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Marriage is Made of Lies

January 27, 2016

Friendship, Marriage, Relationships

Lies

“Marriage is made of lies, kind ones mostly, omissions. If you give voice to the things you think every day about your spouse you’d crush them to paste.” This is the crux of Lauren Groff’s best-selling novel Fates and Furies, which intriguingly Barack Obama chose as his favorite book in 2015. It would be too easy to dismiss this clever novel about the marriage of Lotto, a college god, and Mathilde, his glamorous but enigmatic wife, as having nothing to say about marriage in general. However, Fates and Furies, as the name suggests, borders on the philosophical. Groff seems to be saying that marriage requires us to keep some secrets from our partner, to keep our inner sanctum sealed from even our most intimate of acquaintances.

It’s obvious to most people that friends and in particular lifetime partners, are to be treated with the utmost respect, entailing the highest standard of truth telling. Why then did Marcel Proust, perhaps the greatest novelist of the 20th century, think that friendships were too important to jeopardize them with veracity? Famously, Proust refused to tell a friend that his book was terrible, even though that same friend had said some cruel things about Proust’s own masterpiece. Think about your own close friends, and perhaps especially, your lifetime partner. We have thoughts about them which, if expressed, could be perceived as unkind and hurtful, perhaps so much so, that the relationship might be irreparably damaged. Is it not better to be selective about what we tell a friend, perhaps even deceptive, to preserve a relationship of great value? Sure, close relationships are often defined by the exchange of intimate thoughts, but, according to Proust, conversation is a very limited medium compared, say, to the written word, which can be endlessly revised.

Esther Perel in Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, argues that maintaining sexual desire within a long term relationship requires each partner to recognize that they have a dark, mysterious side, which must always remain shrouded in secrecy. The need for security which propels us toward committed relationships is, she argues convincingly, incompatible with the need for adventure and excitement, without which eroticism is impossible.

“Eroticism requires separateness. In other words, eroticism thrives in the space between the self and the other. In order to commune with the one we love, we must be able to tolerate this void and its pall of uncertainties.”

I have always believed that, although we all follow our own illusions, they are probably the best thing about us. It’s also true that that some of these illusions are best kept to ourselves.

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill

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49 Comments on “Marriage is Made of Lies”

  1. The Coastal Crone Says:

    Selective seems to sound better than lies if done with love.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Yes, it certainly does sound better 🙂 However, in Fates and Furies Mathilde’s ‘selectivity’ is stunning to say the least. We can sugarcoat it all we want for the sake of appearances, but selectivity can have just as damning an effect as lying.

      Reply

  2. dgkaye Says:

    I agree that should always treat people with respect, and there is a fine line between truth telling and omission. I think that if you’re in a close and trusting relationship with a friend or romantically, we can feel comfortable enough to state our opinions of which they may not agree. But if it involves hurting them, then I’d prefer to keep my comment to myself rather than hurt them. I don’t feel that omitting words is the same as lying. 🙂

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Debbie, I agree with you that omission is not the same as lying but please see my reply to The Coastal Crone. The effect can be just as bad. Omitting to wake someone sleeping in a room which is on fire is likely to bring about just as fatal an outcome as murdering them.

      Reply

      • dgkaye Says:

        I agree with you Malcolm. Again, there’s a fine line between omissions. Neglecting to leave a negative or hurtful comment is far less dangerous than to omit life-saving info. 🙂

        Reply

  3. insanitybytes22 Says:

    Very interesting and well said. I often speak of romance as being an illusion, a story you tell yourself. That doesn’t make it any less real, but it does exist in the realm of imagination. To some extent our spouses do too, we pedestal and elevate them, or perceive them as the root of all evil, but regardless it is an illusion, a projection.

    People need friends outside of marriage to talk and share with, because while we may be blessed with intimacy with our spouses, there are still aspects of ourselves that we would prefer to keep to ourselves so as not to ruin the fantasy. I know my husband very well, but just the same, I am probably not the best one to hear about his insecurities, for example. Conversely I would probably not share certain aspects of myself with him, even though he already knows. It is just that in marriage we try to feed those illusions, to keep the fantasy going to some extent.

    Reply

  4. cattalespress Says:

    Malcolm, you pick such interesting topics; I always welcome your brilliant mind and find your work in blogosphere so refreshing!

