If lies are not the glue that binds us, then they are at least the sticky tape. This isn't only true just for us overly sensitive beings who can't face being told what we're really like, but also for lovers who can't stand knowing what our significant others are really thinking (about us). In this arena, some argue lies are essential to happiness.
Or so goes a theory in a Sunday opinion piece at the New York Times from Clancy Martin, a professor of philosophy who has written a book about the inextricable link between deception and romance called Love and Lies. Martin opines that we're all chronic liars: We lie two or three times every 10 minutes during normal chit-chat, he says, but we save our biggest, best, most fantastical lies for the people we love the most. We do this for the same reason we've always been lying: Because we are afraid, and because we care.
This is a deeply rooted thing that goes all the way back to childhood, when you cared about other kids' approval, when you feared losing your parents' love so you lied to keep it. You would think that with romantic love it might be different. After all, doesn't really loving someone make you want to tell them the truth? And isn't it easier to tell someone you genuinely love the truth because you really do love them, therefore, all the sweet nothings aren't a load of shit?
Not really. And this shouldn't really come as a surprise, Martin writes, unless you're pretty naive:
The people who find themselves most betrayed by the lies of lovers are those who have the most unrealistic expectations about truthfulness. And the people who are most inclined to believe the lies they shouldn't are the ones who tell themselves the biggest lie of them all: "I never tell lies."
This means that in order to not find yourself betrayed by the lies of lovers—at least not to any extreme degree—you would need to expect to be lied to. You need to be well aware of your own lies, and therefore less shocked by the lies of your mate.
Of course you're not the best lover he's ever had. Hell no, you don't really make a mean lasagna. Of course she's not the only person who has ever really understood you. Of course you don't actually make each other the happiest you've ever been—er, wait. Now I'm confused. How deep do all these lies go? At some point, I'm thinking that the need for a lot of lies is probably a bad sign.
And herein lies the rub: Of course we all lie to our loved ones at some point or another. But ideally, the better a relationship is, the more it could withstand a little honesty, and the less lies would even be necessary. Right? Because when you genuinely admire and like someone, there's a lot of good truth to spread around. And you could always go out of your way to say what's true and real, and cultivate a more genuine sort of rapport.
Also, it depends on the type of lies you're talking about.
Good lie: You both don't admit that you fantasize about other people during sex because you know it needlessly hurts the other person's feelings. But you can both assume the other person does it; therefore, if you find out the other person does it, there is no point in being deeply betrayed by that which you can assume is true, and that which you are guilty of, too, which doesn't threaten the relationship's core values.
Bad lie: Finding out your lover has a secret family he/she never mentioned.
To not feel deeply betrayed by the second lie would require bulletproof immunity to lies. Which I believe is called cynicism. Which means you've got no business even trying to be in love.
But gear up, suckers, Martin writes. If you want love, you better get on the Lie Train:
If you want to have love in your life, you'd better be prepared to tell some lies and to believe some lies. If honesty is what matters most to you, you might as well embrace a life of silence and become a Trappist monk. These are, of course, options: Immanuel Kant, who argued that it was always wrong to lie, was a lifelong bachelor. And the notorious misanthrope Arthur Schopenhauer, also a champion of truthfulness and opponent of romantic love — he argued that to marry meant to do everything possible to disgust each other — saved his greatest devotion for his uninterrupted string of poodles.
Oh, I get it. Everyone who was historically into honesty was sentenced to a life with dogs.
This sounds deeply depressing to anyone who would hope that relationships foster greater honesty, or that there can be any place outside of your head where you could say a true thing. When we think of good, time-tested partnerships that endure decades of ups and downs and farts and bad moods, we think of people who tell it to each other straight. But perhaps it's the opposite and the survivors are actually the best embroiderers of reality in the universe.
But that's the thing: There is a huge difference between stream of consciousness "truth-telling" and being honest when it counts. I am thinking of the old stand-by: Of course you don't look fat in that, honey. For one thing, you don't have to ask your husband what he thinks of your outfit. You're a grown woman. You can wear what you think looks good. Reduce your reliance on other people's opinions of you, and cut being lied to in half. Alternately, if you're good in relationships you should be telling your partner lots of TRUE good things you love about them. That shouldn't be hard. Ostensibly you chose them for a reason.
I was a know-it-all as a kid, and it made me unpopular: "Other kids are jealous because you're smart." These lies of love allow us to make it from one day to the next. "You're the most beautiful woman in the room." "You're the only man who's ever understood me."
But when a man tells you that you're the most beautiful woman in the room, I gotta say:
- You don't think it means you're objectively the most beautiful person in the room and that he's a scout for the next People's Most Beautiful issue.
- You think it means he loves you, so HE finds you the most beautiful person in the room.
- If that is not even sorta true, what joker says that? Think of another compliment that is true! Pointless.
What is true one hour can become a lie the next, and vice versa. 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.
The "I love you" example here is not really a lie, either. Let's say you didn't exactly feel madly in love one day, only you said "I love you" anyway. I can guarantee you said it because love is not based on literally feeling madly in love every second; it's based on a general feeling toward a person that overrides the hour-to-hour whimsy of emotional presence. There is no need to express the wavering, frustrating rhythms of your own heart in real time, and so we say I love you even if we are not feeling madly in love in the moment—wait for it—out of love. So it's the truth. The truth with an asterisk, only with a footnote that never needs to be read.
Martin says he trusts his wife to lie to him about certain things.
I ask her, "What are you thinking about?" and she reassures me with a pleasant lie about what she's planning on wearing to dinner. Or she asks me, "Was that a hurtful thing to say?" "No, honey," I reassure her.
Hm. I gotta say, Unless the wife is thinking about murdering him and feeding his entrails to the dog, I find it hard to believe her fleeting thoughts are so damaging. Isn't it important to really know someone? To know they are a complete independent person outside of you, even if it's hard for you to always accept? If your wife is sitting there thinking about Mark Ruffalo's body in The Kids are All Right, isn't that OK still? Won't everything be fine? Will it really all fall apart? Or do we just never want to hear anything unpleasant?
Martin admits, finally, that there are "good lies and bad lies." And here is where I think gets at something pretty salient, but it's not the point he intends to make. He says he has been divorced twice now and reflects on an affair he committed, one that ended his last marriage. To justify getting some on the side, he lied to himself and imagined himself a happily married guy until the moment he got in bed with another woman.
What concrete advice could I offer the younger me, who got into that bed and forever damaged the lives of his wife and daughters? Don't cheat — of course. Examine your intentions. Of all the things I did wrong, the worst was not that I told lies. The self-deception and denial didn't help matters, but my real failure was a lack of care and commitment.
But staying in a relationship when there is a lack of care and commitment is living a lie. A huge terrible fucking lie! Sure, a relationship may be able to withstand endless truth-bending about haircuts, cooking abilities, dick size, and even secret bank accounts. But if the truth is you don't even want to be in the relationship at all, then all the sweet, bullshit nothings in the world won't fix that. Even a house of lies needs a strong foundation.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.