question with regard to the preference is biased in a sense that it asked whether the students preferred deception over fight. This question assumed only one possible motivation for deception, which is the avoidance of an argument. Thus, it was a manipulative question forcing the students to choose between argument or deception. In that sense, it was not an open-ended question exploring the possible reasons of the deceptive behaviors. Accordingly, the research actually found what it set out to find, the students lied in order to avoid argument; while it did not leave any other option to choose as their motive.

The major gap of the study is also pointed out by the researcher herself, she noted that more research is needed including the samples of adults from different cultures. However, her sample must have been more varied in terms of the ages of the participants. It is even doubtful whether the university students are capable of handling truly intimate, adult and mature relations; since, they tended to date casually. Young people might have preferred to deceive in order to argue, since most of them are neither mature nor committed enough to develop conflict-resolution mechanisms as much as the older people. In fact, the title of the article should have been “Deception in Intimate relationships of the Australian Students”.

Gerald R. Miller (1986) studied how several differences between impersonal and personal relationships may affect deceptive behavior in “Invited Article Fudging with Friends and Lying to Lovers: Deceptive Communication in Personal Relationships”. According to him, lies are told to resolve threats to relationship; he stressed the protective function of lies while describing the motivation of lying as preserve social relationships. His account is similar to Paterson’s and probably influenced her study. However, Miller’s term of deceptive communication is misleading. Deception means a deliberate distortion of communication. Hence, “deceptive communication” sounds paradoxical and oxymoronic.

In “Linking Love and Lies: A Formal Test of the Mccornack and Parks Model of Deception

Detection”, Levine and McCornack(1992) tested the model developed by McCornack and Parks presented the results. The model of McCornack and Parks can be summarized as follows:

Relational Closeness- (+) –> Confidence- (+) –> Truth-Bias- (-) –> Accuracy

They developed the concept of “truth-bias” in order to explicate that the more you know a person the more you tend to believe what they say. Thus, it is increased with the relational closeness. However, truth-bias makes people more susceptible to believe in lies and detecting a deception will be more difficult to them, while it is relatively easier to detect the lies of the strangers. Although, truth bias was originally conceived only for romantic partners, later on, they generalized the tendency to believe in everyone. In fact, they noted that it is still a truth-bias even if what their partner said is true, for them truth bias reflected the unquestioned belief and insensitivity to the reality. They tested the model with the participation of 90 romantically involved couples and found that their model is empirically valid. Thus, Levine and McCornack’s study revealed the more we love a person, the more we tend to believe him/her.

Tina M. Blair, Eileen S. Nelson and Priscilla K Colemn (2001) explored the correlation between deception, power and self-differentiation. They scrutinized if there is positive correlation between deception and power and whether power increased with deception. Their account is different from those who maintained that people deceive in order to avoid argument or protect the relationship; however, since they examined if deception is an active strategy aimed at exerting control over one’s partner. They (2001, pp. 61) offered four hypotheses:

“1. In dating relationships, low power scores will be associated with higher rates of omission; whereas high power in relationships will be associated with lower rates of omission.

2. In dating relationships, high power scores will be associated with higher rates of contradiction; whereas low power will be associated with low rates of contradiction.

3. Lower rates of deception of all forms will predict higher self-differentiation scores.

4. Both men and women will report men as having more power in dating relationships.”

In order to test their hypotheses, they administered a demographic questionnaire to 169 students. However, they could not find any statistically significant relation between power and deception, thus their 1st and 2nd hypotheses proved wrong. They also stated that power and deception might be related in abusive relationships. Their study revealed that “participants were most likely to indicate they would tell the truth, followed by distortion, then omission, with contradiction being theleast common strategy participants reported that they would be likely to use” (pp. 66). Nevertheless, their findings are not compatible with the finding of Metts, who asserted that contradiction was the most used deception form. Furthermore, their 3rd hypothesis is validated; they found a statistically significant correlation between the high level of self-differentiation and low level of deception, and this finding supported the theory of Bowen. Nevertheless, the secondary analysis revealed that men resort to deception regardless of their self-differentiation level; thus, they concluded that men use deception as a mating strategy. They stated that “the men lack development of empathy in their differentiation, and that might be why self-differentiation and deception use are not related for men” (pp. 68). They also noted that the forth hypothesis is also proven by the facts, and both women and men seemed to believe that men hold more power in the relationship.