    Reply

  5. Jon Sharp Says:

    Hi Malcolm,
    I think the following old dictum is still a good guide as to whether something should be said:
    “Is it kind, is it true, is it necessary? If you can answer ‘yes’ to at least two of these, then say it.”
    Best Regards
    Jon.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Jon, it’s good to hear from you and thank you for reminding me of this useful dictum although I don’t think it helps us with the really difficult questions. A fellow musician, in fact your best friend, asks you to review his work in the newspaper. You don’t think much of his playing but suspect that a bad review might end your friendship. What do you value most, truthfulness or his friendship?

      Reply

  6. Stiiv Knowers Says:

    Wonderful to receive your post “Marriage is made of lies” on our wedding anniversary, Malcolm. Formal marriage begins with a wedding vow, and in an individualistic soundbite culture, a wedding vow sounds like its a promise to experience the feelings of love for ever. This is, of course, an impossibly sentimental hope, that inevitably ends in “lies”. In cultures where marriage belongs to the extended family/faith tradition, a wedding vow is about a commitment to love “for better, for worse” and doesn’t depend on transient emotional feelings or sexual attraction alone. It’s possible to be “true” to this kind of vow, even in challenging circumstances, when a partner may feel bored, angry or sexually distracted. The default position is then to return to the fundamental wedding vow, promised with sincerity, and more “true” than passing emotions.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Stiiv, belated congratulations on your anniversary. I agree with your comments and hope you realize that, despite the provocative title, this is not an anti-marriage post but rather one that argues for a healthy partnership where both spouses retain some private space that is not shared and made transparent to the other.

      Reply

  7. Aquileana Says:

    Excellent post, thought- provoking and well penned…. I found that Marcel Proust´s statements are truly eloquent… As to marriage, I can not speak in a personal way as I am single… But I believe the statistics speak by themselves… Regardless, I think that lasting bonds can result of marriages… they do… But this does not imply lack of lies and secrets which might certainly jeopardise a supposedly consecrated bond.
    Sending best wishes, dear Malcolm. Aquileana 🙂

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Aquileana. Consecrated the bond may be but, if you accept the argument of the post, all close relationships must have a degree of opaqueness about them, if they are to survive. You inadvertently raise the interesting question of the religious position on this subject. Would the Church prefer to maintain the sanctity of the marriage bond even if they have to turn a blind eye to the inevitable deceptions required by the relationship? I am not an expert on the subject but I suspect it would.

      Reply

      • Stiiv Says:

        Your question about marriage and lies is simple and probing, Malcolm, and I kick myself that I never thought of posing it to the hundreds of couples I married over 40+ years as a parish priest. We learn the art of strategic lying as children and we deceive ourselves if we imagine that we avoid challenging stuff in our more superficial relationships, just to protect the sensibilities of others. Mostly it’s a truce. We keep it gentle, even untruthful, so that the others don’t tell us what they really think of us.
        Marriage, to be worthwhile at all, has to take more risks than superficial relationships. It’s meant to be lifelong, after all, so there’s a time and place for more risky truthfulness, alongside times of mutual and unconditional affirmation and just being quiet together.
        As for your point about turning a blind eye to the inevitable deceptions required by the relationship, the Church would call scrupulosity a sin. It’s a kind of spiritual obesessive compulsive disorder, that’s sinful because its more concerned with possessing a blameless self-image than stepping into the riskier waters of unselfconscious generosity. Each partner in a marriage is reponsible, not just for how truthful they are to their significant other, but also for how truthful they encourage their partner to be, and crucially, whether they’re subtly inviting their partner to be less than truthful, in the many ways we learn, if we know a person really well.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Stiiv, thank you. I sense so much wisdom and experience in your comments: “the art of strategic lying”; “Mostly it’s a truce”; “Marriage…has to take more risks”; “the Church would call scrupulosity a sin”. These are great points and each merits a post on its own. You say that you regret posing the question about marriage and lies to young couples that you married. I wonder how you might have approached that. What would you actually say about the delicate subject of lying, to young men and women with stars in their eyes and about to embark on a journey together for the remainder of their life?

