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The Rules of Deception in Romance

In the acclaimed TV drama Breaking Bad, high school chemistry teacher Walter White has a big secret—he doesn’t tell his wife Skyler that he and his former student Jesse Pinkman have begun “cooking” and selling meth. Lots and lots of meth.   

As is the case with many couples, Walt and Skyler may differ on what they consider to be deception. Walt isn’t hiding his criminal activity to hurt Skyler or damage their marriage; in fact, he started his meth lab as a way to ensure his family’s financial security, in the event that he dies from lung cancer. However, Skyler actually considers Walt’s deception quite problematic (his life of crime places him in great legal and mortal danger, after all!) and later pursues a divorce when he reveals the truth. Walt and Skyler’s different perspectives on Walt’s deception beg the question: how might beliefs about deceit differ between men and women in real life?

To examine male and female perceptions about the “rules” of deception in a relationship, researchers conducted a study in which they identified a set of 44 beliefs about deception in relationships.1 A group of participants brainstormed possible beliefs about honesty and deception, which were then categorized into types of rules. Here are some examples:

Obligatory Rules (strict)

  • My partner and I should disclose everything to each other—nothing should be kept secret.
  • We should share everything about our relational history.
  • My partner and I should be genuine about emotions—good or bad.

Discretionary Rules (flexible)

  • Sometimes it’s better not to share things that are just going to start a conflict.
  • It’s ok to keep things private that are not damaging to the relationship.
  • Sharing genuine emotions is not necessary all the time.

The researchers then conducted a second study in the laboratory with heterosexual couples, in which partners completed questionnaires in separate rooms. They reported how much they agreed with each rule, as well as how much they thought their partners would agree. They also answered questions about their relationship commitment and how accurate they thought they were at predicting their partner’s attitudes, behaviors, and thoughts.

It turns out that both men and women endorsed strict rules more than flexible ones, but women tended to support the strict rules more than men did. For example, maybe both Walt and Skyler believe they shouldn’t have secrets about anything, but Skyler may feel more strongly about it. The two types of rules were independent—in other words, it was possible for participants to agree with both sets of rules to some extent. And this is exactly what they did: couples in the study seemed to support honesty and discourage deception in their romantic relationships, while acknowledging that discretion was still advisable at times. (“Tell me everything, but not that one thing you know I’ll hate!”) The catch is that spouses may disagree on which topics are important. For example, one partner may omit sharing what seems like a minor detail (and, thus, not newsworthy). But his or her partner may have entirely different ideas about what is newsworthy and, therefore, view the omitted information as intentional deception. As a result, this discrepancy between their “rules” can cause unnecessary conflict. 

And such discrepancies are surprisingly common. Men who were engaged or married tended to believe their significant others endorsed the same rules they did, and both men and women were overconfident about their ability to predict their partners’ responses. In reality, this overconfidence had no bearing on the accuracy of their guesses, nor on their true level of agreement about deceit in a relationship. In other words, couples weren’t as good at reading each other’s minds as they thought, and they also didn’t agree as much as they thought on what level of deception was permissible.

What’s the take-home message? Aside from discussing which topics are important and which are okay to leave out, it’s better just to be frank with your relationship partner, especially when coping with major relationship issues (like financial security and cancer), instead of doing something extreme, like crossing a druglord, to bring in more cash. Are you listening, Walter?

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1Roggensack, K. E. & Sillars, A. (in press). Agreement and understanding about honesty and deception rules in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. doi:10.1177/0265407513489914

Dr. Helen Lee Lin - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Helen's past research has focused on potential problems in relationships, such as keeping secrets from a significant other. She is also interested in communication as well as the use and consumption of media in relationships, and is planning to work in applied contexts for her future projects. 

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