Love in the Time of Email
He tells me that he loves me, but he never says it to my face. I return the favor in the same back channel fashion. We do this through emails and emails alone.
Lest I suggest that the delivery has sapped the invocation of all meaning, I hasten to note that I am delighted that he and I have crossed this particular emotional Rubicon. It thrills me to no end that, through the dim unraveling of time and the gradual lowering of defenses, he and I have arrived in a place of extremely close friendship where we, as two grown men, can convey love for one another. But this place exists only online, in the internal world of seven years’ worth of accumulated email, and has never been expressed outwardly, never in-person. The ambivalence about this bounded form of companionship is something I’ve been thinking about recently, but have never before tried to articulate at length. Until now.
Love isn’t a word I bandy about causally, mostly because it makes me uncomfortable. From the moment the word passes through my lips, until it receives a response, I have surrendered complete control to another. It can be terrifying. Professing love opens you to vulnerability like nothing else. What if the other person doesn’t say it back? Even if the odds are slim, the chance of non-reciprocity exists, looming in the background with the promise of pain. It’s happened to me before, and it’s always been devastating. On the other hand, being wanted, being loved, is validating. It affirms and it uplifts. As I wrote, searchingly and maybe a little too romantically, on my dissertation prospectus almost four years ago: “‘flesh-and-blood love’ means developing attachments to specific people and specific places… to forming the connections that make life worth living and work worth doing.” This is a precept I badly want to incorporate in my life, something to build around.
I tell my wife that I love her. I do the same with my mother, grandparents, a circle of close friends that I’ve made at the University of Rochester, and, recently, my father– usually after a holiday visit, when we embrace in the driveway of my boyhood home, both of us knowing that we probably won’t meet again for six months or longer. There’s a comforting ritual to this exchange of love proclamations which doesn’t make the experience any less poignant. Except in the case of my wife, with whom the words are relayed with joyful spontaneity, “I love you” is almost always uttered at the last possible second of farewell. Spoken softly as we begin to withdraw from a hug, the words are mutual assurance that both parties share the deepest of all bonds, and (at least for me, and especially with my grandparents) they guard against the chance that this will be the last thing I ever say to this person. Let it be love.
But it is different with him. It has always been different with him.
And not because he has a reputation for standoffishness. It is an accurate reputation, I might add, one he purposefully cultivated over the years as a defense mechanism. Like me, he was tormented by bullies throughout his school years, and like me, he built up elaborate walls of personality to protect himself, and to cope. (My own learned defense is a certain deflective sense of humor, designed for conflict avoidance). These fortifications, erected to shield against vulnerability, make the inherent risks involved in love professions all the more daunting.
He is also my best friend– the whole youthful habit of claiming and keeping a best friend is one I’ve never been able to break; I honestly don’t know why so many people seem eager to do so. We met over ten years ago, paired together by the whimsical calculus of an office of student life, at the small, backwater liberal arts college that we’d each stumbled into for our own peculiar reasons. Establishing an instant rapport over a shared seriousness for our studies, we dreamt of pursuing the life of the mind in greener academic pastures, and made a pact to keep living together after graduation.
This we did. Leaving a small-town Pennsylvania campus behind us, we climbed upward, in our estimation, to the city of Philadelphia. He started a graduate program in physics; I entered one in history. Our meager stipends barely kept ahead of the rent due dates in our shabby, rundown apartment. More than once our bank cards were declined at the grocery store. We had fun– a pair of early twenty-somethings playacting the role of adults in as far as being a graduate student (which suspends certain college-era tendencies and lifestyles) constitutes adulthood. But nothing we did suggested the closeness we later attained. When not in the library, we played video games, took walks about the city, threw a baseball around in the park. Maybe we would talk about girls and matters of the heart if we stopped at a bar and indulged in a few, but we never had much deep emotional contact. We only rarely even attempted it. Ours was essentially a friendship between boys, and we observed all the customary inhibitions expected of us. The code of conduct of masculinity, to which we both subscribed, kept us trading in artificialities when it came to feelings; the prospect of sharing them made us squeamish, and so we simply suppressed.
This pattern continued for two years. Then, in 2006, I was admitted into the PhD program at the University of Rochester, and I moved north, to be exact, 332 miles away.