The major strength of Tina M. Blair, Eileen S. Nelson and Priscilla K. Colemn’s study is its

complete transparency and honesty with the findings. Indeed, they do not seem to have manipulated data and findings since they also revealed contradictory information with regard to their own hypothesis. They did not impose their own premise (e.g. power-deception) and displayed a flexible approach. Furthermore, their approach is more fresh and in-depth as they tried to explore the psychological dimension of deception. They tried to understand complex phenomenon of deception within its psychological and biological context. Nevertheless, the major flaw of their study is the gender-stereotypes they contributed to re-produce. Their study was in line with the active, strong, deceptive and un-emphatic male and passive, weak, transparent, emphatic female stereotypes. It might be argued that it was the society’s own stereotypes reflected through the participants’ view; still, they could have adopted more critical and distant stance against that dichotomous thinking full with gender stereotypes. Lastly, their sample is also restricted to the college students and it is open to debate that if these students were mature enough to handle intimate and committed relationships and whether their views represent the realities of truly “adult” relationships. Older couples must have been included in the sample.

In “To Stay or To Leave? The Role of Attachment Styles in Communication Patterns and Potential Termination of Romantic Relationships Following Discovery of Deception”, Su Ahn Jang, Sandi W. Smith, and Timothy R. Levine studied the relationship between attachments style and the outcome of deception. In line with the definition of McCornack and Levine, they (2002, pp. 237) defined relational deception as “relational deception is defined as a case in which a person produces a message with the intent to mislead a relational partner about a matter of some consequences to the partner or relationship”. A number of studies reported a relationship termination rate of minimum % 9 and maximum % 27 after discovering deception. However, Jang, Smith and Levine set out to find the reasons of the relational termination.

Using John Bowlby’s attachment theory as their point of departure Ainsworth, Blchar, Waters, and Wall (1978) have developed three attachment styles: secure, anxious/ambivalent, and avoidant. People’s communication patterns are related their attachment styles. Whereas people who have a secure attachment style prefer to discuss issues openly, insecure (either anxious or avoidant) people tend to avoid arguments. Thus, Jang, Smith and Levine (2002, pp. 241) developed two hypotheses:

“H1A: Participants with a secure attachment style will score significantly more highly on talkingover the issue with their partners following the discovery of their romantic partners’deception than will participants with an anxious/ ambivalent or avoidant attachment style.

H1B: Participants with a secure attachment style will score significantly more highly on talkingaround the issue with their partners following the discovery of their romantic partners’deception than will participants with an anxious/ ambivalent or avoidant attachment style.”

They also developed a second hypothesis postulating that people with anxious attachment style will be avoiding discussion compared to secure and avoidant types. Thirdly, they hypothesized that people with avoidant styles likely to avoid their partners after they found the deception. While secure people try to find out why their partner lied and seek solutions to the problems in order to rebuild a stronger relationship, people with anxious style avoid any discussion but stick to the relationship due to their clinging and dependent behaviour. Nevertheless, people with avoidant style tend to terminate their relationship after the discovery of the deception. Quoting from Guerrero, they stated (2002, pp. 243) that avoidant lovers may “shut down conversations before giving them a chance and unwittingly reinforce the perception that interacting with others is uninteresting and nonrewarding”. Thus they concluded that % 24 in Levine’s research of termination rate correspond with the avoidant lovers, while the % 76 who 6% correspond with the secure and insecure lovers.

