To love someone is to lie to them,
said Matt Haig in a chapter of his 2013 book The Humans beautifully entitled “A face as shocked as the moon”.
Well, for starters, I agree.
I’m a hopeless romantic and for someone like me, saying this is hella risky to my nature. Why would I ever venture to assert it, then? Is it not contradictory to who I am? Hold up, here’s the main course:
Love is a lie because it isn’t fully realized until it happens. And when can you say that it has finally ‘happened’? That’s the point. It’s always happening. The same applies to the concept of ‘forever’, which is a lie until it passes. And forever never does pass, so it is forever a lie (pun very much intended).
Here’s another claim that I see arising from this: maybe you can only tell love retrospectively?
Sounds absurd, but it doesn’t seem to be too far off from what we commonly do…don’t we often judge our love relationships based on the quality of their memories, with the qualia that we feel (emote? I wonder what Damasio would think) being none other than the array of sensations spurred by the images projected onto our mental cinema (with the old-school projector sound as well of course)?
To be a master lover you have to, in a sense, be a master mentalist. A liar liar, hearts on fire. But to do this – to convincingly lie to others – you also have to lie to yourself, for a lie, and this is just intuitive speculation, is always more believable when you believe it too.
How can you make yourself believe it? Just repeat it over and over again and you’ll eventually come to see it as the truth not just explicitly but also implicitly. This is called the “illusory truth effect”; the more you hear or read something, even if at first you know that it’s false, the likelier you are to come to see it as true (Stafford, 2016).
I wonder, then, how do lovers keep track of reality?
Seems like a thought ‘too romantic’ to be taken seriously, but the question of reality vs. ‘illusion’ is quite a pervasive one right now in the cognitive sciences. Just watch Anil Seth’s Ted Talk and you’ll be mindblown:
Anyways, back to business. Could you pass the salt?
As we have just elaborated, love is 1) lived only retrospectively and 2) illusory. How do these two claims come together? Here is some psychology that provides the answer.
There is such a thing as the ‘consistency bias’. This refers to people’s tendency – you included – to “reconstruct the past to fit what they presently know or believe”, (Schacter et al., p. 216).
A study by McFarland and Ross (1987) found that if a couple has been doing well in their conjoint love life, they are likelier to assume that their initial evaluation of their relationship was more positive than they actually indicated at the time; similarly, if their relationships has been going bad, they are likelier to assume that their initial evaluation was worse than it actually was.
That pretty much explains why, post-break-up, we are almost shocked and exclaim, “Of course the relationship wasn’t all that good!” But the thing is, it isn’t about love being blind at all…Alas! the proverb is misleading! It is actually that we become blind afterwards. The reason why the relationship retrospectively looks so indubitably toxic is because we’re projecting how we currently feel and the present state of the relationship to how it used to be.
This can also suggests a reason for why, if our relationship ends on bad terms, we seem to forget all the good memories as if they never even happened. There’s another bias that afflicts our cognition in this case (don’t belabor too long on my choice of the word ‘affliction’; biases aren’t unequivocally bad, and we actually need them for proper cognitive functioning. More on that another time).
This is called ‘confirmation bias’. According to our trusty SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioral Sciences (2009), it refers to our tendency to “look only for evidence that confirms one’s beliefs and to ignore or pay less attention to evidence that contradicts one’s beliefs”. Therefore, if we come to believe the relationship was bad all the way through, then our mind will automatically sift out only the bad memories to confirm that theory of ours and make us feel like we’ve dodged a bullet (finally, after stubbornly withstanding some heavy fire).
I hope that, with this potentially new knowledge in your hands, a lightbulb might shine within you Wall-E style: although it might seem like bad memories are all there ever was, there were most likely (most likely, not always) good memories too.
I invite you to acknowledge this fact even if your cognitive biases make you forget it. Your brain is just trying to protect you, remember, only that sometimes it exaggerates on the coddling front. That’s when we’ve got to take it into our loving arms and tell it that everything will be alright.
And then feed it some desert.
Haig, M. (2013). The humans. Canongate.
MacFarland, C., & Ross, M. (1987). The relation between current impressions
and memories of self and dating partners. Personality and
Social Psychology Bulletin, 13(2), pp. 228–238.
SAGE Publications, Inc. (2009). Confirmation bias. In L. E. Sullivan
(Ed.), The SAGE glossary of the social and behavioral sciences
(Vols. 1-3, p. 99). SAGE Publications, Inc.
Schacter, D., Gilbert, D., Wegner, D., & Hood, B. (2015). Psychology: Second
European edition. Palgrave Macmillan.
Stafford, T. (2016, October 26). How liars create the ‘illusion of truth’. BBC.