The ability to build a healthy relationship is based on the degree to which you are able to be clear and honest about everything, especially in a dating situation. Sometimes, people will deceive each other about the nature of other people in their lives. They may act like someone is "just a friend," when in reality there is more of a history or more in the present than is being said.
For example, I (Dr. Cloud) was working with a man named Frank who was trying to figure out his relationship with the woman he was dating. He had a funny feeling that something was wrong. It seemed that she was just a little too connected to her work. Frank had no problem with her loving her job, but there was something strange about her relationship with her boss. He did not think that she was dating him, or having any kind of illicit thing going on with him. But, he still got a funny feeling about her work and her connection with her boss.
Finally, Frank found out that his girlfriend had once been engaged to her boss. And, there was still some sort of continuing tie between them. But, as far as he had known, it was strictly a work relationship. Instead, she had been lying to him.
Frank felt horribly deceived, and from there the relationship went downhill. It did not falter because she worked with a former boyfriend, but because she had not been clear about the nature of her former relationship with her boss. Frank could sense some sort of tie that she was not owning up to. Later, when some other issues came up where she had not been clear with him, the relationship died. If she had not been deceptive about the former boyfriend, the later issues would not have been a big deal. But, once a pattern of lying starts, trust is difficult to reestablish.
Why do people lie, and how can you set appropriate boundaries? In our opinion, there are really two types of liars:
Liar Type 1:
There are liars who lie out of shame, guilt, fear of conflict or loss of love, and other fears. They are the ones who lie when it would be a lot easier to tell the truth. They want to be honest, but for one reason or another, cannot quite pull it off. They fear the other person's anger or loss of love.
Liar Type 2:
There are liars who lie as a way of operating and deceive others for their own selfish ends. There is no fear or defensiveness involved, just plain old lying for love of self.
You will have to ask yourself if you want to take the risk and do the work if you are with the first type. There are people in the first category who have never had a relationship where they felt safe enough to be honest, and they tend to still be hiding. So, they lie to preserve love, or preserve the relationship, or avoid being caught in something because of guilt or shame. They are not really dangerous, evil characters, and sometimes when they find someone safe, they learn to tell the truth. This is a risk that some people want to take after finding out that deception has occurred. They hope that the person will be redeemed by the grace and love that they offer and will shoot straight with them from then on.
While we would not automatically recommend continuing a dating relationship with this kind of person, sometimes there is a good outcome. So, we do not want to make a rigid rule. But, our feeling is that dating is not a place for you to rehabilitate people. Rehabilitation should occur in that person's counseling, recovery, discipleship, or some other context. For one thing, dating can become serious when your heart gets involved, and it may even lead to marriage.
Just because the person is lying out of fear does not make it acceptable, and serious devastation can occur even with fearful liars. No matter what the reason, lying destroys. By and large, the best policy is to stay away from those who lie for any reason.
Spend your time and heart on honest people. It is often too risky, from our perspective, to get involved with the fearful liar. If the person gets better and comes back repentant, that is one thing. But, you should not think that you are going to be the one who changes him or her if defensive lying is an ongoing pattern. There are some people who do this on occasion and confess it, and probably can be trusted over the long haul. But, patterns of this type are problematic. Whatever you decide to do, whether you stick in there or not, make sure that you do not go further until the lying issue is forever and certainly in the past. Remember the words of the wise instructor: Do not go on to other issues until the lying is solved.
The second kind of liar is a definite no-go. Tell him or her good-bye and save yourself a lot of heartache. Perpetual liars are not ready for a relationship, no matter how much you are attracted to him or her. Run, run, run!
A footnote: After Frank ended the relationship with his girlfriend, she soon was back with her former boyfriend (and boss). I told my client I thought he was lucky to have escaped her.
For more helpful advice to build the best dating relationship and find the love of your life, read Boundaries in Dating.