In order to test their hypotheses, they administered a questionnaire to 213 students and also asked open-ended questions concerned talking over the issue, arguing over the issue, talking around the issue, avoiding the issue, and avoiding the person in order to determine communication pattern. The results were consistent with their hypotheses. What they found is that deception had no serious negative relational outcome most of the times, since % 77.1 continued their relationship after the incident as only avoidant lovers had chosen to terminate the relationship. The major problem of this study is that it did not contribute to our understanding of deception (its dynamics, motivations, causes etc.), but rather implied that it is inconsequential (e.g. no serious outcome) with regard to the relationships. They also implied that deception can have consequences only if the deceived party had serious attachment problems. The burden of deception seemed to be transferred to the deceived party as if it had no relationship with the attachment style of the deceiver. To sum up, this research says go on and deceive your partners, deception has no serious consequences; even if there will be any serious consequence it is not your fault, but due to the attachment problem of your partner.

Metts (1989) defined deception as, “the intentional misrepresentation of information in order to induce in another person a belief that the deceiver knows to be untrue” (pp. 160). In his exploratory study, Metts studied three forms of deception: omission, distortion, and contradiction. While the contradiction is the most overt form of deception, omission is the most covert form of deceit. Different from the other researches listed here, Metts also examined the intimate relationships of married and engaged couples. According to him, the deception strategy is related with the social setting and level of intimacy. She reasoned that contradiction is the most frequently reported deception strategy followed by omission, with distortion (Blair, Nelson and Colemn’s findings contradicted that). She also assumed that deception aimed at protecting the harmony of the relationship. However, the specific motivation behind a deception differs according to the relationship type. She noted that, in marriage, deception was altruistic (!), it reflected a concern for one’s partner, but in dating its central function was the continuation of the relationship. The major strength of her study is that she also considered married couples and she assumed different motivations for different types of relationships. However, her study lacked psychological and theoretical depth.

Susan D. Boon and Beverly A. Mcleod examined people’s attitudes toward deception. “Deception in Romantic Relationships: Subjective estimates of success at deceiving and attitudes toward deception” (2001) revealed students’ ambivalent, if not paradoxical, attitudes with regard to deception. Boon and McLeod completed a questionnaire with the participation of 107 undergraduate students. On one hand, the participants stressed the importance of complete honesty in relationships; on the other hand they had endorsed deception for the sake of protecting the relationship. According to the results, Boon and McLeod specified two cases that people would opt for deception. They stated that “if individuals are motivated by the desire to maintain fidelity to their romantic relationships, we would predict that they would be apt to choose deception over full and complete disclosure whenever they believe telling the truth might jeopardize the relationship” (pp. 475). They also concluded that people’s estimates concerning their ability to deceive on other also make them disposed toward deception. Indeed, as they noted, according to the results, deceiving almost becomes a “moral thing to do”. In line with the argument of McCornack, Boon and McLeod underlined the “honest motives” of deception (pp. 473). The results of these researches seemed to arrive at morally twisted and paradoxical predicaments like deception is honest. Or the participants are deceiving the researchers that they deceived for good reasons, not for the selfish ones. In any case, it is obvious that both participants and researchers’ attitudes toward deception are, at least, highly relativistic. Somehow, they seemed to be identified with the deceivers and their attitudes remind the Stockholm syndrome, wherein deceived people have developed positive feelings toward their deceivers.

Deborah A. Abowitz, David Knox, Marty Zusman and Andrea McNeely conducted a larger survey with the participation of 376 undergraduate students and published the results in their article entitled “Beliefs about romantic relationships: gender differences among undergraduates” (2009). They focused on 14 stereotypical beliefs about relationships. They found out that men are more likely to believe that cohabitation makes for happier marriages, bars are good places for meeting future spouse, women want to control men, men actually control relationships and people will cheat if they know they will not be discovered. On the other hand, women are more likely to believe that couples stop trying once they marry, age and race are less important than love feelings and a woman knows when her man is lying. This study focused on stereotypical beliefs and had a very little to say with regard to deception in intimate relations. It seems that most women believed that they can detect their partners’ lies, although men are less likely to believe that, the majority (65.3% of the men) also believed that a woman knows.

