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"When sex is at stake, the truth just goes out the window": Clancy Martin on love, lies and final first kisses

We want sex and love. We also love risk and fear. The author of "Love and Lies" explains how we reconcile it all


Sara Scribner
February 15, 2015 3:00AM (UTC)

Many people might resist a book about love written by a twice-divorced, thrice-married expert on deception and duplicity. Clancy Martin’s "Love and Lies: An Essay on Truthfulness, Deceit, and the Growth and Care of Erotic Love," however, is a revelatory, sometimes disturbing, look at the many stages of love, an elephant-in-the-room topic that rarely gets such in-depth treatment.

Martin is not shy about admitting personal faults and failures, and he occasionally reveals his own journey from mother love to teenage romance and adult amour in the rawest way. But Martin is an academic whose specialty is deception, so the novelist-philosopher often consults Plato, Proust and Socrates to understand the way we think about love, confuse ourselves with sex and fool ourselves through romance.

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The author and professor spoke to Salon about love, lies and the underappreciated allure of the kiss.

At the outset of this book, it struck me that in some ways our entire lives are driven, ruled and organized by love and our ideas about love. We don’t explore the concept very much; love is all around us but we never really look at what it means deeply. Why did you want to write about it when it’s something that we tend to avoid delving into?

There’s a couple of reasons why I wanted to write about it. One reason is that in philosophy there are a lot of good books written back in the classical period, and mostly by French authors in the modern period. But there are only a handful of interesting books that have been written in recent contemporary philosophy and those have often dealt with the subject in not very successful, dull, analytical way that doesn’t really capture a lot of what we really want to talk about when we’re talking about love. So part of it was just being trained as a philosopher and interested in the subject and trying to approach it in a philosophical way that was also more -- although it sounds funny given the book -- a little more honest because I was using a lot of concrete examples from my own life. And using examples from great literature that some contemporary philosophers either weren’t using or may just not have been familiar with because they spent their time reading philosophical literature rather than other kinds of literature. That was part of it.

Another part of it, honestly, grew out of my interest in this whole question of truth and deception and especially truthfulness and deception. The more I thought about lying and deception and why had I struggled in my own life with honesty and deception, I kept coming back to this same issue over and over again about love, about the fear of losing love, about caring for loved ones or betrayal of loved ones. And it seemed to me like there was no place where the question of truth and deception was more crucial than in the context of love. So I think that’s what drove me to bring the two concepts together.

A lot of people would say that love has nothing to do with deception. 

Exactly. This is also part of my motivation -- that we have this old idea that goes back to Plato at least that the goal of love (and I think this is a deeply mistaken and psychologically dangerous idea we have about the goal of love) is that we will obtain maximal truthfulness and transparency between the lover and the beloved. That can be lover and beloved in an erotic context, or it can be lover and beloved when it comes to children and parents, or it can be lover and beloved in familial contexts, or even friendships. I just think that that idea is patently false. I believe that intimacy, trust and truthfulness are all interestingly related, there’s no question about it, and that part of intimacy is the ability to share sides of yourself with another person, aspects of yourself that you maybe are afraid even yourself to acknowledge and certainly would be afraid to acknowledge publicly. There is that deep connection and that is related to the truth and it’s an important part of truthfulness and love. But I think we have a tendency to think that that’s the whole story, and my argument is that’s only really about half of the story.

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I think that a lot of people think of deception as the end of love, as love fades away. But it doesn’t seem like you believe that; it seems like you believe that deception is involved from the outset usually. Would you say that’s true?

Yes, I would say that absolutely. I love the way you pose that question because just the opposite is true of the way it works, that deception tends not to occur as obviously at the end of relationships as it occurs very obviously at the beginning of a relationship and that relationships in a funny way tend to go in the opposite direction. When the stakes are very high, and this is of course true among non-human animals as well as for us human animals, when the stakes are very high, we recognize that we have to be playing at the top of our game in order to attract the attention and sustain the attention of the would-be lover. So that means putting our best face forward, that means engaging in all kinds of guises and poses and feints and manipulations that the process of seduction involve.

