To readers of the New York Times’ popular Sunday column, “Modern Love” editor Daniel Jones is presumed to be an expert in affairs d’amour, simply by virtue of the tens of thousands of submitted essays on the topic he has perused over the past 20 years. He has a different take.
“In my mind I have not been mastering love all these years so much as marinating in it,” writes Jones. “Asking me what I have learned about love is like asking a pickle what it has learned about vinegar.”
That’s one of many good lines in his new book, “Love Illuminated: Exploring Life’s Most Mystifying Subject (With the Help of 50,000 Strangers).” In it, Jones, who appears at the Loft Literary Center Tuesday, muses on 10 different aspects of love, including pursuit, destiny, monotony and infidelity.
Q: In the book, you examine some problems you see with online dating as a new norm. What are they?
A: On the upside, online dating exposes us to all sorts of available people. It’s not the concept that’s problematic; it’s the way we narrow down this huge number of people at our disposal. We try to predict how we are going to feel about someone based on their similarities to us, which forces us to indulge our worst provincial impulses; I’m not going to like this guy because he’s on the opposite end of the political spectrum, where if you met by chance in person, like we used to, it might be a different story. You don’t know much about someone you meet at a party or a bar, and that gives time for a spark to develop before you decide she’s not in your tribe.
Q: As research for your book, you and your wife signed up for an online dating service. How did that go?
A: We both listed many compatible qualities, similar ages, tastes, senses of humor. We only lied about being married. She said she was widowed; I said I was divorced. We were never matched up, even though Northampton, Massachusetts, where we live, isn’t that big a place.
Q: How much do traditional concepts of gender roles continue to influence our love choices?
A: What’s different is we no longer go into marriage feeling that we must have complementary skills. You as a woman do this, I as a man do that. No one is really trapped in marriage anymore, and as a consequence the only thing we look to marriage for is love and stability. Practicality is no longer a reason to stay.
Q: How do people deal with the inevitable monotony that sets in over the long term, the loss of sex drive?
A: People fall into one of three camps. The restorers decide they’re going to work to bring the passion back, whether it’s therapy or books or making sure to hug 10 times a day, replacing old routines with new ones. The sneakers give up and look for that passion elsewhere, whether it’s online pornography or Facebook flirting. The last and most successful group are those who adjust their expectations and try to appreciate the relationship for what it has become. This didn’t used to be as much of an issue because we didn’t live so long. Before it was time to be bored, you’d be dead.
Q: Can open marriages, like the kind that recently split Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin supposedly had, really work?
A: People are constantly experimenting with how they can be married and single at the same time. You can think of it as a progressive, freethinking mind-set, but it only works if you have all kinds of rules in place to avoid trouble and jealousy. Every one I know about started because one person wanted it and the other went along.
Q: Opposites may attract, but can they ever realistically sustain a loving relationship?
A: In the book I write about a total hippie peacenik from Berkeley who gets set up on a blind date with a gun-loving Republican cop who’s also a National Guardsman. She keeps resisting, thinking she just cannot be in love with this person, but in the end they can’t not be in love. I don’t know how common this is. But it definitely happens. Your heart is in one place and your head’s in another, and the heart wins out.