In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Falling in Love Through Writing

Falling in love through writing.

"To send a letter is a good way to go somewhere without moving anything but your heart." Phyllis Theroux
"The one good thing about not seeing you is that I can write you letters." Svetlana Alliluyeva
"The age of technology has both revived the use of writing and provided ever more reasons for its spiritual solace. Emails are letters, after all, more lasting than phone calls, even if many of them r 2 cursory 4 u." Anna Quindlen

Falling in love through letter writing has been going on for hundreds of years. In what sense does it differ from falling in love in the regular way? Is this a good way to fall in love? How relevant is it to modern lovers?

Letter writing as a romantic process was- and to some extent, still is-particularly prevalent during prolonged periods of war when men are far away from home and the only way for them to communicate with loved ones is through letters. Online relationships are an improved version of a writing-based relationship. In the new version, the time gap between writing, sending, receiving, and reading has become almost instantaneous—the sender can receive a reply while still in the same state of emotions she was in when she sent the original message. This is of great emotional significance, as emotions are transitory and involve the urge to act immediately.

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Communication through (offline or online) letters appears to be more suitable for romantic communication than phone conversations. They are typically deeper and in many cases more sincere. Sincerity is a great asset to successful personal relationships and is correlated with a higher degree of intimacy. Although people can more easily be dishonest about themselves in letters, the act of writing encourages people to present a more profound and sincere picture of their true self. This is especially true if the relationship continues and develops further. It is often easier to describe your heart in writing while you are alone than it is when you are talking about your feeling in front of another person. Indeed, self-disclosure in the initial stages of a relationship is often greater in letters than in offline communication. Moreover, unlike phone calls, letters can be reread again and again and thereby enhance romantic responses.

Romantic letters are usually written when the person is physically alone, but mentally with another person. Sometimes the writer even knows that the letter will not be sent, since there is no physical way of doing so (as occurred, for example, during the Holocaust) or the writer is not mentally ready to so (as its content may seem risky or too revealing). When we write a letter, we have a sense of being in company, even if we are secluded. When we receive a letter, the feeling that we are not forgotten is prominent as well.

Writing romantic letters to a person you hardly know has certain aspects in common with online romantic communication; these include, for example, the scanty amount of information the partners have about each other at the beginning of the relationship, the significant role of imagination, a reliance on writing skills and verbal communication, spatial separation, discontinuity of communication, and a marginal physical investment. The presence of partial information, and hence the need to fill the informational gap, explains the significant role of imagination both in letter writing and online communication. When someone is not physically present, imagination takes on some of the functions typically fulfilled by perceptual senses.

Letter writing and online communication are based on writing skills and verbal communication and not on external appearance. In offline relationships, two partners can go to a restaurant or even have sex without talking too much to each other. In online relationships, every activity consists essentially of verbal communication. The emphasis on verbal communication forces the participants to enlarge or deepen the scope of their mutual interest.

The long temporal gap between a letter and the reply does not suit the impetuous nature of romantic affairs. A snail-mail affair is also less immediate in the sense that you cannot just speak your mind; you need to find an envelope, a stamp, and a postbox before the (slow) communication can take place.

Interpersonal relationships conducted exclusively via phone conversations have some features in common with online relationships. Telephone conversations often involve sincere self-disclosure, as do online relationships. Like cybersex, phone sex involves no fear of unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. Furthermore, in both types of sexual activity, external appearance is not significant.

Phone communication, however, is closer to face-to-face communication than online communication is. Phone sex does not involve typing but engages with the other person's real voice, whispers, sighs, moans, groans, and other sexually arousing sounds; it involves the immediacy of face-to-face interaction. Phone conversations involve a lesser degree of anonymity—typically, your gender and approximate age are detectable—and hence imagination has a lesser role in such communication. Unlike online communication, in which you choose when and how to respond without psychological pressures, phone communication is more intrusive and insistent. The telephone forces you to respond at a time and in a manner that may be inconvenient for you: it induces a sense of obligation and urgency that is hard to ignore. Moreover, since most regular telephones do not have off switches, this further enhances the sense of urgency in replying to the phone's ring.

It is easier to avoid or defer responding to unpleasant questions in email communication than in phone conversations. An obsessive romantic partner can intrude upon your everyday routine much more by phone than by online communication. Merely pressing a button cannot end intimate phone relationships. Today, with the extensive use of mobile phones, there are even fewer opportunities to escape incoming calls. However, mobile phones do have off switches that enable you to mark the boundary of your private zone and so these calls can be made less intrusive.

Online communication offers the immediacy of the telephone, but, as in letters, it is up to the recipient to choose when to respond—the response does not have to be spontaneous if one does not so wish. This can reduce the stress on the participants.

A relationship based merely upon writing letters or phone conversations is not a real alternative to conventional offline relationships. Accordingly, these means typically supplement such relationships—when those are not feasible or desirable—but do not replace them.

Mobile texting (SMS) continues the text-based revolution of online romantic communication. In both cases, we read a text rather than talk. As compared to mobile texting, online messages are longer, more detailed and profound, and less similar to continuous conversations. In comparison to online communication, mobile texting is more continuous, available, immediate, and spontaneous. Like online communication, mobile texting is not intrusive, but it is less anonymous and less detached. Mobile texting is a very useful and convenient means for flirting, as it suits the superficiality and brevity that characterizes flirting.

To sum up, there are some advantages in writing-based relationships during the initial stages. However, such a relationship cannot replace an offline relationship, although it can complement it. Nonetheless, it is highly likely that in the future the use of writing-based means, such as mobile texting and online communication, for romantic purposes will be significantly greater.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, as we hardly speak to each other, and you are so shy, you could try to write me a letter in which you tell me how much you love me. (God, I hope shyness is the only reason for your current reticence.)"

This post is based in part on my book, Love Online: Emotions on the Internet.

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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