Food for Thought

NY Times ‘Modern Love’ Editor Daniel Jones Is an Expert on Matters of the Heart

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Romantics among the subscribers to the Sunday edition of the New York Times have a weekend ritual: They read the wedding announcements and the Modern Love column. The weddings provide a glimpse into the triumph of love. Bride and Groom, Bride and Bride, Groom and Groom, the happy photos are easy to enjoy. By contrast, the Modern Love essay writers color in all the complexities of dating, relationships, marriage, and love. Their voices reveal uncomfortable encounters, bonds threatened by infidelity, or romances aborted and then revived. Even the blackest heart would find some inspiration in the essays.

danjonesBWIn Love Illuminated: Exploring Life’s Most Mystifying Subject (With the Help of 50,000 Strangers), Daniel Jones, the editor of the Modern Love column, provides a wry, observational take on what he’s learned from reading through thousands of essays. Beginning with a “quiz”, chapters in Love Illuminated move through themes of connection, trust, and loyalty, among others. Stories from the Modern Love writers, accounts from Jones’ own marriage, and additional research provide perspective for each topic.

Jones spoke with the Date Report about his irreverent musings on dating, destiny, vulnerability, technology, and the relentless pursuit of love. Love Illuminated will be available in bookstores on February 4th.

What are the qualifications for writing a book about love?

For the past nine and a half years, I’ve filtered through upwards of 50,000 personal stories.  I’ve also worked as an editor, but sometimes it feels like as a therapist, with hundreds of writers discussing relationships and the complications of them. I’m not a love guru, but you become more knowledgeable and passionate about relationships. The thousands of stories are examples of what people think, what they feel, what they do about it, and how it turns out. So much of the Internet now is about aggregating stories, I feel a little like I’m a human aggregator of the state of relationships today.

How did you get that job, to be the human aggregator of “love?”

In 2002 my wife (Cathi Hanauer), who is also an editor and writer, published a book called The Bitch in the House, a collection of 26 essays by women. It was about how marriage and relationships had changed in this post-feminist era and what the continuing stresses were about relationships today. That book was a bestseller and opened up the door for me to edit the male companion version called The Bastard on the Couch in which 27 men gave their befuddled version of marriage and relationships.

Those two books together, especially having been edited by husband and wife, got a lot of attention. The Styles editor of the Times, Trip Gabriel, wanted to start a personal essay column similar to the style of writing published in our books. He contacted us and did a story about the books.  Then we had several conversations about his idea of having a husband-and-wife team write a column about relationships.  We started the column together, but before too long I took it on, and I’ve been editing it ever since.

Can you tell us about the online dating experiment you did with your wife?

We went on two different dating sites where you need to cough up all sorts of personal information and preferences. We both did that. Neither site delivered us to each other, but they delivered plenty of other people.

Did you find the results awkward?

I found it funny because we’re very well matched in so many ways. It was curious to me there are dozens of people who aren’t that far from me geographically that were suggested as great matches.  The same thing happened to my wife who got even more matches than me.  And neither one of us was ever included (in the other’s matches).  To me, it’s evidence for potential missed opportunities if you think you can drill down your perfect person by answering questions.

You describe the “Destiny Effect” as “the reservoir of goodwill and positive energy people think they can tap into if they believe their relationship was meant to be.”  What’s that about?

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I’m struck by how often people place such importance on fate. You might think in this era where dating has become enabled by algorithms, by some sort of science behind it, that fate would play less of a role. Or people would think it’s less important.  It almost seems to me that the opposite has occurred. Because people are meeting in ways that are so controlled, they don’t want to think that’s what brought them together.  They want to think there is something beyond that.  They really want fate to play a role. I see people seizing on all kinds of things that are basically coincidences: birthdays that are close to each other or the way their paths cross is important.

I’m not someone who believes you are destined, but if you believe in fate it can help you stay together. Every relationship is going to go through its rocky times. Yet I’ve seen it time and again with couples in a time of struggle, it never occurs to them to break up because “they were meant to be.”  It won’t save a marriage at war, but it can be a positive vibe that makes a couple think they should stay together.

You use a lot of examples where technology plays a role?  Have you noticed a shift in how people relate to one another based on available technologies?

The big stumbling block in getting to know someone is you have to make yourself vulnerable. Nobody likes that and tries to avoid it. There is a weird promise about technology. We trick ourselves into thinking we can find love without making ourselves vulnerable. When you communicate with someone online so much of what makes us nervous and feels exposed is removed from the equation. A lot of people fall deeply into these emotional relationships online, which they feel in a way are risk-free. Often they don’t think there is any possibility of a future together, so they don’t feel vulnerable. They don’t have to speak or worry about sex. As a result through (electronic) chatting, typing, texting, or whatever it is, they get closer and closer. It becomes their most important relationship.

That catches people off-guard, but it’s happening over and over. It seems to me that they went into it with so much of their vulnerability removed.  The part of your personality that writes to someone is a narrow slice of you and eventually, in a relationship, it has to be the whole you. When people try to get together in person, the whole person doesn’t match up with the written person anymore and it’s too much of a shock to the system and people cannot overcome it. It’s almost too much vulnerability all at once. They can’t really catch up to the close bond you thought you shared online.

In the last chapter you gave love a creature form and you made it ET, why ET?  

E.T. tells the children/teenagers to “be good.”  But he was so relentlessly pursued by scientists and government agents who wanted to figure out what he was.  That’s the perfect example of how we look at love these days – something to get on the operating table to dissect, to pull apart, to reduce to its chemical origins. The story of E.T. seemed to mirror that overzealous pursuit of understanding and demystifying something.  What about the cost? It seemed like a fitting conclusion for the book.

If you wrote this book today, would you add anything?

Going into it I didn’t know what I was going to say about any of these things.  A lot of it surprised me.  I feel like love and relationships have been written about so much, from so many different angles, it felt intimidating to wade into it and figure out what I could say that might be a little bit different.

So you didn’t say, “Love is this and love is that?”  

The real light bulb moment was starting off with the words  “Let’s start with a quiz.” It was sort of this wry sensibility I was feeling at the time. I looked up other books and many of them start with quizzes. But those books are so sincere about having right and wrong answers. What I’ve noticed from doing the column is that people struggle with same themes and questions over and over again. There are no obvious answers.

This interview has been edited and condensed.