Then you might, as any grown person who’s been in a relationship knows, when a relationship ends you very often -- and I think this also has its deceptive elements to it -- you have this feeling like, “OK, well now I’m going to tell you what I really think of you.”

Have you ever had that feeling at the end of a relationship? Like, “I don’t have to lie to you anymore, I’m going to put my cards on the table. This is what I really think of you!” Well, that I think is also a funny kind of self-deception because I think it’s a self-deception that goes along with just because we’re angry, we feel like we’re saying something that’s more true than the things that we say when we’re feeling affectionate and when we’re feeling loving -- and we think that those thing sometimes maybe are too good to be true, when we’re feeling warm, really warmly and lovingly towards each other.

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I think that although it’s certainly the case that many relationships are destroyed by betrayals, I’d rather use that word than deception. I think that actually the way particularly romantic relationships get going so often is through the process of mutual seduction, which is very much a process of mutual deception and self-deception, which also involves of course a play between truth telling and lying. It would be mistaken to think, and this is the mistake I think we do make, that it’s all lies that get a relationship off the ground or, also a very common mistake, that it’s all truth-telling that gets a relationship off the ground. We’ve all had two experiences when falling in love. Experience number one is, “Oh, I suddenly feel like I could tell this person everything, like I’ve met the one person who completely understands me and I completely understand them.” And that is an important feeling, but we who get into the relationship later learn that that was just a happy illusion, a love-drunk illusion that we were in for a bit.

We all also have had the feeling when getting into a romantic relationship of pausing for a second and thinking, “Wait, I feel like I’m making this whole thing up; am I in love with this person or am I just inventing all of this because I want to be in love, because I want to have a relationship?”

Like it’s a dream that you’re in.

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Exactly. A dream is a perfect analogy. You’re in this dream of your own making. And to suppose that that means this whole thing is an illusion in a bad way is just as confused a way of thinking as supposing that suddenly you found your one true partner who you can tell everything to and who will understand everything about you and you understand everything about them. I think both extremes are equally confused and the truth is in the middle, between those positions. I think that’s true at the beginning of a relationship, in the middle of a relationship, and at the usually sad end of a relationship. It’s always going to be a mix of truth-telling and deception of necessary and sometimes unnecessary lies and necessary and sometimes unnecessary truths.

I want to talk a little bit about the different kinds of love, because you describe different kinds of love but then at the beginning of your book you make a strong case for the love for the parent as not necessarily being separate from erotic love, if I’m taking your argument correctly. You see connections. Could you describe the connection briefly? Because a lot of people would really love to not think that parental love has anything to do with erotic love. 

I think that just about everything we know about love, we learn from our parents. That’s not to say that we don’t keep on learning about love and how to be better lovers throughout our whole lives. I think that for most of us human beings, we do in fact continually learn about love and have all these different experiences which inform and enrich or maybe sometimes impoverish our conception of love. But I think that so much of what subsequently informs how we think about love, how we act as lovers, how we love other people, and the kind of expectations we have from love comes from the first handful of years of how our parents love us and how we understand love through the way we see how they treat us, the way they think about love, the way they act as lovers of us.

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As I do in the book, I’m willing to go some distance with Freud on this. I think that Freud is more acute about love, relationships especially and the way they evolve as children than maybe a lot of contemporary psychiatrists would like to give him credit for. I think he has a lot of very profound insights about the way love develops in us as young children. But are there ways in which I want to say that we come to emancipate ourselves from the love understanding that we get from our parents? For me it’s like anything else about what matters most to us. Probably most of us find, to our chagrin, as we become adults that we’re turning out much more like our parents than we ever thought we would or ever wanted to be. I think it works that way with love, too. But it’s also the case, you’re not your mom, you’re not your dad, and you are different in all kinds of important respects. I think that not only subsequent love relationships but also your efforts to reflect on yourself and your own psychology, your efforts to grow as a person, and your negative and positive experience particularly in the context of love can change over the course of time. It might be really hard to do.

