What to Do With Letters from Exes?
October 24, 2005 8:22 PM   Subscribe

What do you do with your collection of old letters from ex-significant others?

I have a stack of letters to and from two exes with whom I had long-distance relationships (I kept copies of some of the letters I wrote to them.) One SO wrote embarrassing, dramatic letters, one wrote sweet, funny letters. I hate to get rid of the things because 1) the form has all but died and 2) they're my surrogate diaries. But I'm married and don't necessarily want my spouse to be subjected to them -- spouse knows about the past relationships in a vague way, and wouldn't learn any secrets by reading them, just that I and my SOs were emotionally immature and bad writers.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (35 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I agree that letter writing is, sadly, a fast declining practice.

I only have a limited number of letters - I stick them in a random book and am pleasantly surprised when I find them again.

Since you've got stacks of them... do you have a "chest in the attic" that your grandkids may one day discover?
posted by PurplePorpoise at 8:28 PM on October 24, 2005

When I got engaged, I ceremoniously burned all the letters from my exes. It was sad, but necessary, because I envisioned the "chest in the attic" future where one of my grandkids found them and thought, "Wow. Grampy dated some illiterate bitches."

I did, however, keep all of the letters from my pen-pal...20 years worth and counting. Those are the ones I'll treasure in my older age. Not the silly cards and "Pooky-Wooky" writings of the women in my past.
posted by ColdChef at 8:34 PM on October 24, 2005

I recently moved and found stacks of old letters. I read through them all and promptly trashed most of them (keeping only dorky letters from people i am still friends with). I found it oddly cleansing, like some big burden was lifted off my shoulders. I'm all about the ditching.
posted by jodic at 8:36 PM on October 24, 2005

When I felt a need to get things down to a single carload for a while I got rid of the old love letters along with everything else of that nature (school papers, juvenile writings, meaningless mementos). Never looked back. Yeah, it's a dying form, but the question is, do the specimens involved add anything by their persistence. I know mine weren't exactly Abelard and Heloise.

If you want to keep them, jeez, how neat is your house? I've got boxes of papers nobody will ever look at again unless we get audited or die. Just stick them on a box and stick it at the bottom of the stack at the back of the closet.
posted by nanojath at 8:41 PM on October 24, 2005

Packaged them up in order with paper and string. They can't be easily gotten too, but they're there. Romantic too, for when I'm an old lady.
posted by crabintheocean at 8:46 PM on October 24, 2005

My friend and I discussed putting relics like this in a box and burying them somewhere. Kind of like a time capsule of your past relationships. And then someone can find them and make hypotheses about you and your lovers and write a book about it! But of course this is all a very romanticized possibility...just an idea.
posted by jetskiaccidents at 8:52 PM on October 24, 2005

The only appropriate thing to do with old love letters is to light a cigar with them.
posted by baphomet at 9:05 PM on October 24, 2005

what baphomet said.
posted by keswick at 9:09 PM on October 24, 2005

I'm a letter fanatic and keep copies of everything I write.

Re: letters to/about/for loved ones, I shared, via email, some of the ones I wrote with strangers. By the time I killed the (unfortunately titled) project I had mailed out 143 of them at random intervals (sometimes daily, sometimes monthly) to what ended up being 1000s of subscribers. It was an exhausting but empowering and liberating process.

I'm not a portrait photo person (I have no photo albums and no photos on my walls); my letters are the way I remember people close to me. I can't imagine destroying them.
posted by dobbs at 9:13 PM on October 24, 2005

erm, shared them with strangers, didn't write them with strangers. :)
posted by dobbs at 9:14 PM on October 24, 2005

I think there's a statute of limitations on those things. I recently moved and went through all my stuff and threw out all my old love letters. As has been mentioned, it's a really liberating feeling. I think it's a good way to let go, do it alone, do it slowly and thoughtfully. Don't leave them to be thrown in a box, because 20 years from now you really wont care about them.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:22 PM on October 24, 2005

I have them all in a box in the attic. Life seems transient enough as it is - I like having physical evidence of my foolish youth. Already those people are ten years gone, and they are fading fast from my memory. Destroy your old tax returns and insurance paperwork, but hang onto your love letters.
posted by Triode at 10:01 PM on October 24, 2005

I kept a box full of letters from my first long-term relationship in the back of my closet for five years. Never opened it, never even gave it much thought, even when I moved house thrice in eighteen months. I stumbled across it when I was packing for move #4, opened it, had a look, and was baffled: they were letters from a stranger to another stranger. I'd lost every bit of emotional connection to it, and had no compunctions about throwing the entire works into the trash.

The answer to your question can be drawn from how much connection you still feel to those relationships. If you're indifferent (or worse), it's probably better to throw them away. If they evoke fond, nostalgic memories (and you know your S.O. wouldn't be ultra-uncomfortable stumbling across them), go ahead and keep them until they don't.

