One man makes the case for a little deception.
The truth about staying together.
If you had the chance to sleep with her again, would you?” asked Chloe*, a bit too casually. The ex was still a close friend. We met for beers every couple of weeks, and I occasionally spent a weekend with her family at their cottage. While Chloe and I hadn’t talked about her much, at some point that night my ex became the focus of the conversation—a conversation that led to this question. I don’t remember the exact words that came out of my mouth in response, but they were not the right ones.
I did not say no. Chloe blew up. I was emotionally unavailable, she said, still in love with this other woman and not fit to be dating anyone.
It took me by surprise. Chloe and I had been seeing each other casually for about three months, and, while I’m pretty sure we both assumed the other wasn’t dating anyone else, we hadn’t discussed exclusivity. I liked Chloe. She was fun, sexy, ambitious and spontaneous. We had a good time together. Sure, maybe she didn’t always get my jokes and maybe our music tastes didn’t overlap much, but it was early days and these things take time to figure out. I didn’t know if we had a future together, but I didn’t want to break up either. Later that night, however, I found myself home, confused and unexpectedly single again. My first reaction was that Chloe had no right to ask me that question. After all, outside the bounds of a committed monogamous relationship, there were plenty of people I’d sleep with under the right circumstances— my ex included. It didn’t mean I was going to run out and do that. What was she so upset about?
As any thirtysomething urbanite would do, I took my problem to the relationship oracle of our time, Dan Savage. Savage has been dispensing advice on sex and relationships for more than two decades, most recently in his Savage Lovecast podcast. I’m an avid listener. I dialed the hotline, explained my situation to his voicemail and waited. Two weeks later, there I was, loud and clear through my earbuds, airing my dirty relationship laundry for all the Internet to hear. “Relationships are not depositions,” he began somewhat wearily, as if explaining something for the thousandth time, which he probably was. “You don’t have to answer every question truthfully,” he went on. “If I were your boyfriend and this was an ex-boyfriend you were talking about, I’d feel deeply insecure about your romantic attraction to your ex. That’s not something you can really help. But it is something you can shut up about.”
Anyone familiar with Savage’s oeuvre will know his philosophy on long-term relationships, namely that The Perfect Person doesn’t exist—it’s something we create through trust, communication and just a dash of selfdelusion. “There is the perfect boyfriend, the perfect husband, the perfect girlfriend, the perfect wife, the perfect whatever we have in our heads, and everyone we meet falls short,” he said. “No one is that perfect. No one is ‘the one.’ We pretend someone is the one, we make them the one, just as they pretend that we are the one.” I’d heard him hold forth on variations of this countless times, but for some reason this time a light went on.
When I put my story to a group of married friends over dinner a short while later, they found none of it particularly revelatory. “I think the rule of thumb with those things,” said a friend’s wife, putting down her wineglass, “is ‘Is it going to hurt someone’s feelings unnecessarily by saying it?’ If yes, then don’t say it. You’re not actually going to have sex with this person—it’s just thoughts in your head. So why hurt each other’s feelings?” It made perfect sense. Whether I wanted to make Chloe my “one” or not, it was unfair to expect her to be totally cool with me having feelings of any degree for anyone else. Was I going to get back together with my ex? No, I was not. Was I convinced that Chloe was going to be “the one”? No. At least, not yet. Did she need to know about any of this? Absolutely not. Whether or not I thought Chloe was the most awesome person in the world, it was my job as the guy who was dating her to make her think I thought she was. Or break up with her. Otherwise, why would she spend her time and energy on me? It was only then, weeks after the fact, that I began to see the situation from Chloe’s point of view. She might not have a right to know about all of my thoughts and feelings, but she was totally justified in calling it quits.
As my friends have gradually paired off and married, I’ve changed the way I look at their relationships. I used to see them together and think “Oh, these people are so lucky to have met their soulmates—clearly, they’re awesome for each other on every level.” Now, rather, it seems to be more a matter of “Here are two people who are really good at not breaking up.” Which, I’ve learned, requires an occasional omission. Things probably wouldn’t have worked out with Chloe and me—for a number of reasons unrelated to feelings I have for my ex or anyone else—and I think that’s why I didn’t lie to her that night. When I meet someone whom I can see myself committing to for the long haul and she casually asks me who I’d sleep with if given the chance, hopefully I’ll be able to truthfully say “No one but you, my darling!” But, realistically, I’ll probably just lie about it. Because that’s how you know it’s love. n
“Relationships are not depositions—you don’t have to answer every question truthfully.”
*Not her real name.