For example, in my own case, I do think that in my first marriage I had a naive view of what romantic love was and I think that incredibly naive view informed my decision to get married, which was a bad decision with happy consequences. It resulted in my first daughter being born and to this day my first wife is one of my best friends and I’m sure she wouldn’t be if we hadn’t married, so it was a good decision in that way. It was a crazy decision with happy consequences. And then the relationship ended because of an equally confused notion about love. I met a woman and I thought, “Oh, now this is true love! I finally discovered true love.” And it took me about a month to figure out that, no, I had thrown away my marriage on something that was just as illusory as the reasons I had gotten married in the first place or even more so.

Then in my second marriage, I learned some new things both in the beginning and in the end of the relationship. My second wife, when we talk about the end of our relationship now she agrees that it was a good thing for both of us that we got divorced even though the way that we got divorced was not necessarily a good thing. But the divorce itself was good. And now in my third marriage I think I’m learning a whole new set of things and these are not all things that I learned from my parents. I think what I learned from my parents was something that’s not probably ever going to change about me. From my mother, I think I learned that love and fear are intimately related emotions, and from my father I think I learned that love is something that you don’t have a lot of control over but insofar as you do have control over it, your control is that you have the ability to give it to other people, you can’t expect it from them. That was a very long answer to an incredibly complicated question.

There are so many things that we could talk about here, but when you were talking about fear and love are interrelated, I thought about, do you know Ian Kerner? Have you heard about the writer, psychologist? 

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What was the name again?

His name is Ian Kerner, I think. He wrote a book called “She Comes First.” He’s a sex expert. 

I don’t think I know his work.

One of the things that he talks about in the beginning of his book about men, which is called “He Comes Next,” he talks about this really famous study about a woman on a bridge. Have you heard of this? They had a beautiful woman approach men on a bridge, ask them questions, and she gave them her number. One was just a regular situation, the other one was on a very dangerous, rickety bridge. And they found that the men who actually called back, statistically, the ones who were approached on the dangerous bridge called back disproportionately more than the ones who were just approached on the street.

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I don’t know about this study but it’s terrific!

Oh, it’s really interesting. But they also tended to ask her for a date. What the researchers pulled from that is that sex and fear or danger or a sense of risk are very, very related. So you just said that love and fear are tied together; how does sex complicate love?

A whole bunch, definitely. This is a really interesting question. First off, it’s interesting to me now to notice the ways in which, as we change as sexual beings over time, our disposition towards truthfulness in love actually changes. This is a bold claim that it would take some sociologists and psychologists to get together to study to see if it were true, but I’m really speaking mostly from personal experience and from experiences of friends of mine. I’ve noticed both in women and in men that when the erotic component is particularly powerful, people’s predilection towards deception, willingness to deceive, willingness to manipulate, to fictionalize, to play, is much stronger than when the sexual component is less pronounced. This of course makes perfect sense. Normally, when we get ourselves into either erotic situations that are threatening to a current relationship or at the outset of an erotic relationship, when sex is at stake, the truth just goes out the window a lot of the time. We don’t give a damn about the truth anymore; the sex is much more important than the truth. Now, this question of risk and fear when it comes to sex -- what sort of impact would it have or in the case of the study that you’re talking about, that obviously this woman is at risk and there’s this kind of element of riskiness and on the part of the men the perception that in some way she needs to be saved, why would that enhance the erotic interest?

Or that it could be that the men feel like they’re in danger, too, though. 

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Right, it could be that because they were on a bridge and they felt that this is a dangerous scenario, the combination of the fear, that stayed locked in their minds. We don’t know really what the psychology is there, whether we’re at risk together and that’s what’s making it more arousing or if it’s because you’re at risk or if it’s because I’m at risk. There’s some mix of all three. But clearly somehow or other, the feeling of danger is erotically stimulating. I think what this illustrates for me is that when we think about care and we think about how it relates to most basic emotions like fear and insecurity, anxiety, these are really important and they might be a certain weird pinnacle in sexual experience and erotic experience. It could very well be that more than one level of loving, emotional engagement takes place once sex gets thrown into the mix of love, that it raises the stakes by bringing out still more primitive components of the emotional experience of love. All of this is speculative. Another interesting question here is that uniquely intimate or also uniquely dehumanizing aspect that sex can have in the context of love. It really is polarizing. On the one hand, sex can be the very loneliest love experience that we have, where you just feel completely isolated, completely betrayed, or completely bereft. On the other hand, it can be, as we all know in the happy situation, when you feel like this is a moment of the deepest intimacy between me and my partner. I think that that is part of the reason why I want to say that romantic love relationships are in a slightly different category than all the rest of the love relationships that we have.

