The One Relationship Trait All Happy Couples Know Is Overrated

A happy couple smiling at each other and touching their noses together

Honesty is the best policy, right? 

That's the oft-repeated line, and it's one of the qualities everyone from experts to your mother tell you is most important in a relationship. But the reality is more complicated than that — in fact, honesty can be overrated.

People lie, according to one measure, two to three times every 10 minutes. But that's not always bad. On issues both big and small, sometimes telling the complete truth, sparing no details, isn't what two people trying to build something solid really need.

Selfishly unloading: Sometimes honesty masquerades as care for another person, when it's really yourself you're thinking about. If you're feeling guilty about something you've done, the tendency is to assuage your guilt by getting it all out there. But that can do more harm than good.

"It might not benefit a relationship to expose past relationships or to report sexual details of others you have been with," Mikki Meyer, a clinical fellow at the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, told Mic. "Consider the jealousy of your partner before exposing details that might be translated as a comparison. ... Both women and men can become threatened when they have to compare themselves to a past lover and fear they might not be able to meet the mark." 

The value of avoiding selfish honesty doesn't apply only in situations of guilt; it can arise in the smallest of everyday moments. Just because you're stressed doesn't mean you want to unload that pressure onto your relationship — especially if your partner already isn't in the best mood. In other words, a white lie is an acceptable response to them asking, "How was your day?" 

A white lie is an acceptable response to "How was your day?" 

Forgetting who's listening: What's worth saying depends entirely on the person who's going to be hearing it. In a relationship, that clearly means taking each other's insecurities into account before before "honestly" criticizing their interests or voicing complaints. 

"A lot of times people under the guise of honesty say hurtful things that don't necessarily add to the relationship or matter in the long run," psychologist Michael Broder told Mic. "If your significant other is on their way out the door to go to a big event and you don't like the way he or she looks, it's obviously not going to do any good to say it." 

In fact, social scientist Bella DePaulo reports at Psychology Today that happily married couples lie in one tenth of their conversations, often "kind-hearted" lies. This kind of dishonesty can actually indicate increased care for the partner, DePaulo says, because they're often told to spare someone's feelings, or make them feel better when they're down. 

Cara*, a 25-year-old living in New York City, has been happily married for three years and generally shares her feelings with her husband. But, she told Mic, if "you know that the truth will hurt your significant other, or potentially taint their relationship with a family member or a friend, then it is worth it to tell a 'white lie.'"

"For example, if you're not getting along too well with your significant other's sibling," she said, "then maybe keep your opinion of that sibling to yourself and always remember whatever you say out loud can never be unheard." 

It comes down to what's the highest priority: the truth at all costs, or the relationship itself. As philosophy professor and divorcee Clancy Martin wrote in his New York Times essay "Good Lovers Lie," "Don't worry so much about ferreting out the truth. Take care of each other instead."

The difference between honesty and integrity: Integrity is about good character, which isn't predicated on how much you divulge to others. You can still be authentic and genuine in a relationship without revealing every little detail. 

"I caution couples all the time that you can always say something but you can never ever ever unsay it," Broder says. "Sometimes it takes a little bit of thinking and working through to determine through whether or not you're going to divulge something serious."

This is where placing the priority on integrity, rather than brutal honesty, comes in. "Honesty is not just about telling the truth," psychologist Barton Goldsmith, author of The Happy Couple: How to Make Happiness a Habit One Little Loving Thing at a Time, wrote at Psychology Today. "It is also about telling the truth in a way that your partner will hear it and benefit from it. ... You need to present your issues with some degree of kindness."

"Honesty is not just about telling the truth."

"Being honest about your feelings about something your significant other did is extremely important — they can't read your mind — but make absolutely sure what you say is presented in a way that it doesn't come off as criticism," Cara says. "Otherwise, your significant other will probably get defensive ... [which] can breed resentment that is the beginning of the end of a relationship." 

Those living in happy coupledom know how to distinguish between wanting to bare all for their own self-indulgence or gratification and being honest to actually improve the relationship. And, of course, when a little dishonesty is simply what the relationship needs.

As Martin put it in the New York Times, "Some days saying 'I love you' doesn't feel honest at all, but it expresses a deeper truth that is necessary for the love to be sustained."

* Name has been changed.