Modern technology and media have changed how we communicate with one another as human beings. Where does our need for intimacy fit into this new communication formula? This essay analyzes how romantic relationships and digital intimacy function – particularly in the context long-distance and military relationships. It begs the question of how our connections have changed and what this means for our future forms of communication.
Can You Hear Me Now?
Nate asks again if I can hear him. My laptop speakers may not relay the question, but I have become familiar with the changing shapes of his mouth. I shake my head once.
I watch his fingers trot across his keyboard, and then a message appears on my screen.
NATE: hey are you okay
I know he can hear me. But I can’t say the words out loud.
BECKIE: not really, no.
I can see the questions cycling through his eyes.
Did you take your meds? How bad is it? How long has it been like this? Is it my fault?
BECKIE: but i will be.
He mouths something in response, but I am unable to interpret his meaning before he ducks out of sight. I don’t wait long before he reappears, a small elastic band in hand. It’s a blousing strap, meant to keep the bottoms of his airman battle uniform pant legs neatly tucked away.
“What are you doing?”
He holds up a single finger, dramatically furrows his brow, and shushes me.
“Relax,” I see him mouth. If I strain, I imagine I can hear the ghost of a whisper.
The onset of virtual reality technology has enhanced the immersiveness of online experiences like the one between us. Eventually, it could mimic aspects of physical proximity and contact between us, simulate the physical interactions we have longed for.
But here I am, stuck with a Skype account that hardly functions, unable to communicate with him beyond typing in the program’s chat box. As if this is somehow betters than the letters.
Ten weeks. That’s how long I have stared at his chicken scratch, trying to imagine his voice. I wrote to him every day but received only two letters in response. I can’t blame him for that, of course. Basic military trainees are short on two things: supplies and time.
Still, the letters were short, a single sheet each. The paper looked like it had been torn out of the notebook a suburban mother might use for her grocery list. Some days, as I flipped the paper front to back, front to back, begging for there to be more of it, I imagined that grocery list might possess more content.
What was there, however, made my heart ache.
He referred to me as Rebecca in his letters, something he usually saves for special occasions. I still signed my letters: “All my love, Beckie.” I couldn’t bring myself to write “Rebecca.” It was too formal. It meant something had changed. It meant things wouldn’t be the same as before.
And I suppose they weren’t.
In some respects, this wasn’t terrible. On the rare occasions that I did see him, it felt like falling in love all over again. Long-distance couples experience heightened positive emotional and sexual responses when together – it’s like being in the honeymoon phase over and over again.
But the time in between… now that was fucking hell.
I had expected the lack of physical intimacy. I knew there wasn’t some virtual reality in which I could wake up to his head on the pillow next to mine when there were 900 miles between us. But the change in emotional intimacy – the switch to digital intimacy – was jarring.
I can see my partner’s face on my screen. I can hear his voice and his laugh. I can poke the camera as if I am poking his forehead. On the days that one of us is short on cash, the other can transfer a few dollars to help cover expenses. On the holidays we can’t see each other, we can order food to be delivered to each other’s dorms.
This technological intimacy, which spans miles, only goes so far. If I reach out, I will feel only the glass of my screen. There is a familiar intimacy there. There are memories and wishes and desires galore. But he is not the dynamic, tangible person I fell in love with.
I fell in love with someone who cradled my hand in his while we were driving to get midnight slushies. Even though he hated holding hands – sweaty palms were not his forte – he did so because he knew the feeling of his pulse against mine slowed my racing thoughts. I fell in love with the person who didn’t mind when my tears soaked the collar of his shirt during my third panic attack of the week. He’d sing softly in my ear, providing a rhythm for my breathing to follow. I fell in love with the man who sat on the opposite end of the couch from me, telling me the worst parts of his life and curling into as small of a ball as a six-foot human can manage. Only once the tears started would he allow me to hold him, to bring his head against my chest and stifle sobs in an embrace.
Now, we just sit here.
When I am at my lowest of lows, or when he has convinced himself he doesn’t deserve the good he’s gained, all we can do is sit here and watch the other person crumble. We try to hold the Jenga tower together with words of encouragement, but they are drowned out by the smashing sounds as it falls.
Self-disclosure is a vital aspect of the development of intimacy between couples. Studies have shown that long-distance couples engage in more self-disclosures. We certainly did. But the other could not respond.
It’s a cold feeling – being so close to someone and nowhere near them.
Self-disclosure meant being able to comfort the other person. It meant being able to use yourself as a shield for them after they have allowed themselves to become so vulnerable. I can’t do that with all this space between us.
I just can’t.
I have grown so used to being seamlessly connected with the world around me that it felt like the entire system was going to collapse when one piece of it detached. To be fair to myself, this is no ordinary piece – it is the piece.
I wonder what it would feel like to return to that two-month period of basic military training. If I could not see his face and hear his voice, would it be less painful to know he is gone? Or would I feel further from him, knowing that everything we said to each other was carefully crafted and considered before being scrawled onto the page?
This doesn’t end for me – not so long as I continue to choose him.
Each night I’ll lay down in a twin-sized bed and send a goodnight text. Each night I’ll fall asleep to memories of our conversations. And every night I’ll swallow those damn pills and hope that I wake up the next morning feeling a little less awful, a little less detached.
I text him good morning. I brush my teeth. I text to see if he saw the message.
And I wait. And I imagine where the next two years will take us.
I imagine the text messages. They will vary widely from lengthy confessions to one-word answers, depending on how much of our attention we can afford to spare between work and classes. We will send pictures and videos in an attempt to relay our respective situations, but they will be moments frozen in time that the other cannot participate in. I will see his smile in his selfie with his coworkers and clench my teeth in an attempt to ignore the jealousy that bubbles in my stomach, knowing I didn’t contribute to that smile.
I imagine the Skype calls. Their times will be carefully negotiated, scheduled between the time his shift ends and when I have to leave to make it to my media sociology exam. Self-disclosure will begin, and then hesitate because we aren’t sure if we can watch each other cry without being able to physically support one another.
I imagine the attempts to fill that void. I will bring up Hey bracelets, which mimic human touch through a light squeeze, as an option for reassurance. He will mention long-distance lamps, which light up when the owner of the accompanying light touches theirs. One of us will bring up long-distance sex toys as a joke – then we will pause, maybe actually consider it – and laugh it away just as quickly.
Because the only device that either of us wants is one that allows us to be in the same room.
So many devices exist that allow us to mimic human touch through electrodes. When will that become a hug or a kiss or something even more intimate? Will I want that? Will I convince myself that that is enough?
I’m not ready. I’m not ready.
NATE: okay, I’m ready!
The blousing strap is strung between his glasses and earbuds, bringing the microphone beside his mouth. The frames are crooked, the lenses cutting across his eyes.
I attempt to stifle a laugh and fail. He has Jerry-rigged our Skype conversation using a blousing strap and his face. A mental snapshot does not do the moment justice.
“Can you hear me now?” I hear him ask.
Beckie Jaeckels is a senior at the University of Missouri majoring in Journalism.