Recently I’ve been reflecting on past relationships I have had in virtual worlds. One of the things swirling around in my brain is the subject of honesty. Honesty in relationships is an extremely complicated idea. I’m writing this journal entry mainly for my own sake, to help me get it sorted out in my head.

How many couples say to one another, “Let’s be completely honest”? And how many couples actually are completely honest with each other? Not many, I’m betting.

The truth is that everyone lies. People lie for lots of reasons—some of them good reasons. It would be a mistake to cast all lies in the same light. Some lies are harmless; others are hurtful. Most lies swim in the gray area in between.

Fantasy role-playing could technically be considered a lie. Those of us in virtual worlds adopt an appearance and sometimes a persona that may or may not resemble our “real” selves. We operate under a social contract in which we all agree to suspend our disbelief about this. Some people are better at it than others. Some people look straight past your avatar and only want to know the “real” you. Others easily accept the fantasy avatar you have created. Is fantasy dishonest? Or is it playful?

Beyond fantasy, virtual worlds are a hotbed of deceit. Lying is far too easy. We can cover up where we are, and what we are doing, and with whom. We hide our online status. Knowing that no one can see our location, we feel free to invent stories about where we are. “I’m talking with a friend.” “I’m shopping.” “I’m checking something out.” Or, for total privacy, we just create an alt, and do as we please without detection. I know of at least one person who has a partner, and also a sex alt the partner doesn’t know about. I expect there are thousands of others in exactly the same situation. It almost seems to be the norm in virtual worlds.

Personally, I sometimes lie to preserve my privacy. When writing online profiles I usually say that I live in NYC. I don’t. I live near NYC, and I do spend time there, but I don’t live there. I don’t really want strangers to know where I live. I think that is a fairly smart lie and I doubt many would disagree.

“Privacy lies” happen when someone is pressuring you to reveal something about yourself that is actually none of their business. The response “that’s none of your business” might be counter-productive—it might actually increase your interrogator’s curiosity. Telling them something else may call off their prying. Are “privacy lies” good or bad? Rather than focusing on the morality of the lie, it would be better to examine the thing you are lying about, and decide whether it is hurtful.

That leads me to the “I didn’t want to hurt your feelings” lie. Sometimes this type of lie is actually compassionate, or at least benign, like when he assures her that she doesn’t look fat in those pants. But most of the time it’s bogus. Let’s say he cheats on her, and lies to cover his tracks. She confronts him. He says “I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.” That’s bogus. The lie is not the issue. Clearly he didn’t mind hurting her feelings, because he cheated on her. That is what hurt her. The lie is extra. Lying about it is the secondary issue that piles hurt onto hurt.

What if he’d had the courage to be honest with her long before? What if he’d had the courage to admit that he wasn’t feeling satisfied? That she wasn’t meeting his needs? That something had changed in their relationship, or in him? That type of honesty is extremely difficult. First it requires being honest with yourself. Most of us would rather placate ourselves with lies. “Things are basically fine.” “I do love her.” “I can control myself.” “I can live without it.” “I should be satisfied.” When we can’t even face the truth about ourselves, how can we hope to be honest with anyone else?

The idea of hurting someone we care about is extremely difficult for most of us. He may find it impossible to imagine saying to her, “I’m not satisfied. This relationship is not giving me what I need.” He pictures her ashen face, the hurt and disappointment he sees there, and he just can’t face it. He can’t bear the burden of having to hurt her with the truth. So he lies.

When there is a truth that would hurt our loved one if they knew about it, it’s natural to want to withhold it, or cover it up. The trouble is that this deception almost never works. Not facing a painful truth does not make the painful truth go away. It just sits there, eating away at the relationship and causing damage to both of you. For the sake of not hurting her, he decides to forego his happiness. Does he think she won’t sense that? Does he think that he won’t eventually be compelled toward something outside the relationship that does meet his needs? Does he think that won’t hurt her even more?

Others may feel differently, but speaking for myself, I would choose a painful truth over a comfortable lie every time. Hurt can be healed, but only when it’s faced. If you need something that you can’t get from me, let’s face that together. Give me some credit. If I love you, I want good things for you. I am not so selfish as to demand that you fake it, just so that I can pretend that everything is fine. I know that relationships are not black and white. I know you care about me, and that, at the same time, it’s also true that I cannot meet all your needs. So tell me the truth. Let’s face the next step.

At least, that’s how I’ve always preferred it.

What do you think?