How do people manage a double life? Why are some more comfortable with deception than others? How can they carry on two separate lives, as if two separate selves, and not find some core sense of identity compromised?
I was watching a British film in the middle of the night a few weeks back, and the dashing male lead is cheating on his lovely companion. Meanwhile, she’s cheating on him. They both lie – with only a modicum of discomfort.
Eventually, he decides to give up his other woman, while she realizes she’s better matched with her “other man.”
And then the confusion really begins, as all four engage in repeated deception over the course of a surprisingly long amount of time.
Even more surprising: There are no rings, there are no children. So why doesn’t one or the other end the relationship that doesn’t seem satisfactory? Why persist on the double life – until someone is finally caught in the act?
Why People Deceive
The adults in this story range in age from late twenties to late thirties. The usual reasons (or excuses) for not playing their relationships straight – inexperience, marriage, kids – do not apply. Instead, there’s missing underwear and sketchy explanations, lost earrings and tall tales. She accuses him; he accuses her. And I repeat: Why don’t they end it?
When there is no marriage, when there are no children, when everyone involved has the financial means to keep a roof over their heads, then why drag through the muck and mire of infidelity?
The reality is this, at the very least: Our feelings of affection, responsibility, and belonging are not necessarily so cut and dry.
There is another movie I saw years ago that never left me. The man loves two women, and they are very different from each other. Even as a viewer or observor of the fictitious pair, it’s hard to imagine which one might be better suited… As if it were that simple, as if loving more than one person at a time were impossible, as if our relationships as we experience them weren’t more gray than black and white.
We can understand the motivation behind secrets and lies when we see paralysis in trying to make a choice, and likewise, the desire not to cause pain. Still, that doesn’t make deception “right,” does it?
When Lies Stop Working
In the first film I mention, eventually the female protagonist says “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t lie to you. I’m moving out.”
The man who loves her is heartbroken, but at least he knows where he stands and she is, finally, honest about what she wants.
But when the man confesses that he also cheated, and he assures her that it was all a mistake, now what? Why the confession? And what does he expect to happen as a result? Was her disclosure the impetus to better understand his own feelings?
Like the woman he lives with, whatever comes, he can no longer live a double life.
Definitely. But then secret lives usually are.
Do We All Lead Secret Lives?
As for secrets and lies, at what point do they become something more?
Apparently, compartmentalizing various aspects of our lives is surprisingly common. According to this article at Psychology Today:
There are so many secret lives; some healthier than others. A secret addiction to overeating hurts, but it is a benign secret… Some men who are unhappy in their marriage have affairs or frequent prostitutes. Some women who are unhappy with their weight live private bulimic lives… Still others live secret lives on the Internet by stalking former lovers…
Naturally, we could contrast those that harm themselves from those that harm others. And the nature of that harm – including the degree of trust that is violated – will lead us to judge more harshly or be more inclined to forgive. But shouldn’t we make a distinction between secrecy and privacy? Don’t we keep some things to ourselves, rather than keeping them from others in our lives?
As for deception, which is another matter, are we to understand that there can be benign deception and malignant deception? Is that an absolute or a matter of degree?
Affairs of the Heart
As for the affair of the heart (or the emotional affair), how simply they may begin. We are, after all, human – with good days and bad days, and not immune to the charms of others, especially when we’re feeling vulnerable. So banter becomes flirtation and flirtation becomes a spark to self-esteem in an otherwise disappointing everyday life.
And secrets take root.
It’s easier still when logistics encourage separation and offer opportunities that might be difficult to pass up. In relationships where one or both travel, isn’t this a temptation, however innocent it seems at the start? And do we really know what’s going on 500 miles away three nights a week? Then again, we don’t necessarily know what’s going on 5 miles away for thirty minutes. It’s about trust, isn’t it?
In another film I saw only last week, 2009’s “Up in the Air” with George Clooney, I was caught off guard when his love interest turns out to be something other than what we expect. She has a secret. And we can see and feel the breakage inside of him when he finds out, and as he tries to understand. Spoiler alert: He is unprepared for what he confronts. He turns out to be her double life.
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