The necessary ingredients of a good and lasting romantic relationship are difficult to achieve and frequently underrated: respect, support, thoughtfulness, forgiveness, patience, interest, individual fulfillment, and a willingness to work are not particularly glamorous or much valued virtues. But one component of a romance built to last has the benefit, at least, of being enduring love’s naughty secret: deception.
Or perhaps deception is too strong a word. Say instead discretion, secrecy – wise suppression of certain facts, occurrences, and knowledges. Everyone who dreams of finding lasting love dreams that in doing so they will find someone who understands them better than anyone else does. Few people consider that such comprehension must include an understanding of what the beloved does not want to hear, or cannot bear to know, as much as it includes an understanding of the beloved’s other needs and hopes. “I love you,” is perhaps the sweetest phrase the world has made, but it is rendered much sweeter when it is not followed by “more than I loved the one before you,” and even sweeter when that is not followed by, “and much more than I loved the twelve I loved before that.”
Imagine, if you will, that each new lover is an unknown country. Arriving at its boundaries, the one who loves must begin to make a mental map. How unadulteratedly delightful that cartography is at first (and, indeed, for much of the time afterward): ah, this feels like this; I hadn’t expected…ah, that way; I’ll certainly remember that for next time…this makes you smile; this makes you laugh; this is why you do what you do; these are the secret springs and urgings that propel you. Towers are marked, declivities discovered, even swamps and fens that would otherwise be, perhaps, unwanted in a new land are made lovely by virtue of being in this land, known only to this fresh, intrepid map-maker.
And yet at the same time, to know a country fully is to know its dangers as well as its delights. Anyone who chooses to settle in a given area, to make a home there, soon becomes aware of the grounds to be avoided: here is a minefield; here is a cave that is small but, once entered, impossible to get out of; here is a plain where nothing will ever grow, here a field that one expects to be filled with grain but that instead is barren, here a quicksand so innocuous-seeming and yet so dense that it must never be gone near, never mind stepped upon. Mapping these is as much a part of coming to know one’s chosen land as is learning which fields to lie down in, which doors to knock at for sustenance and refreshment.
The list of discretions to be observed with a given partner contains items well known to any: do not mention the comeliness of a restaurant server (at least not for many years); do not suggest that perhaps one’s partner could spend less money on shoes, or on gadgets; do not compare the partner’s cooking, or dancing, or housekeeping, unfavorably to that of your parent of the same sex; do not describe in elaborate, fully realized detail a sexual fantasy involving a friend or co-worker known to both parties (at least not for many years); do not say, unasked, “that makes you look fat.” Yet each list also contains entries as unique as the lover to whom they apply, entries learned by means of respect, thoughtfulness, forgiveness, patience, and interest: don’t buy those kinds of trousers, they remind me of my father; don’t mention that time I fell down and you laughed at me, even though you laughed because I looked cute; don’t say “lick,” because it makes my flesh crawl; pretend I look good in this piece of clothing – stop, hold, avoid, understand, don’t speak. The ability to be silent, and to know when to be silent, is perhaps the greatest asset a lover can possess.
And yet, and yet…(and this is something that the outraged declaimers against romantic deceit understand) at what point does such wise silence, such loving discretion, slip into, well, deceitfulness? There is a reason, after all, why there are sins of omission as well as commission. What are the steps from “I won’t tell you that because I know it will upset you,” to the subtly differently inflected version of “I won’t tell you that because I know it will upset you,” to “I won’t tell you that”? How easy it is to slip from other-loving silence to self-serving avoidance! And then, to be fair, such slippages are not always clear to the one who slips. At what point does forgetting to mention become deliberately forgetting to mention? How much of lying to the beloved is also lying to oneself? Of those insignificant moments that turn out to be significant, how many of us recognize them as significant at the time? How and when do we realize that doing what is right is actually doing what is right for me?
Being human is a tangled business, and loving – fully loving – is perhaps the most snarled and un-tidyable of its many threads. Who would be a lover, with its complexities, its compromises, its inevitable acceptances and losses? But who would not be a lover, with its exhilarations, its completions, its quiet delights and certainties? Who, alas, can love and be wise?
And yet, and yet…(as the outraged declaimers against romantic discretion do not understand, or understand but will not admit) it is unwisdom that makes us fall in love in the first place. And if it is also unwisdom that brings us to the dreadful, anguished end of one love, it is again unwisdom that makes the new love that follows. And in that new love discretion (silence, secrecy, suppression, deceit) will come to play its knotty role again.