None of us here lived those relationships with you; none of us know what they mean to you; nobody here except you can know for sure what the best course of action is.

...let go, do it alone, do it slowly and thoughtfully. blue_beetle has it exactly right.
posted by S.C. at 10:06 PM on October 24, 2005

If they are important to you, why not bind them nicely somehow, THEN store them in a box in the back of your closet?
posted by muddgirl at 10:09 PM on October 24, 2005

I'd keep 'em. If you don't want to store them physically, perhaps you could scan them, and back them up somewhere safe. It doesn't sound like you need to "let go" to me; you wouldn't be reading these on a daily basis. But there may well be a day, a couple of decades away, when you might like to take another look. As Triode said, life is transient enough as it is.
posted by muckster at 10:12 PM on October 24, 2005

I keep a bunch of mine tucked away, not in any way under lock and key, but it's not a place my wife would go peering into random boxes. I don't think you should worry too much about your spouse finding them; I would think most people aren't threatened by long-gone relationships. But to be honest, it sounds like you are concerned about keeping them mostly because it's an embarrassing record of yourself as a younger person, not because it would actually cause a problem with your spouse. Well, we've all been there. I'd rather have it there to come across every 5 years or so, remember who I was, maybe cringe a bit, and put it back. But that's me.
posted by transient at 10:14 PM on October 24, 2005

Oh, for God's sake... those letters are a part of your history and your memories, even if you're with somebody else now. Keep them, and in twenty years, reflect back on who you were in 2005.

People build time capsules for a reason. You're married. Your wife, certainly, would understand. You married her with trust in mind, right?
posted by symphonik at 10:15 PM on October 24, 2005

What does trust have to do with anything? This isn't about your wife worrying that you'll cheat with long-gone ex-girlfriends. It's about keeping one foot in the past, keeping mementos of relationships where you shared a commitment that you can only make to one woman at a time.

I'm a sentimental fool; and speaking as an artist, I think it's occasionally worthwhile to drag old emotions into modern light. But that's a selfish perspective, which I'd counter by saying the past usually belongs in the past. Archaeology is for dinosaur bones. You can't preserve emotions.
posted by cribcage at 11:08 PM on October 24, 2005 [1 favorite]

Good lord, keep them! Don't ever throw away any data. The simplest thing is to box them up. Maybe even put a note on top that says "love letters before I met my wife, the love of my life". That way your wife can't blame you if she stumbles into them and starts reading them.
posted by Nelson at 2:23 AM on October 25, 2005

I'm another keeper.

They're in a big old shoe box in the bottom of, believe it or not, my partners closet. I don't think she's ever read them (I wouldn't particularly like her to, but I wouldn't feel violated either), I'm not sure why they're in hers instead of mine at the other end of the room.

I actually have a real regret that there's no record of my masterful wooing of my current partner. She thought I was such an arsehole. It'd be like a manual on how to win a girl over.

Throwing away the old letters that I have makes as much sense to me right now as throwing away baby photos. Though, in a fire, I'd save the photos if I could, and the letters would be way down the list.
posted by The Monkey at 3:11 AM on October 25, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'm a sentimental keeper, but also a geek. So when I found my "memory box", I scanned those old keepsakes, stowed them in a private directory, and threw most of the originals away.
posted by jozxyqk at 3:47 AM on October 25, 2005

Throw them out.

Don't ever throw away any data.

Whaa? Do you compact old newspapers and whatnot into tunnels so you can get around your house? Do you keep your broswer cache at 20 GB? Do you keep every draft of every paper / report / grocery list you write? Data is simply data: It's what you make of that data that defines your life. This particular data set's time is past.

I don't know you; I don't know your wife; I don't know the relationship you have. But every married couple I know (wait, let me think ... yes. every one.) would find it inappropriate for one partner to keep love letters from an old SO (even if emotionally immature). It hints at an underlying resentment at your current (married) state.

The fact that you're asking us, instead of your wife is probably a good cue that it's something that would bother her.
posted by Alt F4 at 3:54 AM on October 25, 2005

I have probably two-three years' worth of letters in a tin under my old bed at my parents' house. I've sort of thought of throwing them out before, but they're really awesome letters from someone who meant a lot to me at the time. I like remembering who I was then, so I keep them. It was an important part of my life. Keep them if they're evidence of an important part of your life; trash them if they're not.
posted by Medieval Maven at 4:59 AM on October 25, 2005

Scan them, transcribe them, set up a blog. I love reading other people's letters, but it's very hard to do it legitimately.

