My wife and I have been happily married for about two years and she is currently in Europe for five weeks on business. I miss her dearly and have been surprised by how affected I am by her absence. Aside from that, I've also been struck by how little she's attempted to contact me. I know she has reliable Internet service, though phones are a problem. A few days ago, I sent her an important e-mail that she hadn't replied to, so I opened up her e-mail account to see if she had read it (she gave me her password but no permission to check her e-mail).
When the page opened, there was an instant message chat history where she was telling one of her high school friends she was surprised how little she missed me (seriously) and that she wanted to stay there (jokingly). I don't know how to handle the news. Is it normal for someone to say that? I can't sleep because I miss her so much and now I must lie awake thinking about this chat. How can I talk to her about it while abroad? How about when she gets home? How do I cope until she gets back? Her lack of communication makes it clear she's not devastated but to see it so clearly written bothers me.
Dear Insufficiently Missed,
Generally the traveler does not miss the one left at home as much as the one left at home misses the traveler. The traveler has substituted a world of wonder and charm for the world at home. But the one left at home has the opposite experience; not only does he remain with the gray, stay-at-home world he is accustomed to, but its chores are increased even as its pleasures are diminished. So it is natural for the asymmetry of feeling you describe to emerge.
In the traveler's mind, the world at home disappears. It is shocking how fast this can happen. The traveler herself is shocked by it, and seeks corroboration of her experience. She asks her friends: Is this normal? Does this mean I do not love my husband? Shouldn't I miss him more? This seems positively wrong!
And yet I am having such a great time, and I am completely at ease and happy, and it is as though I had never lived in Xburgh and had never married. Maybe I am a bad wife?
She shares these thoughts with her friend but not with her husband because they could only hurt her husband, whom she adores, while they will amuse, intrigue and inform her friend.
But her husband, the dolt, reads his wife's private messages and becomes alarmed. He is hurt. Of course he is. He misses her terribly and she does not miss him at all.
He has been displaced in her affections.
But he has not been displaced by some other man. He has been displaced in her affections by Europe.
The other thing is this:
We are not supposed to read our wives' e-mail.
Not ever. Not one glance. Not one little inky-pinky-peek. Not under any circumstances. Not. Never. None.
There ought to be a law.
Because this is what happens.
Of course your wife doesn't miss you. You're not Europe.
The problem is compounded by the fact that the very definitions of presence and absence have changed; absence has become contingent; presence has become inescapable. No matter where we are, our virtual selves remain under surveillance.
Until recently, one could actually achieve absence. One could go somewhere and be gone. The traveler would send postcards. The postcards would have pictures of beaches or statues. They would be eagerly awaited and gratefully received. Absence was simple. It was an absolute condition, soon relieved by presence. Presence was also an absolute condition.
Now absence and presence are contingent and variable, matters of degree and form. A person may cease responding to e-mail and achieve a sort of absence although he or she remains in place. Or a person may go to India and yet be as present as always.
A version of us is always present. We are over-connected. We spy on each other from afar.
The quality of our absence is thus degraded. Absenceness is a precious resource we are fast running out of. Soon there will be nothing but presence. We will wish we could go away but will not be able to. The pain of constant presence will be too much for some to bear; it will be a torture like that of sleep deprivation. There will be a rash of virtual suicides, in which people disconnect themselves and appear to be dead. We will have virtual funerals for them. This will all come in time.
For now, suffice it to say that your wife experienced something many people experience, and expressed it in confidence, clumsily believing she was not under surveillance when the truth is that we are now all under surveillance, all the time.
We should not read other people's mail. We were taught that as kids but seem to have forgotten. Physical mail, at least, could be burned. One cannot burn an IM, can one? The only privacy we can have now is the privacy that is freely given to us by others. If we do not give people privacy, then they can have none. So it is more important than ever to simply grant our loved ones a zone of privacy in which their troubling thoughts can be shared only with those they intend to share them with.
You now know more than you should. Of course it is uncomfortable knowledge. It was not meant for you.
But it's nothing all that alarming. You are still her husband. You're just not Europe.
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