I think I was ten or eleven when my cousin Eric broke up with his long-term girlfriend Dana. I loved Dana. She was willowy thin with poofy permed hair and a thick Tennessee accent. When we visited, she talked to my sister and me like we were her friends, though I must’ve been, at most, half her age at the time.
I remember standing in my parents’ bathroom while my mom was doing her makeup one morning, trying to understand why Eric and Dana were splitting up. “Sometimes,” my mom said, “people just fall out of love.”
I was familiar with the fickle politics of elementary school romance (when Colby dumped me because I wouldn’t kiss him behind the lockers, I’d ripped his school photo into tiny pieces and deposited them into a friend’s open palm to give back to him) but I’d never imagined an adult could love someone one day and then not love her a week or a month later. I’d had friends whose parents had gotten divorced, but I assumed it was because someone had done something wrong. Someone had had an affair, or started drinking too much, or fallen in love with his wife’s sister. Divorce, I thought, was directly linked to depravity. Obviously I watched too much television.
“You and Dad wouldn’t fall out of love, though,” I’d said to my mom. It was something in between a declaration and a question.
“We could,” she’d said. “You never know.”
At the time, I was pretty uncomfortable with this idea, which is probably indicative of how sheltered and easy my childhood was. I struggled to imagine ever not loving any of the people I loved.
As an adult looking back on this moment, and as someone who thinks often of what it means to love or not love someone (and of those gray areas in between), I’m really interested in the metaphor: falling out of love. It has the same kind of helpless passivity as its progenitor (falling in love), but I’m not quite convinced that these are opposite processes.
We have countless metaphors for the beginning of love. And we have language for heartache, both the pain of losing love and of not receiving it in return. But we do not have much to say about that slower, more subtle experience in which you stop loving someone. I’m intrigued by the holes in our language, the things we don’t quite have the vocabulary for. And for this particular experience, we only have an inversion of another metaphor: falling out.
Maybe this means we are more interested in the experience of love, the joys and pains of it, than we are in the loss of it. This is, at least in part, probably due to chemistry, the strange and dramatic things that happen in our brains when we fall in love. If you consider most of the love stories we exchange (our own, or those of our friends and families, or even fairy tales), most are about the beginnings of love, but few acknowledge the ends.
When my parents split up, they seemed unable to talk about or explain it. And I wasn’t comfortable asking them to. Maybe we don’t talk about falling out of love because it feels like failure. Maybe admitting that falling out of love can and does happen means admitting that you have invested a lot in a fairly precarious system.
Recently I found myself wondering about Eric and Dana and about why I found it so difficult to accept their separation. As far as I know, they did not remain friends. But did they ever run into each other? Did they laugh loudly and drink enthusiastically, pretending that everything that had passed between them had not passed? There is a strange intentionality to this process (even, via Google, a how-to!). Falling out of love, it seems to me, is a kind of lie—a lie of omission, or of oblivion, I’m not sure which. I think of sitting down next to a stranger on the bus: you regard them insofar as they occupy the space beside you, but they are only that—an absence of available space, the representation of a seat you cannot sit in. Falling out of love means making the loved into the unloved, not quite a stranger, but an absence. Perhaps, then, falling out of love is the inversion of things, an erasure, not destruction but rather an active creation of absence.
This line of thinking reminds me of Robert Rauschenberg’s “Erased deKooning drawing.” Rauschenberg, in a quest to create a piece of art about the concept of emptiness, went to the most successful living artist of his time (Willem deKooning) and asked to have a drawing that he could then erase. Robert Krulwich writes about it on NPR in a short essay on nothingness:
Today it sits a total blank. You can stare at it forever and not know what it had been (or perhaps, in some ghostly way, still is) because the painting isn’t telling and de Kooning and Rauschenberg are both dead, so they can’t tell. You wouldn’t even know there’d once been something to look at, except for the title.
The significance of the empty canvas is not its emptiness, but rather what it used to contain. It mattered because of what had once been there but no longer was. Maybe the absence of romantic love corresponds nicely with the absence of ways we’ve created to talk about it.
I remember, as a teenager, becoming increasingly uncomfortable with time’s passage, with the way the moments that seemed to matter to me just came and went. So I began keeping a journal as an act of preservation. I recorded those moments. Even now I don’t delete e-mails from friends, however mundane they may be. I guess it follows that I am uncomfortable with this concept of erasure, or the creation of absence. Falling out of love is a strange (hence the word estrange) experience for me. It is something I want to mitigate and control.
There is grief in the process, particularly in the loss of a hard-earned shared culture: the language, habits, and rituals of a relationship. And for a long time, I was really stuck on this loss. My instinct was to catalogue the loss, to label and archive it, but I’ve discovered that over time it is not so sad, this dead language, this lost culture. Over time, you acknowledge the absence you’ve created and then you go on, because there is no reason not to.