We grew much closer in separation than we’d ever been as roommates. Maybe it was because as we grew older and faced an unkind world, we pined for the less complicated sphere we imagined having once inhabited together– the more innocent shared past of our boyish friendship. Maybe it was because we had very compatible tastes in books, movies, music, and television. Maybe it was because, early in my historical training, I proudly unearthed a gem on friendship from Henry Adams, and forced him to listen as I shared it: “Accident counts for much in companionship as in marriage. Life offers perhaps only a score of possible companions, and it is mere chance whether they meet as early as school or college…” Maybe that resonated. Perhaps the accidents of fate had thrust us into common company. Following this suggestive logic further, since we were not likely to be dealt many more such congenial pairings, we felt we’d better safeguard this one. As in so many aspects of the earlier days of our friendship, the motivation to protect ours went for the longest time unspoken.
Regardless of reasons, we bridged the geographical distance through emails, slowly at first and then to the point where daily correspondence emerged as the prevailing norm. Over the same span of time, and through this forum, we also bridged the emotional distance that had kept us at arm’s length apart as roommates. The email messages grew in size and significance apace, paralleling a transformation in our friendship, the unacknowledged resolution to remain in each other’s lives despite such inconvenient hurdles as time and space. While so many other college friendships evaporated, we became determined to hold on to ours. (Was it because of the Adams passage?) I like to think that we ultimately took refuge in each other’s company rather than face the world alone, a decision articulated only through the gradually changing tenor of our emails. Without either of us seeming to notice, the emails evolved from a buffet of expository updates and perfunctory pleasantries to something more. They increasingly reflected a yearning for a deeper connection lived in the semi-open. We grew closer as a result of an epistolary friendship.
I don’t recall there being a breakthrough moment, a day when I woke up and realized that something fundamental had shifted in the nature our friendship. I do know that it happened as a result of our emails.
Perhaps the medium was inevitable. As early Millennials, he and I came of age during the transition between the age of paper mail and its electronic successor, a moment when letters were already showing the unmistakable signs of quaintness and obsolescence– something one got from one’s grandmother on a birthday, but not the way modern people communicated in the new century. We entered college after the non-crisis of Y2K, and took quickly to the climate of emails, instant messaging systems, and social networks beckoning us into their orbit. The technology encouraged an increasing openness with an unseen online community of surrogate peers: create a carefully-tailored profile, “tell us about yourself,” upload pictures, post an away message or status update, “check-in” at your current location. We were invited to always share more, to broadcast intimate details from life for consumption by an amorphous crowd (or one of icons and avatars), and we accepted. With every digital upgrade, it became easier to give more and withhold less.
Just as easily, when I left for Rochester our Gmail accounts became extensions of ourselves and, eventually, vital lifelines to each other. For he and I, they became a conduit of complete openness. Our emails are diluted by no limitations or constraints. In the cocoon of our Gmail discourses exist two people who can, and do, talk about anything and everything. There are no taboos, no restrictions, no lines to worry about crossing. I have revealed more of myself in them than I would have ever thought possible; as apparently is true with writing a guest post for this blog, I find the invitation to wax openly wonderfully liberating. Closeted away alone in my attic office, I suddenly possess the confidence to write things that I would never say aloud for fear of reproach or of appearing foolish. In emails to him I feel charming, witty, and sagacious– characteristics he inspires by the reassurance of his replies. I like who I am on those pages, even if that self is trapped in the cold light of a computer monitor. For all the criticisms that can be leveled against electronic communications– and I have scornfully heaped several onto the pile myself– they have served me well in this instance. And so I find myself strangely torn: though there’s much I loathe about the culture of Facebook and its many intrusions, I feel obliged to defend the larger apparatus of the internet for delivering a love and friendship that might not exist without it.
A question I routinely ask myself when contemplating my online-driven friendship with him: Are we emotionally stunted? Perhaps. Yet writing like we do, freely and (in no small sense) selfishly, is therapeutic. In emails, he becomes my de facto therapist; he becomes the journal I don’t keep. And vice-versa. Without fail, I race to my computer every evening when I get home from school or work to read what he might have shared with me today. If I see an unread message from him in my inbox, still bolded in the promise of dark black font, I shut out the rest of the world and devour the note. Then I savor it over a slower second and third read.
