Things People Say When You Get Divorced - Part 2
Updated: Feb 17, 2022
One of the things you hear a lot when you're going through a divorce is that it's essential for both people to reflect on their role and take responsibility for the part they played in the end of the relationship. This one always stings a bit, not because I don’t see some truth in it, but because I spent the better part of a decade buckling under the weight of all that felt broken in my life, which I assumed was a direct reflection of all that was broken in myself. Getting divorced felt like a good time to set down the backpack of rocks, not a chance to start hiking up a mountain with it.
Of course I have looked back and wondered where we went wrong, what I could have done differently, if things could have turned out better if I’d made different choices.
For Valentine’s Day this year, I gifted myself a copy of bell hooks’ All About Love, a beautiful book that is both academic and poetic, with a sprinkle of spiritual self-help. It's a true exploration of the one of the most overused and misunderstood words: love.
Honesty is not the first word that comes to mind when we think of love, and yet hooks devotes an entire chapter to it. In chapter 3, hooks makes the bold claim, “Widespread cultural acceptance of lying is one of the primary reasons many of us will never know love… we, as a society, need to renew a commitment to truth telling.”
I stopped to underline this part, both because it felt true to me, and because it’s the same basic idea at the heart of the other book that I’m reading (ok, listening to) right now, Martha Beck’s The Way of Integrity. I always pay attention when an unusual idea or a word or person comes up more than once in a short period of time.
All About Love came out in 2021, which means bell hooks wrote these words before “fake news” was a thing, before social media made the mass dissemination of false information possible, before verifiable facts were routinely up for debate. It seems visionary of her to have seen, back then, how our cultural lack of commitment to honesty was steering us away from love and down a dangerous path.
It’s easy to see how BIG lies, like infidelity or swindling people out of their life savings, undermine a person’s ability to love and be loved. What is harder to see, but equally true, is how all of the "harmless" white lies we tell ourselves and others also create barriers to love.
As a culture, we have a complicated relationship with honesty. On one hand, we tend to believe that people should be honest, and we liked to assume that that they basically are. People on all facets of the political diamond seem to agree that lying is abhorrent when it comes to things like infidelity and money laundering, car sales or nutrition facts.
On the other hand, we culturally embrace the idea that certain lies are not only ok, they are actually morally preferable. We believe that white lies, if told with the good intentions, are fine – even good. We say we like the present that we don’t, or that we’re fine with sushi when we're really craving Thai, or that we “totally understand” when a friend cancels plans at the last minute, again. It's generally understood that these lies are just a way of being kind, agreeable, a valiant effort to save someone else from embarrassment or guilt or pad thai.
This, right here, is where I can completely take responsibility for my role in the dissolution of my marriage. I did what I believed at the time was what was necessary for a successful marriage: I compromised. I said I didn’t care when I did, or pretended I wasn’t upset if I was. It became so reflexive that, over time, I didn't even have to lie, because I didn't even know what I wanted in the anymore.
White lies and compromise are a foolproof recipe for losing yourself. Because each time we do this,
we steer ourselves a little further away from our true self, the very self that most wants to love and to be loved. If you do this for long enough, you will wake up one day in a life you barely recognize. You will have what I call a "Talking Heads moment," you know, “This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife.”
I used to actually wake up sometimes in the early morning, and before any other thoughts had time to surface I would hear myself think, “This is a nice life but it's not yours.”
Lying, in all forms, is manipulation. And we can not really love or be loved if we are manipulating,
even if our only motivation is to be seen as good and worthy of love. The only reason to lie to because we want something that we think we won't get if we don't lie. We want a job or more money, we want someone’s approval, or the comfort of knowing that we will not be left alone.
This all made me think of the famous and oft-quoted line of Sir Walter Scott's, “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when we practice to deceive.” I always thought that this quote was a reference to how one lie leads to another, until we get caught in our own web of deception. But I see it differently now.
We tell lies to create a web to “catch” someone or something that we desire. And by doing so, we reveal that we do not believe that what is meant for us will come to us if we don't rig up an elaborate trap to catch it; we don't understand that we are capable of loving and worthy of love just as we are. The irony is that our “tangled web” can only catch and holds the things that were meant to pass us by anyway.
To be truly loved and loving, we must shift from believing that total honesty is brutal, and see it as loving. But how do we do this? I found one answer in an unlikely place.
My boys love the Piggy and Gerald books by Mo Willems. They are written like a play, quippy dialogue and simple illustrations, no adjectives at all. My 7-year old likes to read the part of the Piggy, while play Gerald, Piggy’s best friend who happens to be an elephant. Our performances always end with my 4-year old dissolving into giggles.
The other night we read the book called “I Really Like Slop.” In the story, Piggy makes her favorite food, slop, and she wants her best friend Gerald to try it. After some hemming and hawing, Gerald agrees to try a bite of slop. He take a bite, and then collapses into something that looks like the children’s book version of cardiac arrest.
After Gerald is done writhing on the floor, Piggy says, “So, do you really like slop?” Gerald replies, “No, Piggy. I do not really like slop, but I'm glad I tried it, because I really like you.” Piggy smiles. End scene.
So here, tucked inside this silly children's story, is a script for the type of honesty that is more loving than brutal.
Imagine the alternative. Gerald tells Piggy he likes slop, a harmless white lie to spare her feelings. Now cut to the imaginary sequel, Gerald’s Birthday Party. Gerald is turning 40 and his good friend Piggy has decided to throw him a surprise party and cater it with her speciality, slop, because she still remembers how much Gerald liked it. Then, Gerald loses it because it’s HIS big day and Piggy should know that he doesn't REALLY like slop, he’s an elephant after all, and obviously he was just trying to be nice.
Or Gerald tries to get all the other guests to pretend they like slop too, and Piggy overhears them talking and is mortified. Scene ends with Piggy slinking back to the kitchen, tears streaming down her round, pink face.
This is all a thought experiment, of course. But it illustrates how “harmless white lies” steer our relationships off-course.
Could I have saved my marriage by being more honest with myself and my husband?
Could I have spared myself a lot of pain and confusion?
Would I have it any other way?
It’s hard to imagine what my life would have looked like if that were the case.
My self-of-today forgives my self-of-back-then for the lies that I didn't know were lies, for thinking I needed to weave a web around myself just to hold onto love, for forgetting to consider my own opinions about my own life.
I was doing my best.
I thank bell hooks and Martha Beck (and Mo Willems!) for their unwavering commitment to honesty and for reminding me that we are only limiting our chance to give or receive real love when we are not fully honest with ourselves and with others.
File this and so much more under #thingsIlearnedthehardway