Reflections on a Skinny Love


Those of you who know me know that I’m a huge Bon Iver fan. I discovered For Emma, Forever Ago back in 2008, and have possessed a hipster-esque sense of ownership and love for Justin Vernon ever since. Now that he’s won the best new artist Grammy (complete with record industry-insulting ironic acceptance speech), a little hipster part of me has died, knowing that I’ll soon be hearing 13 year olds asking their friends if they’d hear “Holocene,” and not getting that “Skinny Love” isn’t a romantic song. The part of me that wears a slouchy knitted hat, drinks only fair trade coffee and tea, and recognizes talent in obscurity will die a little bit every time a high school junior proclaims “Bon Eye-Verr” as his favorite new muse.

It’s not like I actively try to feel this way about certain bands – I fully recognize that Bon Iver can be that person’s muse just as much as he has been mine. The last three and a half years of my life have had a consistent background of Bon Iver music, and I have to allow that he will now be that for other people – no matter how these new people “discovered” him.

Justin Vernon (the brain behind Bon Iver) wrote For Emma, Forever Ago in 2007 after his old band broke up. He secluded himself in a cabin in the Northern Woods of Wisconsin, and spent three months in twelve hour-days of recording, only taking breaks to go cut wood or spend some time hunting. The album perfectly captures not only the ideas of pain and loss but also loneliness and seclusion – he says that six years’ worth of longing and heartache poured into this nine-song album.

The breakout hit – “Skinny Love” – is a lilting, beautiful piece that is often misinterpreted, due in part to Vernon’s slurring vocals that make the words hard to understand. And, you have to admit, the “my my my my” on the bridge is gorgeous and romantic-sounding. It sounds like a beautiful love song, and something that would be a lovely theme for a relationship, right?

Not really. Justin Vernon offers this succinct explanation about the inspiration for the song:

“We dated and she’s an incredibly important person that I live with for a long time, but it’s about that time in a relationship that I was going through; you’re in a relationship because you need help, but that’s not necessarily why you should be in a relationship. And that’s skinny. It doesn’t have weight. Skinny love doesn’t have a chance because it’s not nourished.”

When you hear that explanation, you probably can easily think of a relationship that either you’ve been in or that someone you know has experienced that was “skinny” in the sense that Vernon is discussing here: it’s loving, it may have somegthing sustaining it, but it’s not love that’s going to last. It’s a relationship for the relationship’s sake, a relationship to assuage loneliness, to have someone to wake up next to in the morning. In retrospect, I can think of a few relationships and friendships I’ve had which were like that – relationships (in the broad sense) in which we used each other to stave off the terror of being alone.

These relationships happen, for good or bad. I don’t regret the “skinny” relationships I was in; indeed, without those, I wouldn’t know what love with real weight is.

But, sometimes, we settle too easily for skinny love.

And I fear, too often, we do this not only in romantic relationships, but in all our friendships and relationships. And I see it most clearly in the relationships built with our church communities – instead of relationships that should be some of the strongest in our lives, church relationships tend toward skinny love.

In the church I attended in Waco, we were a somewhat broken congregation – lots of people with flaws and problems and different paths in life. But I loved the people. The church was small enough that the pastor not only knew me by name, but knew what I was studying, what I was doing with my life, and was concerned enough to ask me, every Sunday, how I was doing. When we had the “turn and greet one another” time in the morning, the pastor frequently had a bit of trouble getting all of us to refocus and settle back down – rather than merely shaking hands, most congregants would get involved in conversations, discuss and sit down with each other.

Any new person who visited the church got taken out for lunch with a bunch of the congregation afterward (it was a small enough church that we could do that). Instead of organized and scheduled small groups, the church body organically became friends. We met outside of the church for dinner and playing games. Church members baby sat each other’s children and shared prayer requests, not in an awkward, scheduled setting, but as they came up and as the prayer was needed.

It was love with meat on its bones: real, true, weighty love. And it is the love we must reach for.

But this is not to say that skinny love does not have its place. Our problem, however, comes when we mistake skinny love for love as it should be. My last relationship was skinny love, and I recognize that now, in hindsight.

While C and I had a lot of compatibility, a lot of things to share, and a lot of fantastic experiences together, what he said at Thanksgiving (the last time we spoke), rings very true. He said that he sort of always saw the break-up as inevitable, but denied it and pushed it away because he liked me too much and didn’t want things to hurt. That’s skinny love.

Last week, I traveled up to Wicker Park in Chicago with a friend. This is a neighborhood that feels like home to me: thrift shops, quirky local coffee shops, charities and non-profits, tattoo parlors, and easily access public transit. No open fields and buildings blocked the sky, but each of these buildings had incredible architecture that screamed of personality and stories built upon stories (literal and figurative). And I realized that, if C hadn’t broken up with me, I would have had to break up with him. Because I will find a way to move further into the heart of Chicago; I will have my city. C would have been miserable, and I would have asked him to sacrifice for me because I refused to sacrifice for him. That’s skinny love.

What with it being Valentine’s Day, and my 26th birthday in a week – February is always a time of reflection for me – I’ve realized I need to work better on loving intentionally and in the right directions, whatever those may be. In the past, I’ve been all over the map, but I’m learning, slowly but surely, how to love with real grace and real weight.

I’m letting go of the skinny.



Photo by Ture Lillegraven.