For a year or two, I’ve been working on a collection of essays about the things I’ve lost: the crappy but beloved furniture I had to give away before I moved to Arizona, my darling cat Gypsy who died in 2009, the places I have lived that I never visit anymore, the childhood self who traveled through the place I live now but has no memory of the trip. For some reason, and I don’t think it’s simply a mid-life thingy, loss has become more sharp-edged and haunting in recent years, and I want to know why. I think it’s more complicated than “I once loved a thing but that thing is no more.”
Lately what I’ve struggled to understand is why we miss certain romantic relationships even when we know we are better off without them and perhaps weren’t even that happy in them at the time. What exactly is it that we miss?
This might be the most unromantic thing I’ll ever say, but I think the answer lies in folklore studies.
The idea came to me when I was reading Lynne McNeill’s Folklore Rules–a primer for undergraduates (hence the somewhat childish pun in the title; McNeill is trying to get down with the cool kids). McNeill defines a “folk group” as “people who share an unofficial culture” (4).
I think romantic relationships function as folk groups and that what we miss when we lose one is the “culture” of that relationship–the inside jokes, the special vocabulary (I’ve written about this elsewhere), the defining stories that you tell over and over, even though no one else cares but the two of you.
Think about those moments when you’ve been around a group of friends who have known each other a lot longer than you’ve known any single one of them. What do they do? They tell you stories about the crazy time Lisa and Kirsten broke into the high school or Susie got entire bar to sing “I Will Survive” or Jane broke up with the swim instructor who was a full foot taller than her because the physics of their impending physical relationship terrified her. They tell these stories to you but really they tell the stories to each other. You listen politely, even though the story has little meaning to you and is, quite possibly, kinda boring, but you listen anyway, knowing you are the excuse for the telling and therefore integral to some ritual that will help renew relationships that have languished due to distance and busy lives.
Or what about when you’re with someone you really care for and she is excitedly telling you a story, reciting the folklore of the past self, and suddenly she stops and asks, “Wait–have I told you this story before?” And even though they have, like a thousand times, because you love them, you say, “I don’t know. Tell me again” or “Yeah, but remind me what happened.” This is love: listening to the stories people need to tell even if you know them already.
And what does someone do who has just ended a relationship? Unless the relationship was really terrible or relatively meaningless, there’s a chance that you will hear a lot of stories beginning with phrases like, “I remember when . . .” or “I’m really going to miss the way he/she . . .” or “Did I ever tell you about the time we . . . ?” These stories likely mean little to you, but they represent a whole short life to the other person, the life of a relationship. What they are doing is eulogizing.
When you lose a lover, you don’t merely lose a person you once loved or still love; you lose a language, a set of traditions, a relic or two, a history and a folklore. And since in our culture it is “weird” to be too chummy with your exes, you also lose the only other person to whom all those details matter as much as they do to you.