VALENTINE’S DAY is not a celebration of truth telling. God forbid! Relationships last only if we don’t always say exactly what we’re thinking. We have to disguise our feelings, to feint, to smile sometimes when we want to shout. In short, we have to lie.
We all tell lies, and tell them shockingly often: Research shows that on average in an ordinary conversation, people lie two to three times every 10 minutes. (It makes you want to be completely silent for a day or two just to throw off the statistics — but what about lies by omission?) And we lie particularly often when it comes to love, because we care more about love than we care about most things, and because love causes us more fear than most things do, and caring and fearing are two of the most common reasons for lying.
It starts when we’re kids. Why did you lie then? Because you didn’t want to get in trouble; because you cared what the other kids thought; because you were afraid to lose the love of your mom. “It is the law of obedience which produces the necessity of lying in children,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, advising us against making our children fearful. But even more than that, I’d argue, it is the need for love.
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.”
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.
But most of us do want to love and to be loved. So what are these lies we should tell and believe?
Think of the dozens of lies you tell your children (or your parents told you) in order to help them believe in themselves: “You can be whatever you want to be.” “Life gets easier.”
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.”
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.
There are many lies that my wife and I trust each other to tell. 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.
But there are good lies and bad lies. I’ve been married twice before. The only time I’ve ever been deliberately spat on was by my second wife in the parking lot of our daughter’s elementary school. We were separated, soon to divorce, but we were at that stage when you’re almost more intimate, in a sickening way, than when you were married. The gloves are off: You can say anything to each other. “I wish you were dead!” she screamed. A man looked at us and then crossed the street. “You are the worst thing that ever happened to us! I wish you would leave and never come back!”
She was in the right. About a year before this argument, I had been at an academic conference and had met a colleague for coffee. By the time we were back in my hotel room, I was still telling myself: I am a happily married man. I am not going to have sex with this woman. I lied to myself all the way up the point when she said, “Let’s get into bed.” Like so many people who have started a disastrous affair, I’m still not sure why I did it: vanity, mostly, I think. I felt flattered by her desire. When the affair finally came to light, my marriage was over.
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.
My ex-wife and I are very good friends now, and I’m grateful. We care for each other enough, once again, to lie when we need to do so.
When it comes to love, both honesty and deception should be practiced in moderation. Only then can we celebrate the intoxicating illusions of love. Odysseus, Cleopatra, Scheherazade, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Molly Bloom — all of our greatest lovers have been fabulists, equivocators, promoters ... liars. Even Penelope, that great model of fidelity — do we really believe that she kept all those suitors around for 20 years just by weaving and unweaving a tapestry (itself a deception)? Or was weaving by day and unweaving by night Homer’s metaphor for the much more complicated — actually, much simpler, more human, more believable — activity she was truly engaged in?
Love is a greater good than the truth. No marriage, no parent’s love of a child should be scrutinized like a pathologist examining his cadaver. Save your ruthless pursuit of the truth for the laboratory; we lovers would rather be like Shakespeare: “Therefore I lie with her and she with me / And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.” Don’t worry so much about ferreting out the truth. Take care of each other instead.
Courtesy: NY Times