Sometime around 2002, I wrote a letter to an ex-person in my life.
In the long and rambling email, I begged him to reconsider ending our romance. I told him that I loved him. I told him I couldn’t stop thinking about him.
Then I quoted…. the Backstreet Boys.
It made sense at the time.
Before I hit send on my long, sad missive, I ran it by a friend – a very smart friend – who told me that while it was a wonderful idea to write it, the note was best left unsent. This honest friend told me the letter was for me, to help me process the loss of the relationship. Regardless of how I felt, it was over for good.
I knew my friend was right.
The email now sits in the “unsent” folder in the bowels of my now-defunct Yahoo account. But it came to mind — for the first time in many years — when psychotherapist, “Where Should We Begin?” podcast host (the new season is coming soon!), and all-around brilliant person Esther Perel told me she wanted to explore the idea of unsent letters. Who writes them? Why do people keep these notes to themselves?
Esther’s idea thrilled me. Sometimes I think the people who write in to my advice column are really just sending me a letter they can’t quite send to someone else.
Esther and I started by doing a call-out for unsent letters in my column. I hoped maybe 10 people or so would send one in. (After all, these letters are private. Intimate. Probably unsent for a reason.) But people responded – 75, to be exact. Some people’s unsent letters were written in the form of a poem. Others were more formal.
Sometimes there was a lot of anger. There was also love.
The unsent letters were about all sorts of things, from the pain of monumental breakups to the strange confusion that comes with moving on.
Some things we noticed about the letters:
1. A third of them were addressed to people the letter writer had known less than a year; only 10 percent had been written to people the letter writer had known for more than 10 years. I guess the longer you’re with someone, the more time you have to speak your piece.
2. We asked letter writers if they were still with the person who inspired their letter (if the relationship was romantic), and more than 70 percent said “no.” Twenty-one percent said: “It’s complicated.”
3. Unsent letters were composed on many platforms. More than 15 percent were written by hand, 48 percent on computers. One person used a typewriter.
4. Many of the letter writers do not regret keeping their letter to themselves, but a few people were still on the fence. One person said, “’Regret’ feels too strong of a word. Wish I was brave enough to send, I suppose.” Another reported, “I am itching to send…”
After going through the letters, Esther and I chose five we thought best represented the pack. We got together in New York City to talk about what we might learn from them, and filmed our five conversations, one for each letter.
We’ll address one letter every other Tuesday. We’ll start today with a discussion about the project, and our first letter, which starts with the line: “I have this warped fantasy.”
If you want to submit to the Love Letters column, email your question to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have thoughts on unsent letters, email them to email@example.com with “Unsent Letters” in the subject line.