Reality Checks

By Phillip Ratliff

Marriage, like politics, is fueled by a fungible commitment to the truth. One learns that some lies are benign but necessary, borne out of the need to—what, protect your partner’s feelings? No, thwart a dissociative episode. Other lies are assaultive, meant to protect the liar from exposing a secret or giving up a pleasure. These are the sorts of lies that often work in tandem with the liar’s own self delusions. To confront what’s behind the lie would be too painful for the perpetrator, the loss that would ensue too great.

Hard truths about softer lies were evident recently. I was about six weeks into CrossFit training and I figured it was time to stare at my physique for hopeful signs.

“Look. They’re bigger, aren’t they? Feel.” I pulled my shirt up.

“I’m not doing that.” 

“Yes. Feel them.”

Abby grabbed my pecs and gave them a perfunctory squeeze.

“They’re like new, hard boobies,” I said.

“You are disgusting. Let me feel your ass.”

Abby grasped a lobe of glute, tested it with the sort of dispassionate squeeze a produce manager might employ when inspecting a shipment of cantaloupes. She repeated the procedure on my quads, calves, shoulders, and back.

I stepped to the mirror and struck a pose.

“And my biceps. Look. Seedlings.”

“Pull your shirt up again. I want to see your torso,” Abby said. I complied.


“What? What is it?” I asked.

“There’s your trouble spot,” she said, pointing to my stomach. I looked down and confirmed what I already knew—that my midsection did, in fact, resemble a half-deflated inner tube. 

“You’re going to have to ask for special exercises for that area…if it’s going to be up to the same levels as everything else, I mean,” Abby said. 

Abby’s sober view of reality is a mode she is prone to operating in. I, on the other hand, am the visionary in the family. I see what should be, not what is. Every meal my wife has ever cooked is the best meal I have ever had. True to form, Abby calls bullshit but I have scripted a ready comeback. Each meal is indeed slightly better than the last one, and always better than anything else I have had. Good, better, best applied to meals, I argue, is a subjective assessment, subject to the vicissitudes of my tastes at any given moment, and the contexts in which those tastes operate. So who’s to say that I am not experiencing the best meal I have ever had, in the wake of the next to the best meal I have ever had?

Some marital fictions aren’t so benign. To tell a spouse that what he or she is noticing in a strange behavior is all in her head, when in fact you’re distracted by an attractive new coworker who has been flirting with you, is an especially slippery sort of lie. It’s not an easy one to maintain, even with yourself. “Normal behavior” is elusive and difficult to quantify. There is no tape measure for psychological distance, and even if there were, you’d first have to be willing to use it. People in the throes of such an obsession tend to forget that it’s in their back pocket.

Sarcasm, a mocking tone or gesture, a mumble under the breath can be equally slippery. We all know what a hostile tone looks and sounds like, and we understand its context (a disagreement) and intended outcome (belittlement). But confronting the mocker is perilous business. His literal words might sound entirely benign lifted from the tonal context. The person you’re confronting has already demonstrated that he doesn’t play fair or believe in being direct.

Convincing a spouse that what she sees is not what she sees: it’s a cruel joke to play on someone, because you’ve essentially told that person that they don’t dwell in reality. It’s a tactic of bullies and its use constitutes abuse. It’s not just an assault on reality the way all lies are, and on a relationship that should be built on trust, but on another person’s firm standing within the reality he’s entitled to. Not only have you refused to address that person’s complaint, you’ve responded by telling her that she’s a lunatic.

So why not just…compromise? Compromise makes sense in a multitude of marital situations. Who is better, the Beastie Boys or the Red Hot Chili Peppers? There’s no answer to that question, so if you’re arguing over which one to listen to, why not listen to a little of each? Even if there is a hard and fast answer out there, compromise may still be the most expedient route to heading off an argument. I may strongly believe my spouse and I agreed to spend $1,500 on a new sofa, and she might honestly believe we agreed to spend $2,500. Only one of those actually could be true, but in absence of any documentation it’s probably best to get a $2,000 sofa and get on with our lives.

Compromise is sometimes practical. Sometimes it’s deadly. Don’t let the habit of compromise lead to the fallacy of the middle. Truth on objective matter isn’t necessarily between two extreme versions of events. It can but it isn’t required to be. This fallacy of compromise is a pernicious one, and not just for married couples. It entices journalists into thinking that presenting two partisan viewpoints, no matter how implausible one of those might be, makes him somehow more objective than if he were to stick to solid sources and what he plainly sees. Think how gullible this sort of thinker is in the hands of a manipulator: All one has to do is float big lies every time the truth is inconvenient, forcing the target into the middle.

And where does engaging in that sort of thinking leave you? On the butt end of another falsehood. The space between an intentional lie and the truth that’s knowable is a space that’s also a lie. This is a difficult thing for individuals who are peacemakers by personality to accept. Correct, however, is correct, and by charting a course between truth and a common lie, you haven’t united anyone, but you’ve separated two parties from the only context in which a union can realistically thrive—namely, reality.

Marriage can only be healthy in this context. So do other sorts of relationships—binary ones like employer/employee relationships, all the way up to massive, complex ones like the union of American citizens into a cohesive citizenry. Regardless, truth starts with a stance. Where we stand is where we are. What we see is almost always what is. We know how to match what’s said against what is. It doesn’t matter if we’re listening to our spouses or reading news on Facebook. We have to find truth from spin, recognize a big lie for the self-protective beast that it is, and be willing to step out of the glow of gaslight.

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