Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love. ~Fyodor Dostoevsky
It has been interesting to read the responses to Lance Armstrong's love overdue "confession" during his interview with Oprah Winfrey. The overwhelming response seems to be "uh...what took you so long."
I'm compulsively honest. The weight of a lie is a burden that I can hardly manage. Even "little white lies" – "That haircut looks great!" – leave me feeling...unclean. Which is why I could barely fathom the level of deception that my husband was capable of during his cheating. And, from the comments I get on this blog, it's a common refrain of betrayed wives. "How could he lie to me?" they ask, incredulous.
Honestly? I don't know.
But Lance Armstrong and Dostoevsky's quote give us a clue.
For starters, lies conveniently allow us to do what we want while avoiding negative consequences. And though I called myself compulsively honest, in the wake of my husband's deception I took a long hard look at my own relationship to the truth. And there are many ways to lie, including lies by omission, or only owning up to part of the truth. It's all dishonest.
But outright look-me-in-the-eyes-and-lie deception? That's beyond my ability.
My husband, however, is a master.
It's a skill he developed over years of growing up in a highly judgmental home. His parents disapproved of many things – his friends, his course selection, his music, premarital sex. Far easier than living with their disapproval or fighting for what mattered to him was lying. His teen years were almost like a double life. He was a "good" kid at home where his parents could see him but he was someone different away from home. I should have been tipped off when, early in our marriage, my husband advised me on the best way to deal with his mother. "Just tell her what she wants to hear, then do what you want," he said simply. I laughed. Turned out he wasn't joking. That was exactly how he "handled" me too.
It sounds psychopathic. And in some ways lying is exactly that. It's manipulative. It's hurtful. It's disrespectful. But for many people, it's survival. The idea of owning up to who they really are is terrifying. If they're not these "good" people who follow the rules, then who are they?
But life isn't black or white. All of us, even someone like me who calls herself compulsively honest, has thoughts that I keep hidden. I don't tell my friend, for example, that I think her 18-year-old son is sexy as hell. I know I wouldn't act on my thoughts. But I feel perverted...and a bit ashamed. He's a child, for god's sake. So I "lie" by omission. But I'm being honest with myself that I'm a 48-year-old woman attracted to a young man. That doesn't make me "bad". It makes me human. And it's healthier than telling myself that I'm not like that. Than lying to myself.
As Dostoevsky points out, too much lying blurs the truth within ourselves. We start to believe our own lies. In a marriage vulnerable to infidelity it can take the form of "my wife always nags me", "no-one appreciates me" or "she doesn't like sex the way I do." None of which may be true, or they may be partly true. But they become the complete truth, and offer some sort of implicit permission to step outside the marriage.
I remember watching Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith tell an interviewer once that they share their attraction to other people with each other. At the time it seemed almost cruel. Now though I can see that by sharing that part of themselves – which goes against our idea of a perfect marriage meaning we'll never be attracted to anyone but our spouse – it puts both husband and wife on the same team. By pulling those shameful parts of ourself into the light of day, we can deal with them and defeat them. Or accept them as part of the whole.
So many of us, in the wake of discovering our spouse's affair, are stunned by the lies. But by taking a "how could he!" stand – shocked and disapproving – we prevent any opportunity to really explore exactly what lies were being told about the relationship. And not just by the cheater.
I had to admit that, although I wailed about the loss of my "perfect" marriage, I hadn't been all that happy for quite a while. My marriage wasn't perfect at all. It was good. And it was worth saving. But I had been ignoring my own malcontent in favor of peace.
My husband, once he was able to talk to me candidly and without fear of repercussion, owned up to years of lies. The result of a lifetime of feeling shame about who he was. He was tired of the mask. He was sick of the lies.
And, if I'm to be completely honest, I saw the signs and lied to myself. It was easier than facing the truth.
Which is why, after sifting through my husband's lies, I began to examine my own. The lie I lived to the world about my "perfect marriage". The lie I lived for a decade when my mother was in and out of psychiatric hospitals that I was "fine".
Striving toward a life lived with authenticity keeps us clear about when we might veer into a lie, including one we're telling ourself. By allowing others that same freedom to be honest with us, even when it might hurt, we're far more likely to prevent a more painful deception.
It's hard to allow ourselves and others to fully be themselves. To reveal things that are ugly and wrong. But by pulling our ugly selves out from the shadows and acknowledging they exist, we strip them of their power over us.
What's more, we gain an ability to recognize lies. We learn to trust that part of ourself that nudges us when something doesn't seem quite right. And that ability to trust ourselves is more likely to keep us safe than anything anyone else can ever tell us.