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Apr 25 2009

When All Else Fails, Tell the Truth

Published by at 5:15 am under Advice

The premise of the Dating at Midlife research project is that as people go through a midlife transformation, they change the way they create intimate relationships.

It’s hard to catalogue all the changes. One of the big changes is that people become more honest with themselves. When I was younger, in a moment of supremely naïve arrogance I complained that I couldn’t understand why people found it so difficult to be honest with themselves. That was before I began my own midlife project.

Lying is a strange business. Many animals use deception for survival. A momma bird will pretend to have a broken wing to draw predators away from a nest. Many predators use camouflage to capture prey. Wild female birds will mate with one male but bond with another for child rearing. Among humans, there is no necessary connection between what is said and what is done. To deceive is natural.

And then there is television. Almost everyone you see on television including news people are actors. The more hours you watch television the fewer hours you are interacting with real people, people who aren’t always performing for you. Our infotainment culture has dulled our talent for truth detecting.

When we get honesty and fearless self-disclosure, we often aren’t sure how to handle it. We aren’t even sure we want it.

Most relationships are a cocktail of truth and lies. For example, less mature, and less honest people often perform a strange mental trick with their intimate relationships. They divide them into two opposing categories. Category one: predictable, but maybe dull. Category two: fascinating and romantic, but dangerous.

What’s dishonest about that? I’ll get to that question further on.

For now, I want to point out the contrast: a relationship that is both dependable and also slightly dangerous. It takes a lot of honesty to make one of those. It’s a true improvisation: passion and safety at the same time, in the same relationship. To do this you must take certain risks. Obviously, not everyone has a taste for searching and fearless (to use Bill W.’s phrase) conversations with their partners.

Here is an excerpt from a new play, Intrigue with Faye, which explores those themes. This was in the New York Times Sunday, June 08, 2003, Theater section, page 6.

Kean and Lissa have a problem. They live together but don’t trust each other. In Kate Robbin’s play, “Intrigue with Faye,” the couple decide to videotape their every word and move as a way of cultivating trust and intimacy. The MCC Theater production stars Benjamin Bratt and Julianna Margulies. Directed by Jim Simpson, it opens on Wednesday at the Acorn Theater on Theater Row. Appearing in the video cameos are Gretchen Mol (as the title character) and Swoosie Kurtz along others. In this scene, Kean and Lissa draw up a contract.

KEAN: You stop lying to yourself and I’ll stop lying to you.
LISSA: How do you suggest we effect that program?
KEAN: We just…stop.
LISSA: Your part seems a little bit easier, don’t you think? Since it’s conscious. I mean, what am I supposed to do?
KEAN: Be willing to accept that things are not always exactly how you want them.
LISSA: So what? Just accept the fact that you lie to me?
KEAN: No, because I’m going to try not to lie. You just have to…be open. Try not to sit in judgment.
LISSA: For how long?
KEAN: I don’t know. Until we change.
LISSA: Let’s give it a time frame. I’m not agreeing to be stupid for the rest of my life.
KEAN: That’s not a very open thing to say.
LISSA: We haven’t started yet. How long?
KEAN: Hey, let’s do it for Lent. Let’s give up lying for Lent.
LISSA: How long is Lent?
KEAN: Well, it already started, but it’s now until Easter.
LISSA: Who’s the judge?…I mean, with Lent, presumably, God is watching, right? Who’ll be watching us?
KEAN: We’ll have to watch each other.
LISSA: One another. It’s one another. When you’re only talking about two people. Each other is for groups.
KEAN: Whatever.
LISSA: What about when we’re apart?
KEAN: Maybe we should just give up lying at home.
LISSA: No, I think we should try to give up lying all day, and just be judged at home.
KEAN: Not judged. Supported.
LISSA: Whatever. Let’s sign a contract.
KEAN: Do you think that’s necessary? (She takes out a piece of paper and starts drawing up a contract.)
LISSA: I, the undersigned, do hereby swear to give up lying to others and/or myself for the remaining what is it? Thirty whatever days of Lent. After which time it will be determined whether or not I am capable of change.
(Kean starts to sign.)
KEAN: Wait. We need a witness.
LISSA: That’s a very dangerous attitude.
KEAN: I live on the edge.
LISSA: Hm.
KEAN: I’ll be your witness. You be mine.
LISSA: No, we need an objective party. Let’s put it on tape.
(She speaks into the tape recorder, while signing.)
Melissa Feld, in sound mind, signing the Lent Agreement. (He signs.)
KEAN: O.K. Go.
LISSA: It’s almost 12. Let’s wait for midnight.
KEAN: Six minutes. Maybe I should make a few phone calls before we start.

* * * * * *

Honesty is work, but so is lying. When you tell a lie to someone else, you have to keep two sets of books, one for the lie and another for the truth. It is the strain of doing this that makes lie-detection devices possible. A lie detector measures the small signs of the stress of lying, the slight sweat on your skin, and the tiny changes in pulse rate and breathing. A lie detector does mechanically what many of us do biologically when we are lie-detecting, we tune in and listen for the strain.

There is one good way to lie and avoid lie-strain; believe your own lie. Throw away the good set of books and keep the false ones. Pretend that the false story is the true one. Some say this is more dangerous than lying. I suspect it is more common.

Remember I mentioned earlier that less mature people tend to create two categories of relationship? I said that there were the “safe but dull ones” and the “passionate, but dangerous ones.” Which of the two types of relationship do you suppose is the more likely to be maintained by lies?

I would guess it is most often the dull one. And often the dullness of a relationship is a shared lie. Just under the surface of a dull, predictable relationship you will often find cold anger, seething resignation and shark-mouthed resentment with three rows of teeth.

When a lie surfaces in a safe relationship, it’s like a sea monster breaking surface. It scares all parties. When a lie comes out, suddenly the meaning of many little events has to be revised. Your whole sense of what this relationship was about needs to be revised.

But what should be done once the monster breaks the surface? End the relationship? What are the choices?

The bad choices are to deny you didn’t notice anything to minimize He’ll get over it; it’s an exception, she didn’t mean it or to kill the messenger.

All these are examples of colluding. Homer Simpson said, “It takes two to tell a lie, Marge; one to tell it and one to believe it.”

When a big truth comes out in a private relationship, what do you do?

Build on it. The main skill you need here (aside from the ability to get a grip on yourself) is the skill of self-disclosure.

Notice the difference between these two sentences:

A: “You are dishonest. You have lied.”

B: “I don’t know what to believe.”

Which is stronger?

Some would say statement A.

Statement A is an accusation. It can be argued with or defended against. It is an invitation to obscure the truth with smoke. Statement B is much stronger. Statement B is a self-disclosure. There is no arguing with it.

When truth surfaces, add to it. You never know where it will lead. You can see that there is great danger in doing this. It takes skill and maturity to do this well.

A conversation in which truth unfolds moves very slowly. Reactions are quick: “Oh yeah? Well, so are you!” Responses take time. To form a judgment based on your deepest feelings, to know what they are, to think about them and to state it all as your own personal response that takes some patience, self-knowledge and basic good will.

One time I did a computer search on the Bible and collected all the times someone was told “Fear not.” It was about 42 times and often these were the first words said by an Angel or some other manifestation of God. Apparently, when truth emerges, the most common initial reaction to it is fear. I’m old, but I suspect that one never gets over this initial fear. For me, that explains the paradox of how the search for truth can create both danger and safety in a relationship.

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