In the abstract realm of email, there is virtually (pun intended) nothing about me that he does not know: from how the meeting with my advisor went last month to the darkest chapter of my life when I nearly suffered a nervous breakdown. Consequentially, when either of us have been on the verge of a major life decision, for instance when I bought an engagement ring three years ago, I wrote him a thousand word essay about it rather than broaching the subject in person.
It suits us well, this relationship through the typed word. Via emails, I’ve come to know the person behind his defense mechanisms, and he the person behind mine. We’ve taken to using the metaphor of climbing or breaking down walls to describe the process, one in which we’ve found we’re still capable of surprising the other. Several months ago, for instance, he surprised me by revealing the depths of his previously-undisclosed dissatisfaction with the solitary life he had deliberately created for himself. As I confessed to him then:
It occurred to me that there are times when the act you perform is so damned good that even I occasionally forget that it is in many ways an act. Your aloofness, your celebrated life of bachelor independence, has been repeated and distilled into a projection for the world to see. I accept as truth, too often, that you are blissfully happy behind the walls you’ve built all around yourself, and I take a measure of selfish pride in knowing that I’m one of the rare few permitted to scale these walls– through emails, the odd email-inspired conversation, and other approved tours– and gain a gander beyond them.
Beyond overcoming psychological walls, or as a result of it, in the interstices of our emails we’ve built up a nurturing kind of love. We dispense advice, offer opinions about situations facing the other, empathize with the other’s daily challenges, and provide self-esteem boosts on demand. It’s a system of mutual support as well as affection, one which we’re both grateful to have. With his kind permission, I quote from an email he sent me last month:
Your customary outpouring of support comforts me but, more than that, it energizes me. It’s callous, but I sort of take my family’s support for granted. We are a close-knit, liberal house hold. If I got caught making a meth lab in the back yard, my mother’s first reaction would be to accuse the police of planting it there. You don’t have to love me. That you do anyway, in spite of, and perhaps in some cases because of my various foibles hits much closer to proverbial home for me. Made doubly true because I resisted this kind of relationship with others for my whole life. Even the most hard boiled men of my acquaintance would use their girlfriends to express their emotions, even if reluctantly.
It’s an emblematic email for a number of reasons– the online expression of love, the admission of the difficulty of forging these kinds of relationships (particularly, he implies, in the “real world”), the recognition of our reinforced support system, the difficulties imposed by gendered expectations.
The latter point is one we’ve covered thoroughly together since my move to Rochester. Tight-knit, platonic male friendships are fraught with baggage from the outset. More keenly than I, he has explored the implications of jettisoning the weight of our previous masculine standards of emotional detachment. He commented not long ago that
We could take the tact that most men pursue and speak only in sub-vocalized grunts during football game commercial breaks…But we do not. We are so lucky that we both love to write and are good at it. Having the freedom to have an outlet of any kind to talk specifically and directly is a luxury that few others on this Earth can appreciate. More to the point, at least for me, this lets me formulate ideas completely and lay them down concisely – whereas in the course of normal conversation I get distracted, lose my train of thought, forget details and, most importantly, suffer embarrassment at my own silly escapades. As we have grown as friends, these emails have similarly grown, not just in scope, but in maturity and openness.
Leaving behind forever our “sub-vocalized grunts,” he is telling me, we are carving out a relationship with undefined parameters. But, as of this writing, we have, with one exception (see below) only ever explored these confines electronically. Can email be a medium that sustains us indefinitely? Is it enough? Is this comfort zone where we want to live out a loving friendship?
Of course, our friendship does not exist solely online. We visit often. It is then that we adopt the personas of our bizarre alter egos: real-world friends still engaging in public performance and abiding by the decorum of masculine propriety. We might shake hands upon arrival, but don’t embrace. As far as I can recall, we haven’t hugged once in ten years. We have long conversations, but they are pale imitations of our emails; we give less, we hold back more, we certainly don’t profess love. Until the visit is over, that is, and we draft emails about it to each other. It is a curious disconnect, and one, atypically for us, that we often ignore.
This brings us to an interesting tension: the splintering of friendship into two halves. There are, in essence, two sets of friends here: the ones who exist online and the ones whose lives intersect outside of Gmail. Maybe someday they’ll meet, but at the moment they occupy different planes of being. It’s not painfully awkward to spend time together, but it is painful to witness that something is lost in translation from the page to personal interaction, and it’s painful to flail helplessly against the last measure of remaining distance between us. The last and tallest wall.
