Black cards, love, lies, and Force Majeure

Speaking of Black Mirror, here's a relevant interview titled Black Cards: All the Lies You Need to Love. A wife interviews her husband after he publishes the book Love and Lies: An Essay on Truthfulness, Deceit, and the Growth and Care of Erotic Love.

Recall what Venkatesh Rao said about such lies we tell ourselves and each other in his critique of Black Mirror:

In each case, the technological driver has to do with information  — either knowing too much or too little about yourself and/or others.  Each technological premise can be boiled down to what if you knew everything about X or what if you could know nothing about X. In the episodes so far, there has been no simple correlation between choosing ignorance or knowledge and getting to good or poor outcomes.  That’s what lends the show a certain amount of moral ambiguity.

White Christmas, the first episode of Season 3 is more complex, wandering into moral luck territory via gaps between intentions and consequences. Gaps deliberately created by consciously chosen ignorance of the block-on-Facebook variety.

This is promising. Hopefully, the show will explore this more, because the straight-up value collisions are not that interesting. They are merely shocking corner-case hypotheticals of the torture-one-terrorist-to-save-humanity variety, in futurist garb. But with moral luck, you have more going on. Where knowledge is the default and ignorance must be consciously chosen, rather than the other way around, the consequences of ignorance becomes less defensible. Especially when you are in a position to choose ignorance for others.

Can't exist when the lies that make for civil society are punctured by technology? Grow up.

In the Black Cards interview, the husband Clancy Martin argues the opposite, specifically when it comes to love. Lie to your lover, and lie to yourself. Truth is the opposite of an aphrodisiac.

Amie: What should a woman do if she has cheated on her husband, whom she loves. She did it impulsively, and it didn’t mean anything. Should she tell her husband, or not?

Clancy: I don’t think she should tell her husband immediately. She might feel better briefly after telling him, but she’s giving him all of her guilt to carry around. And she certainly shouldn’t tell him in anger—as an attack during a fight, or as a response to some mistake he’s made.

Could there come a time when she should tell him? Yes, I think when she can see that the caring thing to do is to admit that this happened. Or if this starts to become a pattern, she’d better let him know that they need to see a therapist and then, in that moderated context, “come clean.” But she’s already done some harm with this one-night stand—don’t exacerbate it. 

Amie: Okay, but that’s what everyone says, and your thesis is that people in love have to lie more often than we admit. So shouldn’t you be coming down hard on the necessity of the lie? That a cheater should never tell? 

Clancy: Deny, deny, deny is the standard wisdom for men—and maybe for women too. That’s not—

Amie: For cheaters, let’s say.

Clancy: Yes, for cheaters, and this woman has cheated. But that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that caring should be her goal—and that caring might sometimes require carrying the burden of a lie for a while. Later, caring might require telling the truth. We have to be subtle epistemologists if—

Amie: Okay, okay.

Clancy: Can I just finish my sentence? We have to work hard to understand each other if we want to be good lovers.

Martin reverses the usual thinking on honesty; to him, it's a form of weakness to tell the truth.

I suspect a sort of Prisoner's Dilemma when it comes to relationships or marriages and truth. The optimal outcome is for both people in the relationship to select truth or lies (which of those you select depends on your philosophy), but the temptation is for one or the other person to defect to obtain the moral high ground at the cost of harmony in the relationship.

The interview contains a fascinating analysis of the Swedish movie Force Majeure which I saw at TIFF last year and found to be amusing in an acerbic and, well, Swedish way.

Amie: That reminds me of the movie we saw the other night, Force Majeure. A family on a ski trip is hit by a controlled avalanche. The smoke from the avalanche pours over their table at lunch on the mountaintop. But as it’s coming, the smoke looks like snow, and they think they are going to die. The mother wraps her arms around her children. The father picks up his gloves and his iPhone and runs. The two spend the rest of the movie dealing with the “truth” that has been revealed. And it seems manifestly true: the man is a coward and the woman has seen clearly. When friends try to encourage her to see it differently, suggesting for example that they are all okay, and that maybe they should move on, she is intractable. In the final scene, they are on a bus going back down the hillside, and the driver is taking sharp turns and having trouble with the gears. She forces him to stop so she can get off, and everyone on the bus follows her. But then on the roadside, night falls, and thirty people are on foot in the middle of nowhere, with nowhere to go. For the first time in the movie, it is manifest that this woman does not know what to do. That she has been alarmist. That she has caused a ruckus over nothing. It was a movie that presented two equally valid “truths.” And showed the way the self-righteous adhesion to one truth could tear apart a good marriage.

Clancy: For me the question becomes: When we learn things about our loved ones that cause us to dislike—or even to hate—those loved ones, what should we do? It will vary from case to case, which matters: there shouldn’t be one simple answer to the toughest questions about relationships. One friend says in Force Majeure, when the married couple has left the room, “They need therapy!” People always say, “Go to therapy!” We have become very simpleminded in how we think about love, and yet it matters to us more than anything. But here’s my answer: the woman in the movie thought she was seeing the naked truth. She even had it on video. But I would ask her, “Are you being as tough on yourself as you are on your partner? Can you withstand the same withering scrutiny? Look at your own motivations: Do you admire your motivations?” It’s a very good case study, because this woman in the movie, like many of us, was completely blind to her own failings. Forgiveness, care, commitment: that’s what we demand from our parents, what I hope we offer to our children, and I think ought to give to our spouses.