        • Stiiv Says:

          It can be done, Malcolm, if you keep the conversation and jokey. The work of the priest conducting the wedding interview is, I suppose, a bit like this blog. The one who asks the questions doesn’t need to know their answers. It’s enough to pose the provocative question and hope that they go away and have the conversation.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          I knew I missed my vocation. I should have been a rabbi 🙂

  8. authorbengarrido Says:

    Excellent article. Does this mean you finished your book?

    As for omissions and lies on touchy subjects, I find that saying “I don’t want to tell you what I think,” is pretty valuable. It tells the other person that you don’t agree/approve, but lets them frame your objections in whatever way is best for them. It’s not a lie, it’s not omission, it’s strategic vagueness.

    I’m not sure mystery is the root of eroticism. The better I know my partner, generally, the more attracted I feel. It’s more that point where we give each other permission to cut loose and be uninhibited, to be animals.

    Perhaps I over shared. 😉

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Ben. Yes, maybe a little more than we needed to know 🙂 I’m afraid the book is far from being finished, but I missed the fact that posts are finite whereas writing a book feels more like sinking into a black hole. I needed a completion ‘fix’.

      “Strategic vagueness”. I like that very much. I also find it interesting that you feel more attracted to your partner the better you know her, as this cuts right across Perel’s thesis that intimacy, commitment, security, and family sound the death knell for risk, seduction, naughtiness and transgression. Maybe you’re the exception that proves the rule?

      Reply

      • Stiiv Knowers Says:

        I wonder if the more buttoned-up cultures are more erotic than we assume them to be, and whether modesty’s friend, the veil, is cunningly sexy. The inner sanctum of the Hindu rock temples of India is dark and moist and focussed on a stone lingam standing proud beneath a dripping cave. The Jewish Temple tradition restricted access progressively, to a hierarchy of initiates, until only the High Priest could “penetrate” the darkened Holy of Holies, and that only once a year. The Inner sanctum of New Grange stone-age burial ground in Ireland was penetrated by sunlight only once a year at sunrise on midsummer’s day. All these restrictions on access to inner sanctums suggest that there is a human instinct that the life-creating energy of procreation benefits from being kept “in the dark”. Ex nihilo comes the “Big Bang”.

        Reply

    • Holistic Wayfarer Says:

      Ben, I love that deepening knowledge of your Special Other makes you love her more. Maybe it’s something about Korean women. 😉 I’m reminded, though, that she really is a whole Other, what with the cultural divide that offers not only challenges but that seems to suit your adventuresome spirit. It would be interesting to see how your response to this post might change after 30 years of familiarity.

      Reply

  9. aaforringer Says:

    Good stuff, after coming out of my own marriage I ponder how much went unsaid and why. Not to worry, the thoughts leave me quickly when I realize you can’t change the past.

    Reply

  10. Dalo 2013 Says:

    The opening to this post may be one of the most powerful I’ve read in a while ~ I couldn’t help but smile. And then I thought about myself. While there are situations that are distinctly black and white, where truth is quite clear to see, the ones that cause the problems are when opinions are taken for truths.

    Human judgement is so poor I believe there is no other choice than to lie and deceive others in regards to our true feelings at any moment. Our true feelings are always evolving depending on a specific perspective we are given…so while I may say something hurtful one moment (something I fully believe) moments later I could then gain a different perspective and my stance may evolve and change as new perspectives are added. Lying gives us time to gain perspective and do what is best for us.

    Therefore, I believe “lies” are a necessity for survival as our minds simply cannot handle all that reality throws our way 🙂

    I thought about your sentence “We have thoughts about them which, if expressed, could be perceived as unkind and hurtful, perhaps so much so, that the relationship might be irreparably damaged” and how many times have people announced such thoughts especially in arguments (perhaps believing it at the time – and being honest) only to wince hours later when thinking of those words. Perhaps it is best if I say that my mind is too fragile to be trusted with the unadulterated truth as I am not sure if I ever fully understand the truth myself…so I better just shut up 🙂
    Cheers and nice having you back!

    Reply

  11. Daniela Says:

    It is one of those subjects that is sure to catch attention as well as spark discussions. All of which is just as well since, in my view, there are no rules but for those two (or more if so inclined) people freely and happily made and agreed on. Some would argue that the biggest and the most persistent illusion of all when comes to relationships is life-long fidelity coupled with total and complete openness and honesty with each other. Along the lines of Aristotle’s ‘Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two souls.’ The others would passionately argue just the opposite, including the notion that, if Aristotle could have possible foreseen the wreckage those simple lines of his would cause to many modern-day relationships – he would reconsider ever uttering them! Perhaps it is a mystery and unpredictability of human connections that makes it ever-so-interesting for each new generation to re-discover believing it to be for the first time!

