have a theory: If women didn’t fib to their husbands, I Love Lucy never could have existed. The loose-with-the-truth, always-in-a-jam redhead lied to her husband, Ricky, about everything from how much she paid for her hats to the ploys she and Ethel devised to meet certain celebrities.

As a marital strategist, Lucy was on to something. Though the Ten Commandments are definitive on the topic of lying, you will notice there is nothing in the marriage vows, at least not in so many words, that precludes occasional straying from the straight and factual. It’s a good thing too. Just as a car needs gas to run, I think the best marriages hum along very nicely on love, caring, consideration, mutual respect, and the well-timed whopper.

Of course, we’re not talking about the sort of lies that would guarantee you a chat with Sally Jessy. In other words, no “I was at the grocery store” when you were at the Motel 6; no “I bought the dress with my bonus check” when your real source of funds was the mortgage payment.

Such felonious fibbing aside, it seems to me there is wiggle room in the misdemeanor zone. It’s all about intent. If your motive is an unselfish desire to promote harmony in the home, can you really be taken to task for violations of veracity? What follows are the basic rules of harmless truth-stretching.

1. What they can’t hear, they can’t object to

My husband, Michael, claims I don’t tell him things. He’s absolutely right. If the sin of omission had a varsity squad, I’d be its captain. But I never admit that. Instead, I claim that I did tell him, but he was so preoccupied–mowing the front lawn, singing in the shower, or watching our stocks sink on CNN–that he obviously doesn’t remember.

For example, I know my husband is going to react as a vampire to garlic when I announce I’ve accepted a dinner date with a couple he loathes (but who could be a good business contact for me) or that a child with the same last name as his wedged a nacho chip into the keypad of his computer (again). Obviously, my husband is going to discover the Dorito in the Dell next time he logs on, and he’s going to find out about dinner with the Dreaded Ones when the baby-sitter shows up on Thursday at 7:00 P.M. My response to his demand, “Why didn’t you tell me?” is, “Oh, Sweetie, I did. Don’t you remember? You were in the living room, watching the baseball game …” Deceptive? Undoubtedly. So treat this ploy as you would fine wine, indulging rarely but with gusto.

2. It doesn’t count if it’s cash

You know how it doesn’t count in your daily calories if you devour a slice of cake straight from the box? (That same slice would be applied directly to your derriere had you eaten it properly, off a plate.) Well, there are those of us who believe that money isn’t really spent if it’s kept off the charge plate. I have plenty of friends who earn respectable salaries and don’t need spousal permission to shop. They simply prefer to keep their husbands in the dark about the high cost of “girl maintenance” (leg waxing, manicures, streaking). My concerns on this issue are twofold. If my husband knew I spent $60 on a haircut, he would be sure to point out that the money could have been more profitably spent on pruning shears. Worse, if he knew what I was really paying, I’m afraid he’d wonder why I don’t look a whole lot better.

3. Better kind than cruel

ffDid Lucy ever lie to make Ricky feel better about himself? I don’t think so–but I do recommend that kind of in-family fibbing. For example, my husband is loving–or maybe lying–enough to say the appropriate thing when I ask if a certain dress makes my hips look too big (“Your hips are so small, you’d need a magnifying glass to make them look big. Now let’s go.”) or if wrinkles are appearing around my eyes (“They’re not wrinkles. They’re laugh lines. Now let’s go.”). So, naturally, I want to return the favor. No, he didn’t babble too long at his boss’s party about the fight we’re having with our plumber. And no, his hair isn’t thinning on top.

I’m not alone in my mendacity. My friend Kate’s husband, Ron, would never be mistaken for Fred Astaire. He doesn’t trip the light fantastic; he just trips. Still, Ron fancies himself quite masterful at the mambo. “We were at a wedding recently,” Kate says, “and when the music started, I tried to steer him to the buffet or at the very least the back of the dance floor. But Ron grabbed my hand and moved us right to the center. All I could do was pray he wouldn’t go for the dip. Afterward, he said, `Pretty good for a forty-year-old, huh?’ And I thought, Why tell him the truth? Here is a man who’s actually willing to get out there and dance. So I just said, `Incredible,’ and silently thanked my lucky stars we’re invited to weddings no more than once a year.”

4. Timing is everything

My husband is the sort who likes to get to the airport two or three hours early. I, on the other hand, a believer in the aerobic benefit of hurtling down endless corridors with a 20-pound suitcase in each hand, like to get to the gate with no more than two or three minutes to spare. Therefore, I’ll tell him that an 8:00 A.M. flight is actually 9:00 A.M. Thus, we leave our house at six in the morning, which, although far from ideal, is certainly better than heading out at five. Now, I know that sooner or later my husband is going to wise up. But until then, the sky is the limit.

5. Premarital fibs are forgiven

No woman should be called on the carpet, years later, for any misrepresentations she may have committed in order to land her guy in the first place. My friend Linda, who met her future mate on a blind date, felt a lie coming on as soon as her friends described the guy they had in store for her. “They told me he was cute, funny, and thirty-six,” she says. Linda herself was cute, funny–and 45. “We met, and the drink turned into dinner. He called the next morning at nine for a second date and in the same conversation kind of casually asked, `Do you mind if I ask how old you are?’ I had never lied about my age before, but this time I felt I had to lie or lose. I could tell he was already a little intimidated by me–the places I’d been, my fashion sense. I figured my being older would be another strike against me, so I said, `Thirty-six.’ Mark immediately apologized for the question, saying, `When I first saw you, I thought you were younger than me, but when I heard about all you’d done in your life, I thought maybe you were older.'”

After they had been dating for a while, Linda knew she had to confess. “I remember we were standing in the kitchen, and I got very stern. I said, `I have something serious to tell you,’ and I came clean. He laughed and said, `It’s not important.’ But then he had to tell his mother, and her response was, `Oh, she’s almost my age.'” They’ve just celebrated their sixth wedding anniversary, and Linda still can’t stand her mother-in-law–proving that when it comes to family harmony, truth-telling is oh so overrated.