(NB: I am not a postman)
posted by Pericles at 5:12 AM on October 25, 2005

I think my biggest regret is destroying the letters from my first serious long distance boyfriend in the heat of the breakup. It was pre-email, and he was an excellent writer. Keep them if you want. You can tell your wife about them.
posted by rainbaby at 5:17 AM on October 25, 2005

I kept most of mine, including some printed out emails, and I terribly regret the ones I ceremoniously or otherwise destroyed. I even wish I'd printed out more of the sweet and funny emails an ex used to send me. Sure, he's evil and I don't miss him, but some day I want to reread those emails and remember the fun I had datin' Satan. Mine are in a large potato chip tin and I plan to keep them there forever. I've been carting them around for years and any future spouse or SO will just have to deal with the fact that they exist. It's not like I read them more than once every 5 - 10 years, after all.

Possibly more to the point, if I was your fiancee, I would find the fact that you kept your love letters very telling and wonderful - telling of the fact that you are capable of really caring about someone, that you can maintain a real correspondence, and that you are sentimental to some degree, all of which would, to my mind, bode well for our future together.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:34 AM on October 25, 2005

It's about keeping one foot in the past

Is there any alternative? I wouldn't go back to any of my old relationships but they're the strata which my personality is built on. Remove our memories, remove our selves.

I think there's a lot of ground between keeping every old letter for a particular person, periodically sighing dramatically over them with mist in your eyes and keeping a sampling of old letters that are little windows into who you Were.

Really, I think it's no different than pictures or videos - you can go overboard and not live in the now, capturing and keeping every little drib and drab to examine later rather than experience the current events. Or you can have a simple and sparse sampling of little memory-joggers to help you remember other times.

If you want to keep them for looking back at someday, do it. If your wife has issues with it, tell her the truth - you want them because they're a fascinating insight into what inadequately passed for love in your life before you found her.
posted by phearlez at 8:59 AM on October 25, 2005

Maybe it's because I'm a writer, and perhaps arrogantly attached to every word I've ever written, but I think that you should absolutely keep these letters. It would be short-sighted to throw them away. It's part of your history--chapters in your biography.

I don't understand why some folks think it's emotional infidelity to keep them; it's not incongruous to both feel fully committed to your current SO and acknowledge (and occasionally celebrate) that past experience is what made you the person you are today.
posted by veronica sawyer at 9:13 AM on October 25, 2005

I just had this experience a couple of weeks ago. My parents are preparing to move and they returned to me a couple of boxes of stuff from my undergraduate and graduate days. Much of the stuff I had not seen in at least a decade. It wasn't just love letters, but all kinds of mementos from those points of time in my life.

Part of me wishes I could be a minimalist and not not need those physical reminders of my past. But, I enjoyed looking at an immature me, and how I thought about things. So, I reduced what I saved into one box, put it into the attic to await the next time I dig them up.

BTW, the decision about whether to keep that stuff or not had nothing to do with my wife . Those years were mostly before her time, and in no way have any impact on my relationship with her. I am not less committed to her because there are old love letters.
posted by szg8 at 9:47 AM on October 25, 2005

I had a box of love letters from someone, about 3 years worth. I ended up marrying someone (not the letter writer) and he sat me down one day with a scissors and that box and photographed the entire process of me destroying all of those. For a while I wish I would have kept those. Those letters were a decent diary of the early 90s for me. Now, I don't care so much and lately I've been purging a great deal of my belongings anyway.

I divorced him in 1999. Last year I sent every last letter of his through the shredder.

I don't have an answer. I'm sharing. Destroying them worked for me but not how I would have planned it.
posted by pieoverdone at 9:51 AM on October 25, 2005

I've kept mine, but filed according to time-period, so as not to give the letters additional value based on who they're from. So high school love letters are stored with high school papers (original writing only; no tests or class notes) and notes from friends. College love letters are stored with college papers, notes from friends, letters from family at home and ticket stubs.
posted by xo at 12:08 PM on October 25, 2005

I used to write stories for a girlfriend who lived in another country. For some reason, after we broke up, I was unable to write like that anymore. I wish I had the letters much more than I wish I had the girlfriend.
posted by klangklangston at 12:11 PM on October 25, 2005

I have a box that I call my treasure box. It contains not only letters and cards from people I've been involved with in the past, but also little mementos. I also have all my old diaries from the past 10 years in there. I occasionally go back and read them because I feel like I've learned a lot since then.

I think reading your own history is wonderful, and I think everyone I've been involved with would be pleased to find out that there were written accounts of our time together stashed away.
posted by nekton at 12:44 PM on October 25, 2005

They're in a bag in the back of the closet shelf (along with the photographs). I would never throw them out, not even the ones written to my now unrecognizable teenage self. Why? They are part of your history, and document your emotional life. I don't take them out and look at them, but I would never toss them away.
posted by jokeefe at 1:51 PM on October 25, 2005

I foolishly burnt old letters and pictures from a relationship past. Now I have to search through yearbooks to remember what he looked like. I kept the ones I've gotten since then from all other boyfriends.
posted by itchie at 8:23 PM on February 7, 2006

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