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Daniela, thank you. I just knew you would be sympathetic to this post 🙂 But we only truly learn by experience. You can’t learn this stuff from books, so you are correct that every new generation has to discover these truths anew.

      Reply

  12. Lynda Says:

    I just read a short story by Anton Chekhov called “The Lady with the Pet Dog” (1899) and this passage reminded me of your post:

    “He explained that, too. He talked, thinking all the while that he was going to see her, and no living soul knew of it, and probably never would know. He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth — such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club, his “lower race,” his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities — all that was open. And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night. All personal life rested on secrecy, and possibly it was partly on that account that civilised man was so nervously anxious that personal privacy should be respected.”

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Lynda, thank you. I have not read Chekov but, thanks to you I will. I just read a summary of The Lady with the Pet Dog so I think I now understand this disturbing and I think, profound passage.

      Reply

  13. Tahira Says:

    Ah, Malcolm, the balancing of togetherness and individuality. i use to have a very hard time with this, but these days I am 100% in agreement with you and Esther Perel about eroticism requiring separateness. There is definitely a time for sharing and openness and directness but there is also a time for keeping some things to ourselves. It’s a fine balance but for any relationship to thrive it is what is necessary. Kahlil Gibran puts it in these words “Let there be spaces in your togetherness” … ” stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, and the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

    Reply

  14. Diana keevan Says:

    Malcolm, I agree totally with the premise of your blog and with most of the interesting comments I have read.. With 35 years in a happy marriage I comment with the strength of real experience. It is quite possible to continue in a loving relationship through all the trials and blessings in our lives.

    Reply

  15. Holistic Wayfarer Says:

    “she argues convincingly, incompatible with the need for adventure and excitement, without which eroticism is impossible.”

    I think it depends on the meaning and expectations of eroticism. I listened to Esther last yr and, as you suggested to IB, cannot fully reconcile my worldview to Perel’s. As for the close friends you bring up, those nearest and dearest to me can handle giving and receiving the utmost honesty with me. It’s a level of friendship even my husband envies watching, so truth v. friendship as in the examples you give is not really an issue for me.

    Funny: I mentioned this post and Ben’s comment to Husband, who was all for strategic vagueness. He loved the phrase.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “I think it depends on the meaning and expectations eroticism.”

      No, it doesn’t HW. To see why just substitute sexual attraction for eroticism in the above sentence. There is no substantial disagreement about the meaning of sexual attraction. I agree that your religious world view might not be compatible with Perel’s but that does not mean she is wrong, just that you give priority to values such as security and transparency over others such as eroticism and sexual attraction. To show that Perel is wrong you would have to argue as Ben does (unconvincingly in my opinion), that security and familiarity enhance eroticism and sexual attraction.

      Reply

      • Holistic Wayfarer Says:

        Esther Perel will probably enjoy Greer’s The Story of a Marriage: On un/familiarity and love:

        Because a lover exists only in fragments, a dozen or so if the romance is new, a thousand if we’ve married him, and out of those fragments our heart constructs an entire person. What we each create, since whatever is missing is filled in by our imagination, is the person we wish him to be. The less we know him, of course, the more we love him.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          “…out of those fragments our heart constructs an entire person”

          How can you argue with this HW? It is not just lovers, not even just people. This is the way we perceive everything. Here’s how a Stanford cognitive scientist describes sight:

          “For all our experience of a rich visual world, it seems that we take in no more than a handful of facts about the world, throw in a few stored images and beliefs, and produce a convincing whole in which it is impossible to tell what was real and what imagined.”

          Clearly the imagination goes into overdrive when it comes to lovers, sexual attraction and eroticism but it is all in our head. To know is nothing, to imagine is everything.

  16. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    Thank you for the linkback. Insanitybytes has written her own post (https://insanitybytes2.wordpress.com/2016/01/28/marriage-is-made-of-lies/) partly in answer to this one, and has written extensively on the subject of marriage in her Marriage Musings section. Definitely worth the trip over.

    Reply

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