As you might imagine, a decade at the helm of a relationship column has made Jones something of an expert. In his new book, Love Illuminated, he sheds light on the ever-changing nature of dating, his own experiences, and, of course, what makes a love story worth sharing with millions of readers.
Tell us about your book. How did it come about? What was your inspiration?
“Well, this book is the result of having done this column a surprisingly long nine-and-a-half years. I never thought it would last that long. A few years in, I started writing editor observation columns for Valentine’s Day, where I would try to figure out what had happened in the previous year, what the trends were. If you’re looking through approximately 5,000 stories a year, what are people writing and obsessing about? I started doing that every year, probably six or seven times, and finally my agent said to me, ‘You’re giving this stuff away!’ We talked through, over a two year period, how we could think about this. At this point, it’s not 5,000 stories, but 50,000. What are the trend lines running through all of those stories? What are people dealing with? It just turned into a project of looking through everything I’d run, things I hadn’t run, and notes I’d taken over the years and columns I’d written. What it adds up to is sort of an arch of life in love, from meeting until you’re 85. So, that’s what it was. It's about what sort of stands out through each phase, and what to do about how we find love through technology or sustain it that way.”
How did you become the editor of "Modern Love?" Were you doling out relationship advice to your friends and thought, ‘Maybe I’ll just do this for a while?’
“It was kind of an accident. My wife, Cathi Hanauer, did an anthology in 2002 called The Bitch In The House, and it was a huge hit. It was all first-person essays about relationships and what women struggle with in thinking they could have a family and a career and a marriage, and have it all work seamlessly — and being disappointed. Not only disappointed, but angry that they couldn’t balance all of that well — and really angry at their husbands. So, that book kind of backed me into the corner of having some sort of response, and I did. It was called The Bastard On The Couch.
"Those two books together got the attention of the [Times] style editor, Trip Gabriel, back in 2004. [The Times] did a story on us for those two books, and then [Gabriel] proposed this column. He had wanted to do this for a year or so and hadn’t quite figured out how to go about it, and proposed it to us. We weren’t sure, but we jumped on board — we couldn’t really say no. My wife backed out because she was working on a novel, and it was really a one-person job. So, we did it together for about a month or so, then it fell in my lap. That was nine and a half years ago, and it’s just gone and gone and gone.
"I came up with the title 'Modern Love.' I was proud of that, and we wanted it to be broad enough and include different types of relationships so it wouldn’t just run its course and then end. I thought the broader you interpret love and the broader you interpret modern, the more there would be and the more variety. And, then we opened it up to everybody. This was not going to be a solicited column. Anyone in the world could send in their story and have it considered. And, that formula worked.“
Do you think there’s a difference between the way men and women write about or discuss love?
“Completely. Men tend to use humor more, and be self-deprecating. They are often less earnest, but not always. Women will confess more to maybe embarrassing flaws that men wouldn’t. They go into deeper places than men will, and you know, I think men are more scared. Men have to be really sure of what they’re saying and that they’re not being judged. And, I think women are a little braver."
In your opinion, what makes a good love story?
“I’m always drawn to complication. I like to see people struggle with things, even though it may not be all that fun for the people struggling with it. To me, a happy love story is one in which someone learns something, not necessarily one where everything works out. I think we’re fed, especially in romantic comedies, this idea of what a happy story is. One thing that’s interesting in seeing such a volume of stories is seeing how many people live their lives according to the movies. They think, 'What would someone in Sex And The City do in this situation?' It really has infected people’s thinking. I read this piece about a man who went out with a manic-pixie dream girl, and he knew at the time that it was just a Hollywood invention, but he kept expecting his life to work out with this woman in the way that it would if they were in a movie together. And, when it didn’t, he was like, 'Wait, I guess she really wasn’t that type.' And, it shocked him. But, media really guides us by the nose through a lot of these stories, and I’m not interested in giving advice, or in leading people to a happy ending. I’m really interested in exploring complication. Human relationships are so complicated...and if you can get a comfort level with that, I think you’re going to be okay. If you’re scared of that, I think you’re in for a hard road. So, that’s what I admire in some of these stories: They have a comfort level with struggle.”
