WASHINGTON – When U.S. Navy Surgeon David Shelton Edwards was serving at the Washington Navy Yard in the late 1830s, he kept the spark in his marriage alive by writing eight love letters home to his wife, Harriet Eliza Henry.
“Your letters are a sweet cordial to this loving heart of yours, for there can be no substitute for them until I have your own dear self here,” Edwards wrote in a July 1835 note to Henry.
Over a 13-year span from 1835 to 1848 working in Washington, Pensacola Navy Yard, Fla., and aboard several Mexican-American War naval vessels, Edwards wrote his “dearest Eliza” more than 40 notes now part of the National Postal Museum’s collection of thousands of letters in Washington.
Today, Skype and smartphones make the love letter an antiquated medium, but some Maryland relationship psychologists and young couples still value the connection in the written word.
“We tend to think that things can be replicated without any loss and I don’t think that’s actually true,” Baltimore-based psychologist Dr. John Hayes said of the evolution from handwritten letter to digital correspondence.
A greater depth of feeling and thought goes into letter writing than most electronic missives, and it can be a challenge to convey the same level of intimacy on a computer screen, he said.
Letters also help to make love more tangible.
“It’s always nice for people to send letters and cards to one another,” Baltimore-based couples therapist Allyson Michael said. “You have something in your hand, it’s tactile, it’s from them, they took the time to do it and mail it and pick it out and write it, and then you have something to keep.”
But digital love letters have their benefits. With cellphones, many couples have the option to reach out to one another more often.
Michael sees some couples who use text messaging to send quick “I love you” notes.
“When people do this kind of texting, they seem to like the little pluses during the day. You can see that lights them up,” she said.
University of Maryland freshman volleyball player Amy Dion, 19, agrees that text messaging offers something extra in her long-distance relationship with University of Iowa freshman Frank Recchia, 19.
“Even though he’s not here and he’s so far away, he’s still a part of my life. He knows what went on in my day as soon as it happens. It keeps it almost as if we’re back home in high school again,” Dion said.
Dion and Recchia went to preschool together but only began dating during their senior year of high school in Huntley, Ill. Now, the two call each other regularly and use Apple’s video chat tool FaceTime three or four nights per week, in addition to text messaging.
Even with the many technologies available to her, Dion sees the merits of snail mail.
“With a text, you get a response right away, but with a letter it takes some time to hear what a person has to say, so I think that makes it easier to say more stuff,” Dion said.
Other couples use Facebook and Twitter to broadcast their feelings of love in a public space — a move that psychologist Hayes thinks is less about connection and more about showmanship.
“It doesn’t belong on Facebook…because it’s making a public performance rather than a private intimate self-exposure,” Hayes said.
That intimacy may be the key to relationship success regardless of the medium.
Talking to your partner is an essential part of a successful relationship, and there’s no substitute for in-person interaction, he said.
“The essence of a relationship is communication: expression of feeling, expression of attachment, the celebration of the connection, and the expression of what the other person needs,” Hayes said.
For Dion and her boyfriend this Valentine’s Day, though, in-person communication isn’t an option. So she’s resorting to what she thinks is the next best thing. Her plan? To send Recchia a handwritten letter.