Sunyna S. Williams scrutinized more intimate aspect of lying in her article entitled “Sexual Lying Among College Students in Close and Casual Relationships” (2001). Her research sample was the largest and her methods were the most diversified among the studies dealt in this brief. 790 undergraduates participated to her investigation and she employed 2 experiments, 4 surveys, and a recalled event. She concluded that “Participants tended to tell fewer sexual lies in closer relationships, and those lies tended to be relatively more other-protective than self-protective” (pp. 2322). Furthermore, the more they lied, the more they believed that they have also been lied to in sexual matters. However, Williams (pp. 2323) highlights that their motives in lying may not be as altruistic as the participants claimed: “college students perceive their sexual lies to be other-protective (Saxe, 1991), but the reasons they give for such lies (Cochran & Mays, 1990; Knox, Schacht, Holt, &

Turner, 1993; Saxe, 1991; Simkins, 1995; Stebleton & Rothenberger, 1993) actually seem to be self-protective; for example, to avoid being rejected or mistrusted, or to get sex”. Williams arrived at inconsistent findings in regard to whether sexual lying decreased with closeness of relationship. Furthermore, although her Study 1 revealed all the reasons they gave are rather self-protective, the findings are inconsistent in the Study 4 recalled event. Williams also revealed that sexual honesty is an individual-difference factor as sexual lying tendencies were consistent across content areas and relationship types. Thus, sexual honesty depends on the person, not the type of the relationship (casual or committed) or the content. However, findings from Studies 2,3, and 4 consistently displayed that participants lied less about risk-relevant sexual issues than about risk-irrelevant issues. The strength of Williams study is that she was able to distance herself from the apparent “altruistic” claims of the participants and she did not assume that people lied in order to protect their relationships or bought that explanation. Her study revealed that deception is a highly personal matter regardless of the type of the relationship or the matter lied about. However, she was unable to explain the psychological intricacies and shed a light on the dynamics of the deception phenomenon.

Deception is a psychological issue directly related with morality. However, most of the studies examined here lacked the psychoanalytical and theoretical depth to explain that psychic phenomenon. Only two of them used theoretical concepts; Tina M. Blair, Eileen S. Nelson and Priscilla K Colemn used the concept of self-differentiation, while Su Ahn Jang, Sandi W. Smith, and Timothy R. Levine resorted to the attachment theory. Blair, Nelson and Colemn’s study explained that female deceptive behaviour was related with the psychological mechanism of self-differentiation; however, they were unable to explain male deceptive behaviour with any psychological mechanism except the lame implication that all men are liars due to their biological conditioning and mating strategies. While Jang, Smith and Levine used a highly developed psychological model, they used it to explain the behaviour of the deceived, not the deceiver. In short, romantic deception studies need explanatory models with psychoanalytical and theoretical depth, shedding light on the psychological dynamics of deception and psychology of the deceiver. Lastly, these studies must also include more diversified age groups, since most of them focused on the college students whose psychological maturity to handle an intimate relationship is doubtful.


1. Deception in Intimate Relationships by Candida Peterson (International Journal of Psychology. 1996, 31 ( 6), pages 279-288.

2. Invited Article Fudging with friends and Lying to Lovers; Deceptive Communication in Personal Relationships by Gerald R. Miller, Paul A. Mongeau and Carra Sleight ( 19986)

3. Levine, T. (1992). Linking love and lies: A formal test of the mccornack and parks model of deception detection. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 9(1), 143-154.

4. Deception., Power, and Self- Differentiation in College Students’ Romantic Relationships: An Exploratory Study by Tina M. Blair; Eileen S. Nelson; Priscilla K Colemn pages 57-71

5. To Stay or to Leave? The Role of Attachment Styles in Communication Patterns and Potential Termination of Romantic Relationships Following Discovery of Deception. By Su Ahn Jang, Sandi W. Smith, and Timothy R . Levine.

6. Metts, S. (1989). An exploratory investigation of deception in close relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 6(2), 159-179.

7. Deception in Romantic Relationships; Subjective Estimates of Success at Deceiving and Attitudes toward Deception. By Susan D. Boon and Beverly A. McLeod.

8. Beliefs about Romantic Relationships; Gender Differences Among Undergraduates. By Abowitz, Deborah A. Knox, David. Zusman, Marty. Mcneely, Andrea.

9. Sexual Lying Among College Students in Close and Casual Relationships. By Sunyna S. Williams


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