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Relationships • Mature Love

What Are We Lying To Our Lovers About? 

It looks, at first glance, like an idyllic moment. Two devoted lovers are exchanging caresses in an elegantly attired salon. It evokes some of the nicest times of our lives, as we cuddle full of trust and tenderness, as vulnerable as a child, in the arms of the one we love.

Then we notice the painting’s title – ‘The Lie’ – and at a stroke, the mood is transformed, and we jump back, as if we had found an earthworm in our lunch. This isn’t a remotely cosy idyll any more, it’s a hellish representation of the most dreadful eventualities of relationships. All our fears, slumbering off stage, spring to life: he’s told her he adores her but he is actually using her for sex. She’s telling him that she’ll be loyal till the end, but there’s a lover waiting in an apartment across town. Both of them have said ‘I love you’ while inwardly mocking the poor sop naive enough to believe them. There’s even a vase of pitch black flowers to emphasise the scale of the treachery. Eden is full of snakes.

The Lie, Felix Vallotton, 1897, Wikimedia Commons

The painting can kick-start a host of panicky questions. Can we ever trust anyone in love? What if our partners are just saying one thing and thinking another? Where have they actually been? Who are their friends? What are they writing in their diary? Who are they messaging? What are they thinking about during sex? Should we trust them a minute longer?

To calm ourselves in such moods, as an alternative to seeking reassurance from our partners themselves or from our patient friends, we should consult an unfamiliar source: ourselves. Instead of wondering with mounting dismay how others might be lying to us, we could more fruitfully take a moment to dispassionately assess how much we lie to others.

And here, almost always, the answer is simple and striking: we lie a lot, an awful lot. We tell someone we can’t wait to see them when – in fact – we’re only half anticipating their return, wish their train could be delayed and have quite a few things we would love to finish off on our own. Or we insist that we think only of our partner during sex when we had a very pleasant fantasy about someone we crossed in the supermarket yesterday or took a class with last year. Or during an anniversary dinner, we spare a thought for an ex with a beguiling manner. Or a partner asks what’s on our mind and we say, ‘Nothing’ – even as they interrupt a reverie about one of their friends whom we found fascinating when we met them for a few minutes a decade before.

It can sound entirely awful and from a purist position, it surely is, but we should take comfort from one critical detail: these lies don’t have any connection to anything that will actually happen out in the world. We may not be entirely as we suggest we are – but our thoughts are almost invariably profoundly disconnected from any risk of action. These are thoughts, not deeds or projects. Yes, we’re not quite as patient as we make out, nor as loyal, nor as kind, nor as thoughtful, nor as steady, nor as dignified. But none of it ultimately counts because it won’t, in fact, have any impact. Our ‘bad thoughts’ are mere meteors scudding across the sky of consciousness leaving no discernible trail. We’re not going to leave our partner, we’re not going to lose our minds, we’re not going to wreak revenge on others. Which doesn’t preclude that we will on a fairly regular basis fantasise about precisely all those things – just as our partner and most others on the planet will do so with equal vigour and an equal absence of follow-through.

A truly adult perspective on human nature tells us both good and bad news. People are a lot more complicated in their minds than they make out in their conversations or behaviours. In that sense, we are all – if we want to use the word – ‘liars’. But these lies don’t generally have the power to interfere with the course of our lives: we are capable of being very good parents, lovers and friends and entertain thoughts that – if someone put a microphone in our minds – would cause consternation. But this is only because we would be letting them do so for sentimental and unfair reasons. The more we can genuinely allow that our minds are complicated places, the less we need to fear that our lives will at any moment have to become so.

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