The Big Lie

Societal Conditioning and Cultural Norms

This is Water

Before his untimely death, David Foster Wallace gave an excellent and now famous commencement address entitled "This is Water" which began with the following parable:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"

The point of the story is that it's a nearly insurmountable task to be able to challenge the assumptions you make about life because the odds are very good you aren't even aware of what those assumption are. To both live in a culture and completely understand it is extremely difficult. You'll take too much for granted, and it's impossible not to. We need our basic assumptions and mental shortcuts or we'd end up paralyzed in indecision. You don't wake up in the morning and try to understand gravity. Like water is to a fish, gravity is just THERE.

So it is with our assumptions about relationships, love, and marriage. They're pervasive throughout our culture, very few people question them, and very few people have a reason to.

One of the most intriguing fantasies I've had is that I could go back in time about two years and try to explain to the younger me what it means to be polyamorous and that I'd soon be happily participating in a polyamorous relationship. I'm not sure that it would be possible to explain it to myself. I know the younger me would have absolutely no context to even begin to understand how I'd feel.

I remember about two years ago listening to an interview with an older couple that had started a swingers' club and had run it for 30 years. They were on the radio talking about how having multiple sexual partners, and the interviewer asked them if that had been a strain on their relationship. "Actually, it's strengthened their relationship," they said. I clearly remember thinking that they must be in a deep state of denial about the whole thing. Sure, it might be fun to sleep around, but have that strengthen your relationship? That just couldn't be true. It's just impossible.

Romantic Comedy

You're sitting in a movie theater. A preview for a romantic comedy comes on. It begins with a woman who is engaged to a smart, successful man. BUT, along comes another man, who probably isn't as stable, successful, but is attractive in his own way and more of a free spirit. You know what happens next in the deep-sounding voiceover: "Now she must choose between..." And it's just SO blatantly obvious that she's going to have to choose one over the other, because if she falls in love with the free spirit guy, it must mean that she never really loved her fiance all along. Sorry pal, that's just the way it is.

That is, of course, the classic love triangle. Everyone watches to see how it will resolve. Everyone picks a favorite. Everyone wants to know, "who will she end up choosing?"

The love triangle theme is so pervasive in entertainment because the assumption that the woman has to choose, and has to figure out which guy is her one-true-love, is accepted by nearly everyone, including the people writing the script. The script writer doesn't think, "Hey, let's write a movie about a monogamous woman," they just write a movie about a woman. The monogamous part is just understood. She has to choose, there is only one true love, that's just the way it is. Everyone knows that. isn't true, at least not for everyone. It took me many years to even question the idea that I could only be in love with one person at a time, and that falling in love with a new person meant that I never really loved the previous one or that I had somehow stopped. That idea was my water.

What I'm not about to tell you is that there is no such thing as a monogamous person, and that the one-true-love is just a fantasy, because I'm sure that there are plenty of people for whom that is very true. But I do wonder how many people, just like me, simply accept the one-true-love idea as truth without even realizing it.


My first long-term romantic relationship was in college. We were in love, we enjoyed each others' company, we were together for over a year. Then I met another girl who I fell head over heels for. "Surely this must be the real thing," I thought. If I was that in love with someone other than my girlfriend, I just assumed that my love for my girlfriend was not the real thing, and the right thing to do was to break things off and pursue my new interest. So I did.