A lot of philosophers have suggested that the highest -- it starts with Aristotle in the West but you also find it in Eastern philosophy and it’s very common among the medievals -- that the highest love relationships we can have, the finest, the best, are the kind of love relationships that we can have between friends. Usually part of that story is also a narrative about truthfulness because you can be truthful to your friends about things that you couldn’t be truthful with or wouldn’t be truthful with about to a sexual partner, which itself is interesting, that claim. I don’t myself think that it’s accurate but I can see why it’s interesting for my point about love and deception and I can see why some people might think it were true.

For me, this is why I think there are important disanalogies between romantic love and the love we have of our children or that our children have of us or the love we have of our friends, because I think sex does move it into a different category. Suddenly you have this rare opportunity for a very particular kind of intimacy, a very particular kind of exposure of oneself. Sex in a way is one of the bravest things that we can do and can really be one of the scariest things that we can do. If you’ve been married for several years and you feel like you are wanting to ask your partner for sex, for example, in a way that’s a very brave, very scary thing, because you’re exposing yourself to them and to rejection in a way that you might not feel safe doing or you might feel like you’re asking them for something that you only want them to give freely. And you just don’t have that kind of personal exposure in other kinds of love relationships. All these are ways in which for me the erotic element puts romantic relationships in this unique category where they’re more than friendships. Also it has to do with choice in a complicated way that we could talk some more about.

You’re very, very open about some really personal experiences and I was thinking, it’s so interesting that our experiences about love and sex build and develop over time. We change our ideas, we are betrayed and have to build ourselves up again, and yet those past relationships can’t be spoken about with the person that we’re most intimate with because of jealousy. I think most people don’t describe previous sexual encounters or discoveries about sex with the people that they’re the most intimate with, and that’s kind of strange. 

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I think they do; they don’t do so honestly. They’d better not (laughs).

It seems obvious, like of course you don’t do that. But in some ways it seems strange because we develop our ideas through our past experiences and it’s at the very core of how we think about love and intimacy. 

Absolutely. It’s a fact that I don’t discuss as much as maybe I should have in the book. But that's one of the most obvious areas where we either lie by omission or overtly lie to current lovers about past lovers, past loves. Of course there are very, very well documented and rather predictable studies about how men lie about how many lovers they’ve had; well, both men and women lie about how many lovers they’ve had, women claim they’ve had fewer than they’ve had, men claim they’ve had more than they’ve had. It’s so predictable about us as human beings that it just makes you want to laugh, it’s really silly.

But I think the question you raised is the more challenging one, which is if I’m really being maximally intimate with my spouse, my partner, wouldn’t that be one of the most important things for us to be able to talk about, our past loves, past lovers? And that view is one of the things that I want to challenge because I want to argue that what maximal intimacy is about is really not about every detail of your past emotional life or my past emotional life. What maximal intimacy is about, I think, is my commitment to care for you and to care for us to the greatest degree that I am capable and for you to have that same attitude. That commitment to care, to take care of, truth is just one good among many at that point. I think it’s a better way for us to understand intimacy than the truthfulness model. This is why I think the truthfulness model is dangerous and this is where I think the analogy of parents caring for their children is very helpful. Because when I think of my relationships with my children -- which is where I hope I’m best as a loving person in my life, is with my wife and my children -- I even worry about this latest book. Have I been so truthful in this latest book that it’s going to interfere; are my children going to have a weird view of their dad because they know too much? When you think about your children, you don’t think the goal is to be as truthful with those little characters as possible; actually you think just the opposite a lot of the time in order to care for them and to help them grow into a healthy self.

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They don’t want that.