Herein lies the outer-most limit, and perhaps the inherent shortcoming, of a friendship grown in such large order though an online filtration system. Absent the degree of separation provided by computers, we fall back into old habits and resemble the two Philadelphia roommates skittering around the edges of a substantive friendship. We have proven ourselves consistently incapable of surmounting the divide. Worse, I suppose, we have given up all pretense of even trying. There are times– a thought I bury whenever it surfaces– when I think we could carry on perfectly well even if we never saw each other again. But neither of us wants to surrender to this impulse, to dwell entirely within the simulated reality hosted by internet servers.
I am reminded of something my dissertation subject, the social critic Christopher Lasch, observed in the autobiographical introduction of his 1991 book, The True and Only Heaven. “In a world dominated by suspicion and mistrust, a renewal of the capacity for loyalty and devotion had to begin, it seemed, at the most elementary level, with family and friends,” Lasch wrote. “My generation invested personal relations with an intensity they could hardly support, as it turned out; but our passionate interest in each other’s lives cannot very well be described as a form of emotional retreat. We tried to re-create in the circle of our friends the intensity of a common purpose, which can no longer be found in politics or the workplace.” He and I have invested a similar intensity into our friendship, to enrich our lives and restore a common purpose otherwise lacking in the atomized, impersonal world. And we seem to have found a way around Lasch’s sense of the inability of relationships to bear this burden by relying upon emails as a safety valve to relieve the pressure of our colossal expectations for the elasticity of friendship.
But in diverting and rerouting pressure, our email exchanges appear to have robbed us of some basic humanness. We never have to address the failings of our friendship when it is overloaded with unsupportable intensity, because in its online state it never will be. Existing in two halves, it approaches friendship “as a form of emotional retreat.”
It is left to us to decide whether this is enough, whether the disparate friendship halves can be joined. So far we have stalled.
One of us makes the five-and-a-half hour drive to see the other every eight weeks or so, a tradition we started as soon as I left for Rochester. Even though he’s a scientist by training, he’s read every chapter of my dissertation, and responded with pages of detailed comments. His family accepts me at their table– they feed, shelter, and nourish me whenever I’m around. After a rocky start between them, my wife treats him like family, a person with an open invitation to treat our residence as an extension of his home. He does likewise for her.
Two years ago he served as best man in my wedding. In that capacity, he floored all the guests in attendance with a rousing, heartfelt toast that nobody saw coming in light of the going public perception of him as unflappably taciturn– the curious college friend that I continue to drag into my orbit, an outsider to my Rochester friends. Now everybody knew better; for the first time, they perceived a previously hidden new side, a dynamic, engaging personality. Bobbing jovially on the heels of his feet, all reticence shed away, he momentarily manifested into the person he is in our emails. “Jeffrey,” he said in my favorite line of the toast, “you’re my dearest friend, and a lifetime of happiness for you is a lifetime of happiness for me.” Moved by the spirit of the occasion, he went on like this for five incredible minutes. He became his email self. When it was over, and champagne glasses clinked, the entranced crowd sat briefly in stunned silence before breaking into enthusiastic applause.
I was touched, if not as staggered as the guests seated around us. After all, through email, I had been privy to this secret self of “the real” him for years. It is a closeness I prize, and one that can be exported to wherever this path through a historical profession might take me. As long as there’s wireless internet.
Yet the limits will persist. You can’t hug an email. Carefully chosen words and images– as with a Facebook profile– can be manipulated to tell any story about us that we want. But is that who we really are? The best man who occupied the stage and warmed me with his words disappeared after the magic of the wedding reception faded away. This incarnation had been but a fleeting outward glimpse of the friend I knew from emails. Normalcy was restored immediately afterwards. The friendship resumed its dichotomy of undiluted honesty on the page and restraint in person.
He tells me that he loves me, but he never says it to my face. I love him back, though I’ve never told him so directly. Do the words mean less when they are read instead of spoken? I wonder what he thinks. I’ve already sent him a rough draft of this post. Maybe I should check my email…
-Jeffrey Ludwig, guest contributor