I Miss You Like Hell

Why do we love unfinished business?

Posted Dec 30, 2012

"Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell." —Edna St Vincent Millay

"A man is incomplete until he is married. After that, he is finished." —Zsa Zsa Gabor

"Maria Elena used to say that only unfulfilled love can be romantic." —Juan Antonio, in the movie, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Our romantic experiences are often incomplete in the sense of being not entirely fulfilled. We are typically excited by anything that is incomplete, unfinished, unsettled, unexplained, or uncertain. Here is the true story of John, who yearned and waited 40 years for his high-school sweetheart.

The true story of John

John and Hannah were high-school lovers for a few months. Then Hannah's family abruptly left their little town, and for years, John tried to trace Hannah, but to no avail. He thought about her constantly. Even at his wedding and on the birth of his children, he found himself thinking about her. He thought about what she would look like now, whether she was married, and whether she still loved him the way he loved her.

After about 40 years, John called a factory in Toulouse, France, to order a certain product for his business. After a short conversation with the woman who answered him, he said: "I know you; we were sweethearts in high school."

She said that she did not remember him, but admitted that she had once lived in that small town. John told her that he would take the next flight from New York to Toulouse in order to meet her. He asked her to wait for him the next day at noon in the central circle of her city.

She replied that she wasn't sure whether she could make it, and he replied that he would take the flight in any case and would wait for her. If she didn't show up, he would just return to New York. At noon, they both arrived at the meeting point, and their conversation was stirring, though she kept saying that she did not remember him.

John suggested that they should take a week-long trip to South Africa together. Hannah refused, reminding him that they were both married with children. After this meeting, they kept in touch and met in various places.

Hannah became, in John's words, "my closest, best friend." His intense yearning for Hannah was due to the fact that their relationship had been abruptly halted at its very exciting beginning. It was unfinished business for him, and this stopped him from ever entirely settling for someone else.

His great yearning made him feel so close to her that when they met again after 40 years apart, he immediately felt an intense attachment to her. Another reason for this high intensity is that they maintained their primary relationships, and so in a sense, the unfinished business of their youthful relationship is still not entirely finished.

Incomplete romantic experiences

We desire much more than we actually have or are ever likely to have. We have limited capacities and finite resources, but our desires are almost infinite. Consequently, many human desires are doomed to remain unfulfilled, even though the agent seeks to materialize them.

An incomplete romantic experience is a kind of unfinished business; it is an experience where love is present, but not entirely fulfilled. Incomplete romantic experiences are emotionally loaded. In such experiences, love has been partially attained, and there is yearning for its completion.

The part that is absent is like a hole in the lover's heart that can neither be fulfilled nor be ignored. Not everything that is missing, or unattainable, is an incomplete (unfinished) romantic experience. Something has to begin and survive, at least partially, in order to be incomplete.

From the perspective of the agent experiencing the incomplete romantic experience, the following features exist:

(a) The agent loves the other person and wishes for the loving relationship to be upgraded or resumed.

(b) The agent believes that the loving relationship is incomplete.

(c) The agent believes (or at least hopes) that making the relationship complete is feasible, despite current setbacks.

We can divide incomplete romantic experiences into two groups: those in which the basic wish is that the present relationship be upgraded, and those wishing for a past relationship to be resumed. Examples of the first group are cases of extramarital affairs, courtly love, cyber love, and some types of romantic compromises. Examples of the second group include searching for an ex-lover, romantic regrets, and certain cases of romantic compromises.

Upgrading the romantic experience: extramarital affairs, courtly love, and cyber love

Extramarital affairs are an example of incomplete romantic experiences when they involve the wish to upgrade the relationship to a full, primary loving relationship where the two can be together whenever and wherever they so want. In such affairs, lovers may feel profound love, but yearn to fulfill it more completely.

Numerous novels and movies deal with such romantic relationships, which are incomplete and, therefore, highly intense. In some cases, the two lovers meet every month (or year) for an intense, intimate encounter while knowing virtually nothing about their partner's life outside of their meetings. In other cases, the relationship is conducted solely via letters.

Another type of incomplete romantic relation involves close emotional ties, but no sexual intercourse. Despite lacking the essential features of profound love that are present in normal circumstances, incomplete romantic experiences have their own advantages, in particular, that of maintaining their high emotional intensity for a long time. In the play "Same Time, Next Year," a man and a woman who are married to others meet by chance at a romantic inn and spend the night together. They then meet on the same weekend each year and stay in the same room. The tagline of the play is: "They couldn't have celebrated happier anniversaries if they were married to each other."

