To help us prepare for Valentine’s Day, philosopher Clancy Martin reveals the secret to true love: learn how to lie.
He should have qualified it by saying something like sorta-lie, but he is clearly looking for rhetorical force, not accuracy.
Martin is trying to shock people out of their belief that lovers should always tell each other the truth.
For what it’s worth, I approve of the trope.
It rings true. Many years ago I heard a story [not in my office] about a woman who caught her live-in love cheating. Since they had been cohabiting for a dozen years, she felt seriously betrayed.
So she said to her sometime lover: “I can forgive the cheating but I cannot tolerate lies. I only ask that you have enough respect to tell me the truth. How many other women have there been during our years together?”
The man responded: "Twenty-six."
Those who prefer to learn the hard way that you should not be perfectly open and honest with one’s lovers should keep this in mind.
As abusive as his cheating was, truth-telling was far more damaging. After all, he was not just cheating, he was keeping count,
You will be thinking that it was good thing that she found out about his philandering ways. And yet, he might have been more tactful about it. He might have simply left the relationship without explaining why.
You might also be thinking that if he was cheating that much, she had to know. If she didn’t have any suspicions, clearly the relationship was not as close as she imagined.
Of course, some couples seem to have an arrangement wherein they allow each other a number of extra-marital peccadillos. One is thinking of a powerful pair of American politicians whose name is a household word.
No one is advising anyone to cheat… of course. But one is counseling those who do to keep their indiscretions to themselves. As Shakespeare said: The better part of valor is discretion.
I would note that every serious advice columnist says the same thing: better, if need be, to lie about a hookup than to destroy a marriage.
Why is this so?
If a man confesses to a dalliance his wife will immediately ask herself: why is he telling me this? And there are no good reasons. He might be trying to hurt her. He might be getting back at her… for Heaven knows what. He might be warning her that his is more than a simple dalliance, thus that it threatens her home and her family. Even if he fully intends to stay married, his telling her will communicate a different message.
If you think that truth-telling is a transcendent virtue, would you recommend that he describe what happened in explicit detail?
As I said, all good advice columnists will counsel dishonesty.
Martin has a rather large view of what constitutes lying. Much of it falls in the category of consideration and tact. Since you might imagine that he is advising you to trick someone into loving you by lying about who you are and what you want, it is good that he clarifies his idea.
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.
Later in his column he adds this telling point:
If honesty is what matters most to you, you might as well embrace a life of silence and become a Trappist monk.
To some extent this is just normal human behavior. The notion that we should always be open and honest, always tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth… comes to us, obviously, from the courtroom and from psychoanalysis.
When testifying in court you swear to tell the truth, but it is a very rare occurrence in the life of most human beings.
And yet, the Freudian demand that psychoanalytic patients say whatever comes to mind, without censoring the least repulsive or trivial thought, has managed to infiltrate the culture at large. It convinced more than a few people that being open and honest was therapeutic and that a failure to tell all was neurotic censorship, a sign of deceit and poor mental health.
Anyone who acquires the art of free association, to the point of practicing it in everyday life, will surely damage his relationships.
Near the end of his essay Martin offers the following:
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.
The point is well taken… up to a point.
True enough, honesty and deception should only be practiced in moderation. If you lie all the time, it is just as bad as telling the truth all the time.
And yet, I find it curious that Martin’s list of our “greatest lovers” includes so few great lovers. I will grant him Scheherazade, but the greatness of the cunning Odysseus had very little to do with his prowess at love-making. True enough, the Trojan horse was a grand deceit, but its purpose was not to love the Trojans, but to slaughter them.
Cleopatra was a great temptress, but she was also a queen. Her love was politically charged. She was known for her beauty, but less for her love. Molly Bloom did not count among the great lovers. Don Juan seduced many women, and thus might count as a great lover, but he was a great deceiver, someone who abused women.
A teacher of mine once proclaimed that all the great love stories in Western literature end tragically. He was far closer to the truth than is Martin.
Think of the truly great loves: Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Abelard and Heloise, Lancelot and Guinevere. None of them ended well.
You might add Antony and Cleopatra, another love affair that did not end well.
These great loves failed because the lovers did respect the proprieties. They did not respect duty or decorum. These lovers were so blinded by their love that they forgot who they were, what their socially defined relationships were. Their love was so authentic that it could not long survive in a world inhabited by social beings.
Allow me to redefine the notion of lying. My analysis seems consistent with Martin’s.
A man who does not say everything that comes to mind is not a liar. A man who does not tell his wife that she has put on some weight is not a liar. Even if he tells her that she looks great, he is not lying. He might be telling her that to him she is beautiful.
A woman who does not tell her husband that he counts among the world’s most inept lovers is not a liar. She might have decided to use flattery to encourage him.
A man who does not disclose an extramarital fling is not a liar. But, when he is asked directly whether he had a fling and he denies it, he is lying.
Much of what counts as a “lie” here involves considerate, tactful and respectful behavior. If a man loves a woman he is the custodian of her self-respect. Your compliments and your flattery are designed to let her know that you see her at her best, and ignore her faults, foibles and flaws.
Criticizing someone you love, on the grounds that you are being open and honest is abusive and most often counterproductive.
Being in love does not allow you to forget your manners, your courtesy, your decorum, especially if you want your relationship to last more than a few months.