“On one hand, it’s just another way to meet someone — it’s just the newest way. On the other hand, I think it changes our expectations and behavior in making us think that we can determine who. When you’re on an online dating site, or at least some of them, they’re asking you questions about what sort of person you prefer, and you’re sort of drilling it down. I don’t really think that’s a healthy process. It leads so many people down the wrong road. And, picking according to who they think they’d be in love with based on these factors that don’t really have to do with sitting across the table from a person and being with them and learning about who they are. That can lead a lot of people to a damaging place.
"I think if you’re just doing it and meeting a lot of people and getting quickly into a bar to find out who this person is, then that’s great. But, the longer that the online thing is extended, the more dangerously narrow it is. All of these relationships with people meeting online, who live in different cities, they continue this thing for months, online, on Skype, but still messaging because they’re uncomfortable talking to each other, and they have this author’s persona. You write and you talk in a different way, and so they aren’t even comfortable talking to each other, and it feels deeper than an in-person relationship because it’s so pure, like your soul going through the line. And, when those people get together, it almost always crashes and burns. It’s just too different. Sometimes, miraculously, it works out. But, the crush is so hard, because it’s not like you just went on a few superficial dates then broke up. It’s like you thought this person was your total everything.”
And, it affects the way we communicate — when you have plenty of time to respond to someone, your lines become much more crafted.
“We’re trying to bypass the awkwardness and bypass the vulnerability, and go straight to the good relationship.”
What about the way technology and social media affects those relationships that weren't formed online? People dump each other over email. How does technology change the way we maintain relationships?
“I think people are offended when they see someone trying to hide behind technology. But, more often it’s just trying to get a stand-in for yourself so you don’t have to expose yourself and trying to make it through all of those early steps without having to be vulnerable. And, it’s not just technology: We did a couple of college essay contests, and (especially with the first one) so many people were writing about hooking up. This whole hookup culture — which people have been writing about how it’s empowering for women to finally acting like men — but so many people who are doing it are like, 'Is this what we’re supposed to be doing, this is cool right?' And, it’s not like some aggressive behavior where, I don’t know, it seems to work sometimes, and other times it’s just another way of not letting your emotions count. People fall in love with someone they’re hooking up with all the time, but aren’t allowed to, so they don’t say anything about it and move meekly on. And, it’s sort of sad to me, and sad to them. But, you have to play by the rules essentially, and that’s what the rules are.”
Do you have a dramatic increase in submissions at certain times of the year? Some seasons tend to bring people to a more romantic place.
“I can’t say I’ve tracked them that carefully. It’s been pretty stable over the last five years, with the only drop off being in August when people are on vacation. But, otherwise it's sort of 400 or so a month, every month.”
And, you read them all yourself?
“I read them all myself, but I don’t read all of them. I promise to respond at least with a form message, but I’m starting to lose the ability to do that. It’s just sort of inching up past the level where I can keep doing that. But, I feel like people are pouring out such devastating stories, and they’re not publishable stories. Just to send it out to the ether and have nobody respond at all just seems so depressing.”
What would you say to someone who feels that they’ll never find real love in their life?
“One of my favorite pieces has since turned into a book by Sara Eckel called It's Not You. She didn’t meet her now-husband until her early forties, and she dated a lot. Being in the women’s magazine world, it was all about, 'What is wrong with me that has led me to this barren place?' She tried one thing after another to change who she was, and at the end found the guy that was right for her and liked her for who she was. It’s sort of a cliché story, but in the end she was like, 'There’s plenty wrong with me, but what’s wrong with me isn’t the point. I just hadn’t found the right person yet.' And, some people never do. I don’t think that’s because there’s something wrong with that person. You see these couples walking down the street where each person is so odd I can’t believe they found someone. Some of it’s just bad luck, I guess, but it does truly seem like anyone can find it and if you don’t..."
There’s still nothing wrong with you?
“There’s plenty wrong with you, but there’s someone who’s going to be there for you. There’s probably someone out there, it’s just a matter of crossing paths.”
Love Illuminated is available February 4.