Once the avalanche occurs, the movie is a bit on the nose for a good long period. It's funny, but it's blunt, and it beats the same punch line with a hammer in scene after scene.

But then the movie ends with that scene on the bus driving down the mountain, the most oblique and intriguing part of the film. It's no coincidence that the one woman who stays on the bus is the same woman who had spoken openly about the many extra-marital affairs she's had. She rides the bus down the mountain uneventfully while all the others in the bus walk down the mountain, resigned by their (bourgeois) caution to a suboptimal outcome.

If the entire movie had that concluding scene's sly, understated sense of mystery, that would have been something.

Esther Perel on infidelity

In America, infidelity is described in terms of perpetrators and victims, damages and cost. We are far more tolerant of divorce with all the dissolutions of the family structure than of transgression. Although our society has become more sexually open in many ways, when it comes to monogamy, even the most liberal minds can remain intransigent. When discussing infidelity, we use the language of moral condemnation. And it isn’t only the act that’s reprehensible; the actor, too, is judged by the strictest standards. Adultery becomes a moral failing as we move to a description of character flaws: liar, cheater, philanderer, womanizer, slut. In this view, understanding an act of infidelity as a simple transgression or meaningless fling, or a quest for aliveness is an impossibility.

An affair sometimes captures an existential conflict within us: We seek safety and predictability, qualities that propel us toward committed relationships, but we also thrive on novelty and diversity. Modern romance promises, among other things, that it’s possible to meet these two opposing sets of needs in one place. If the relationship is successful, in theory, there is no need to look for anything elsewhere. Therefore, if one strays, there must be something missing. I’m not convinced.


The current view is that infidelity depletes intimacy and is a breach of trust and commitment, both emotional and sexual, that can never be fully recouped. Even the psychological literature focuses almost exclusively on the ravages of infidelity. I’d like to offer a view that challenges this premise and encompasses both growth and betrayal at the nexus of affairs.

Though affairs often result in deep emotional crisis, deception and betrayal are not the prime motivation. I suggest we look at infidelity in terms of growth, autonomy, and the desire to reconnect with lost parts of ourselves. Perhaps affairs are also an expression of yearning and loss.

Lots more here from Esther Perel on infidelity, all of it fascinating. Though I've never been married or had an affair, this passage had a ring of familiarity:

Sometimes, we seek the gaze of another not because we reject our partner, but because we are tired of ourselves. It isn’t our partner we aim to leave, rather the person we’ve become. Even more than the quest for a new lover we want a new self.

The pressure on the institution of marriage is higher than it's ever been because we now expect our spouses to provide so many different forms of fulfillment. In an interview with Slate, Perel notes:

What’s changed is, we expect a lot more from our relationships. We expect to be happy. We brought happiness down from the afterlife, first to be an option and then a mandate. So we don’t divorce—or have affairs—because we are unhappy but because we could be happier. 

This reminded me of two of my recent posts about the new definition of marriage: marriage is now all-or-nothing, and hedonic marriage.

Marriage is now all-or-nothing

As the expectations of marriage have ascended Maslow’s hierarchy, the potential psychological payoffs have increased — but achieving those results has become more demanding.

HERE lie both the great successes and great disappointments of modern marriage. Those individuals who can invest enough time and energy in their partnership are seeing unprecedented benefits. The sociologists Jeffrey Dew and W. Bradford Wilcox have demonstrated that spouses who spent “time alone with each other, talking, or sharing an activity” at least once per week were 3.5 times more likely to be very happy in their marriage than spouses who did so less frequently. The sociologist Paul R. Amato and colleagues have shown that spouses with a larger percentage of shared friends spent more time together and had better marriages.

But on average Americans are investing less in their marriages — to the detriment of those relationships. Professor Dew has shown that relative to Americans in 1975, Americans in 2003 spent much less time alone with their spouses. Among spouses without children, weekly spousal time declined to 26 hours per week from 35 hours, and much of this decline resulted from an increase in hours spent at work. Among spouses with children at home, spousal time declined to 9 hours per week from 13, and much of this decline resulted from an increase in time-intensive parenting.

Eli Finkel in the NYTimes on the third age of marriage we're living now, one he calls the self-expressive marriage, the first two being institutional and companionate.

What caught my eye was the distribution of marriage quality as measured by divorce rates.

One of the most disturbing facts about American marriage today is that while divorce increased at similar rates for the wealthy and the poor in the 1960s and ’70s, those rates diverged sharply starting around 1980. According to the sociologist Steven P. Martin, among Americans who married between 1975 and 1979, the 10-year divorce rate was 28 percent among people without a high school education and 18 percent among people with at least a college degree: a 10 percentage point difference. But among Americans who married between 1990 and 1994, the parallel divorce rates were 46 percent and 16 percent: an astonishing 30 percentage point difference.

It's not just household income or venture capital returns that show this signature barbell distribution anymore, it has extended to marriage.

Fascinating read, and not surprisingly, the most emailed article on the NYTimes right now.