By Kellie Schorr
“I’m always gonna lift you up.
I’m never gonna let you down.”
In the film, The King’s Mistress (Miramax, 1990), after an afternoon of delights, a suitor tells Jeanne she is his first and best lover.
She smiles politely and says she knows that is a lie, a nice lie, but a lie. He then asks her to marry him while making all sorts of promises. Jeanne is deeply in love, but pauses for a moment, and says, “just promise you will always lie to me nicely.”
It’s an interesting line in a film where she becomes the only person in the palace of a mad king to insist upon the truth, even at her peril. Yet, I have to admit, every time I see a couple exchanging vows about how they will love and cherish, be ever faithful, present, and never fail one another, 30 years after I watched that film, I still hear Jeanne in my head saying, “Just promise you will always lie to me nicely.”
A vow is more than a promise. It’s a living, active contract to uphold an ideal or commitment. We vow a lot more often than that very special day when two people dress up, wear nice shoes, exchange rings and formally agree to be as one. We vow when we testify in court. We vow when we take certain professions.
In Buddhism we vow when we take refuge. We all vow when we use the word “friend.”
When we tell someone, “You are my friend” we are offering them safety, trust, generosity and accountability. Even the cheapest version of that word, the notorious “Facebook friend request” means if we accept it, we are sharing access and “clickability” with another person because we believe they will not harm us. The bottom line of all of our connections is a promise to be good for, or at least good to, another. We mean it with all intention. And sometimes, we discover, it was indeed a very nice lie.
The Measure of Relationship
How could it be otherwise? Culturally, we are flooded with messages of certain perfection and availability. Besides, Mr. Buble’s promise to “never let you down,” there is a literal mountain of corroborative sentiment.
“Ain’t no mountain high enough….to keep me from you,” says Marvin Gaye.
“You just call out my name, and you know, wherever I am, I’ll come running…” we are told by Carole King.
“To have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.” The Book of Common Prayer.
“With this hand, I will lift your sorrows. Your cup will never empty, for I will be your wine. With this candle, I will light your way in darkness. With this ring, I ask you to be mine.” Corpse Bride
We’ve been rickrolled for so long that we truly believe there is someone who is “never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down, never gonna…”
We sing these things. We say these vows. We keep these promises. Except when we don’t. That’s when the real measure of a relationship can be taken. Our ability to relate to each other isn’t simply about how happy we are with someone, or where we fall on the compatibility scale, but how well we navigate those moments when we disappoint one another.
The truth is—we do let each other down. There are mountains that are too high. Sometimes we part before death because the relationship is killing us. On certain days we give more whine than wine.
An Offering of Truth
Some relational disappointments we have at the hands of lovers or friends barely register on our heart’s scale. You repeatedly ask them to take out the trash and they don’t. You needed a ride across town, and they blew you off. These slights are simple bumps in the road of life. Afterall, your partner probably didn’t say at the altar, “I promise to love, honor, and cherish you and I will never mash the garbage down to claim there’s still room, so I don’t have to take it out.”
Other disappointments are harder. Broken trust, sexual infidelity, cruelty, behavior resulting from intoxication, addiction, controlling or ignoring can’t be written off neatly, or ignored to resolve themselves. These things require intentionality, intervention, or an end to the relationship. Whether or not your connection survives them (or should survive them) will depend on your needs and decisions. How you navigate these disappointments will create a path that guides you through the forest of relationships around you.
The best that we can give each other—friends, lovers, strangers in the metro station—is an offering of truth. That doesn’t mean you have to stand before your wedding guests and blurt out, “I’m really cranky when I wake up, and if you drink all the coffee I’m going to pout for an hour, but I’ll get over it if you give me something chocolate.” It means, in the personal discussions we have and the actions we exhibit, we engage in authentic exchange.
Instead of, “I’ll never let you down” it’s better to say, “I don’t want to let you down, and I won’t do it on purpose, but I’m human and there are times when I’m not who you want or don’t do things the way you want them. Talk to me about them. Let’s see what we can do.”
When the day comes and you can’t “always be there” because you have hit a mountain that is just too high, (or you’re in lockdown, or you’re exhausted, or you’re engaging in self-care), embrace the compassionate reality that this isn’t a character flaw or the status of your feelings for that person. It’s just the way things are at this moment. Communicate, and move forward.
Before you begin any relationship, set out with the understanding that if it involves a human being, disappointment will follow, along with so many good and hopeful things. When someone disappoints you in a way that is not intentional, damaging or a crisis, give them the grace of being wrong. Accept their apology or find the best way in which you can overcome disappointment and move forward.
If it is bigger than a “let down”—a break, a pattern, a rupture, or a loss, then you can at least make the necessary decisions with thoughtful care as actions, not the reactions of a surprised or disappointed heart.
At a time when we need truth more than ever, we must do more than lie nicely. So, whoever you are in my world, please know I am every bit as caring, concerned, generous, funny and odd as I appear and my friendship is real.
I will never intentionally cause you harm, but I will disappoint you.
Editor: Dana Gornall