In Defense Of The Old-Fashioned Letter

Illustrated By Anna Sudit.
"I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett, and this is no off-hand complimentary letter that I shall write, whatever else, no prompt matter-of-course recognition of your genius and there a graceful and natural end of the thing: since the day last week when I first read your poems, I quite laugh to remember how I have been turning and turning again in my mind what I should be able to tell you of their effect upon me…" — from the first letter from Victorian poet Robert Browning to his fellow poet and future wife Elizabeth Barrett, January 10, 1845
"Sup? U up?" — from the first message from that guy you matched with on Tinder, July 3, 2016
I have written exactly one letter to my partner. He wasn't my partner when I wrote it; we had just broken up, a commitment to apartness that endured for roughly three weeks last year. I had written a goodbye note to my previous ex, which I never gave nor intended to give to him but had hoped would give me closure — tie a neat bow on that relationship by crystallizing my gratitude for it, and signal the start of my unfettered single life. That wasn't quite how it worked out (words can only do so much to cauterize what distance and perspective are required to heal), although it helped. But the letter I wrote longhand to my once and future partner last year I brought to the bar where we were meeting mutual friends for our first outing as an ex-couple, meaning to deliver it to him to thank him for our time together and mark its end with a resolute ballpoint period. I was proud of the letter. I had captured opinions and regrets and appreciation I hadn't been able to express before. But then, we flirted. It felt nice. I left the letter in my bag. We got back together. And so the constant volley of texts and Gchats with him began again, I haven't felt the need to write him at any length since, and the only letter I've written to my partner remains the one I wrote when he wasn't. Now, when we see each other in the evening, we already know how the other's day went and what's on the other's mind. We've shared in real time the play-by-play of this frustrating phone call, that hallway run-in, this pesto chicken sandwich on ciabatta — the benefit of recounting what we ate for lunch being that then, we can both enjoy two lunches. The evenings are for color commentary, but the reporting has been done. You could argue that swapping these snippets of information as we process them engenders intimacy. It does, in a way. And I wouldn't give it up: It's comfortable and encouraging. But even as the reflexive cataloging of events enabled by texting and instant messaging makes long talks and phone calls and emails and letters seem unnecessary, even tedious, it doesn't replicate what they can do.
In 2010, psychologists at the University of Texas published the results of computer analysis of the poetry and letters of two sets of literary spouses, Victorian poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning and 20th-century poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes — a small data set and clearly far from a representative one, but the findings can be applied to more pairs than these two. The study showed that during the highs of the couples' relationships, their "language style-matching" — defined by the researchers as "the degree to which two people in a conversation subtly match each other’s speaking or writing style," without intending to do so — intensified. In periods of conflict, the couples' LSM dropped. They stopped writing like each other. If "language is the thing that makes the world," as the writer Karl Ove Knausgård put it, then when their LSM was low, these writers were creating — and living in — different worlds. Long conversations, whether written or spoken, offer the opportunity to mirror someone else's worldview, to build a shared conception of what you're experiencing, both separately and as a pair.
It's often distance, which is to say necessity, that leads to the most in-depth exchanges. I've written my most specific and compassionate and intimate messages to people I love who are far from me. When a seven-hour time difference separated me and my then-partner, we called our emails GLIDs, for Goddamn Long and Incredibly Detailed; my closest friend, who is London-based, and I have been pen pals since I was nine (before texting was an option), and we still send each other rambling accounts of our lives, even after the advent of What's App, because it's what we've always done. We weave together snippets until we have narratives of what we are doing and thinking and feeling, and then we read our own and each other's stories and hunt for patterns and pick up cues and respond in kind. There's no rule that limits long-form communication to pairs of people who are poets or 3,500 miles apart or recently broken up, but it's easy to forget what we miss by skipping a long talk with someone who has already told us what he ate for lunch. And while it may seem silly to go the written route and compose a letter to a partner you see regularly, there's romance in it, and there could be a revelation that might not otherwise surface in it, too. In the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Eliza Schuyler to her future husband, Alexander Hamilton, "Now my life gets better every letter that you write me." You have to imagine that, even if she and Hamilton had used cell phones, their texts would have been very, very long.
The Bed Post is a series that explores what holds us back from sex and love with whom we want, when we want, where we want, and how we want — because we all deserve sex and love lives that are not only free of evils, but full of what is good. Follow me on Twitter at @hlmacmillen or email me at hayley.macmillen@refinery29 — I’d love to hear from you. Find all of The Bed Post right here.

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