In the 12th century, troubadours sang ballads about courtly love, “a new kind of tender, extramarital flirtation, which (ideally) was unconsummated sexually and which, therefore, made the chaste lovers more noble and virtuous” (see here). Thus, the two non-sexual lovers were supposed to sleep naked beside each other for the whole night without engaging in any sexual activity. This was intended to test whether their love was strong enough to withstand the lure of sexual intercourse.

Courtly love was perpetually unsatisfied, as it did not allow full possession of the partner, who, in some cases, was a married lady. Such non-physical love was considered more pure, and hence was preferred to the love that achieved “fulfillment” and corporeal “satisfaction”(see here)

Like courtly love, cyber love also consists of passionate relationships that are basically incomplete, as they lack actual physical interaction. Cyber love is similar to courtly love in another aspect as well: In many cases, both types of relationships involve at least one married person who does not want to leave his or her primary partner. This prevents the two lovers from sharing their daily, public life with each other, which further exacerbates the incomplete nature of the relationship.

Cyber love can, indeed, become extremely intense. People often testify that their online love has been the most intense love of their life and their cybersex the wildest sex they have experienced. People even claim that before their online love, they did not know what love was (Love Online). One major difference between courtly love and cyber love is that being faithful to only one woman was the ideal solely in the former; in cyber love, the object of one’s desire can change frequently.

Resuming a relationship from the past: searching for an ex-lover, romantic regrets, and romantic compromises

Nostalgia involves an incomplete romantic experience in which the major wish is to resume a previous romantic relationship rather than merely upgrade a current one. Nostalgia is a longing for circumstances that no longer exist, but still have an emotional impact on the person. Nostalgia is a bittersweet longing, as it combines the pleasurable feeling of the past with pain and suffering because of its absence.

The nostalgic search for an ex-lover is an example of an incomplete romantic experience generating intense love and passion. The ex-lover, who belongs to the past, still has a romantic impact on the person, whose heart has not yet come to terms with her absence. Since the relationship with the ex-lover is perceived to be unfinished business, the person may feel he has a greater "right," a kind of deservingness, to be with the ex-lover again (see here and here).

Romantic regrets also involve an incomplete experience that gives rise to the wish to resume a past relationship or to implement a past romantic option. People are often tormented by what they imagine to be the consequences of the road not taken. This road does not disappear from the lover's heart and remains an open wound. Even if a romantic opportunity is no longer available, the sense of loss and of what might have been can remain for a long time and haunt the would-be lover until some closure can be found to conclude the unfinished business (see here).

Romantic compromises are unfinished, incomplete business—they are incomplete in the sense that nothing is settled, and they are unfinished because their lack of conclusion causes instability and keeps the emotional upheaval alive. In romantic compromises, in practice, we relinquish a romantic value for a nonromantic value; however, in our hearts, we keep yearning for the road not taken or the one that was only partially traveled. The dissonance between our actual behavior and our yearning heart generates intense emotions. Time and everyday experiences do not necessarily decrease the intensity of this unfulfilled love.

In characterizing the perfect seducer, Robert Greene indicates the importance of maintaining elements that emphasize the incomplete nature of the romantic interaction. These include increasing ambiguity, sending mixed signals, mastering the art of insinuation, confusing desire and reality, mixing pleasure and pain, stirring desire and confusion, toning down the sexual element without getting rid of it, refusing to conform to any standard, being able to delay satisfaction, and not offering total satisfaction.

Loving what we do not have

The process of habituation (accommodation, adaptation) makes romantic experiences less intense. Since emotional desire is typically generated by a perceived, significant change, the intensity of many desires is reduced once we become accustomed to them.

We have good evolutionary reasons not to be excited by what we have. William Irvine argues that humans have an inbuilt tendency to feel dissatisfied. He contends that the process of evolution dictates that we should feel dissatisfied with any stable circumstance. The urge for more and better has great evolutionary value. The early humans who basked in contentment were less likely to survive than ones with a nagging itch to better their lot.

Loving what we do not have prevents the process of habituation, which is accompanied by reduced intensity. Incomplete relationships enjoy great intensity, but their price tag is the partial or full absence of certain features essential to profound love—in particular, being with the beloved at any time. This may be a high price to pay, but for many people, it is worth it.

On the positive side, I would note that profound, loving relationships are those that provide a personal space for each partner. In contrast to the romantic ideal of unity, marriage counselors warn that spending too much time with the beloved can reduce love. In a flourishing relationship, the importance of a significant personal space cannot be exaggerated.

The existence of such a space enables each lover to have a fuller and thus more meaningful life. This space does not necessarily involve sexual freedom, but even if it does, it remains valuable, as sexual affairs can prosper in those relationships where there is no personal space available. In a sense, personal space makes the primary relationship incomplete, but in a positive sense. Its incompleteness enables each partner to maintain some degree of intensity in their relationship.