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Relationships • Mature Love

The Achievement of Missing Someone

Missing someone that we’re close to – because they’ve had to go to another country, or are up in the north on a course, or went on a hiking trip with their friends – is such an unpleasant emotion, it feels peculiar to suggest that it is also, at a profound level, an extraordinary achievement and an important marker of emotional maturity. It is in no way simple for a prototypical adult to be able to miss anyone and we are often, almost without knowing it, engaged in complex manoeuvres to ensure that we resolutely won’t.

Painting of a shirtless man sitting by an open window with a view onto the sea.
Albert Marquet, Open Window, 1924

Small children – for better and for worse – miss people a lot. They show us – without compunction or defences – what missing looks like in its rawest, most unbounded state, and it is not always a pretty or relaxing sight. The wails can be heard across the street. ‘Don’t leave me,’ a small child will scream with heart-rending intensity, as we implore them to understand that we just need to pop out to the shops and will be back in ten minutes. ‘Why do you need to go?’ they beg, as they hold onto our sleeve, their face streaked with tears, and we watch our plans disintegrate in contact with their despair.

Eventually, a child grows up to feel ashamed of their early hysterics. Somewhere along the line, they give in to the many lectures they receive about the need to be reasonable and let others get on with their lives; something in them can no longer deny the logic that, yes, it probably does make some sense that the people we cherish have to be allowed to abandon us, perhaps for long stretches, like quarter of an hour, or god forbid, a day, even a month or sometimes (heavens above) years.

It sounds like progress – but it should not obscure the dangers involved in growing up to be a very good little man or woman who everyone can be so proud of for the quiet way they now play with their toys when those they cherish vanish from sight. The risk is not merely that we become a bit more forebearing but that, in the name of reason, we cease to be able to feel anything much at all; that, in the process of growing up, we lose our capacity to love.

We may grow so allergic to the pain that belongs to genuine attachment, we barricade ourselves behind a range of defensive manoeuvres. We may – for example – reconfigure who any person who leaves us can possibly be – in order that their absence might perturb us a little less. On the eve of a departure, we may abruptly realise that – whatever we had once assumed – the absconder is in reality horribly disorganised, they chew their food in a maddening way and they never have anything too interesting to say about the latest novels or scientific discoveries. It doesn’t appear that we really have any particular cause to miss them very much, for why would we lament the absence of someone who was not especially worthwhile to begin with?

Or we may go through the outward rituals of absence while privately not fully registering that anyone has actually really gone. When they call us from another continent in the late hours, we may find that we’ve just remembered that there’s a crack in the ceiling we need to get on to in the morning – or an email we have to send to a supplier at work. We may find that it’s impossible to accord them too much thought given how angry we have become about a dispute with a neighbour or how worried we are about an odd new twinge in our left knee.

It’s an immense achievement to be able both to care for someone and endure their absence, to feel a wound without resorting to numbness, rage or an affair, to miss someone without reinventing what the missing person means to us. We’ll have begun to accede to genuine emotional maturity when we rediscover the courage to be hurt by those we love – when we can acknowledge, with some of the honesty of our younger selves, just how much it hurts when someone we adore crosses an ocean – or has the impudence to go off to the shops for an afternoon with their friends. 

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