No, they don’t want to know everything about you. I was talking [to my students] about love and their parents and everything. I was like, “Guys, there’s something you really don’t want to think about, and it’s how you all got here in the first place.” And I could see them all making these terrible faces; it was so much fun to think about all of these students in my classroom thinking about their parents having sex and just being totally grossed out, like, “God! I wonder if they still do that? No, I don’t think they do it anymore. I think they stopped several years ago. It’s just too gross to think about.” Old people having sex, ugh, horrifying!

This is going to be running on Valentine’s Day; I’m sure you’re getting a lot of Valentine’s Day-related questions. Instead of talking about Valentine’s Day and our expectations for it, I want to talk about the kiss. You write very eloquently on the kiss and for many, when we first fall in love or when we’re teenagers, we spend hours kissing and perfecting kissing and then sex comes in and kissing just seems like a warm-up. Can you talk a little bit about the power of the kiss?

Absolutely. This is something I talk about in my Intro to Philosophy course and we get to the section on love and I talk about kissing and I would try to get my students to recognize with me that in some sense you will never have any erotic experience that is going to be more powerful than a really good kiss. A really, really good kiss, whether you’ve been married for three years or it’s your first serious kiss with that person, there’s something about a kiss that’s a lot like what Jean-Paul Sartre called “The Look.” This very peculiar kind of intimacy in a really good kiss that is really like nothing else in life’s experiences, in my opinion. It’s just a uniquely powerful, wonderful experience. So tender, so intimate, so valuable.

Your question is a nice one for couples who’ve been together for a long time because as you say, you fall in to this habit, like, “If we start kissing does that mean that we’re committing ourselves to having sex, which means do we then start checking your watch, do we have time? Do both of us have the energy?” Et cetera, et cetera, all the sorts of things that grown-up couples ask each other when they’ve been together for a while, whether or not these questions are stated. I do think that, and this is going to sound a little cliché, I remember when my wife Amie asked me, probably six months or so ago, “Why don’t we kiss as much as we used to? We should kiss more than we do.” And I thought, “Yeah, that is exactly right. We most definitely should just spend more time kissing than we do.” Lying in bed and talking is really, really good and cuddling up and watching a movie or reading a book is really, really good. But just lying together and kissing without it necessarily leading to sex seems to me like such a really, really good idea, too. There’s that.

I’m sure this a gross overgeneralization, but I think that men might have a little bit of a tendency to under-appreciate kissing more quickly than women do. So I think that sometimes it might be a husband’s responsibility to say, “Let’s just spend more time kissing and that’s not necessarily going to mean for either one of us that we are going to have sex or that by kissing we’re implicitly asking for sex,” or something like that. Then there’s this other thing, which I also talk about in the book a little bit: first kiss. I was watching this movie recently with Amie which I hadn’t seen before, it’s a Will Smith movie called “Hitch.” It’s a really entertaining movie about a guy who’s a dating coach; Will Smith plays a dating coach. It’s a rom com, but it’s a good rom com. He says to this guy he’s coaching, consider the possibility that you could be giving this woman you're approaching, that she could have her last first kiss. This could be her last first kiss. On the one hand, of course that could make you feel really sad because there’s nothing in some ways like a first, real kiss that you have with someone. It’s an incredibly magical thing.

I like the way Socrates talks about it, in Xenophon. Xenophon usually doesn’t do a very good job with Socrates, but he does a great job in the memorabilia on kissing, about how it’s like a spider bite and you better be very careful about a kiss because somebody can basically completely steal your soul with just one kiss. That seems to me to be right, actually, about first kisses. Even kisses people give each other on the cheek, even in other cultures where it’s very common, there’s a funny intimacy even to that which feels special, feels a little more caring and intimate. It’s a lot better than a handshake. But that first kiss is so unique, so valuable, so dangerous. I never, ever want to kiss another woman other than my wife and I won’t. I’m never going to kiss another woman other than my wife and I just won’t do it because as St. Augustine says, “The greatest part of virtue lies in avoiding the opportunities for vice.” I think there’s nothing, nothing more dangerous than a real kiss. If you want to stay in the romantic relationship you’re in, just don’t ever kiss anybody else. Rule number one.


Sara Scribner

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