Love Illuminated: Exploring Life’s Most Mystifying Subject (with the Help of 50,000 Strangers), by Daniel Jones

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images-7The man I love and share my life with is an incredibly kind person who usually makes me a healthy, delicious smoothie in the morning and leaves it in the fridge for me for when I wake up, usually an hour or two later than he does. Once I’m up, I tend to stand in front of our fridge, sipping the smoothie, glancing out the kitchen window toward the ocean, assessing the day and peering at the menagerie of cards and pictures of other people’s kids that cover the door, held up with magnets from Chinese delivery places from cities I used to live in, lives I used to lead.  There, every morning, is Daniel Jones’, author of Love Illuminated, staring at me with his big, smiley face, from amidst the murmuration of cards and pictures and birth announcements.   There he is with his equally super smiley family, his two teenaged (adorable) kids and his wife, the writer and editor Cathi Hanauer. (In the interest of full-disclosure, Cathi has helped to edit my memoir manuscript, though I’ve never met Dan and Cathi or even discussed him, save for the passing comment — “Dan will be out of town for a few days with the kids.”)   When I look at his smiling face every morning, I think, “There is a man who knows love. “ He both exudes it and is, literarily in the photo, surrounded by it.

After reading Love Illuminated it’s clear that Jones indeed understands quite a lot about love – including that while some of it happens due to sheer luck, it’s longevity can depend as much on planning and commitment and hard work as anything else. Love Illuminated is a book for anyone interested in how to find love, how to keep love, how to survive love’s trials – yet it is not a how-to manual so much as an exploration of the terrain and a thoughtful distillation of anecdotes and findings after 10 years of editing the wildly popular “Modern Love” column in the Sunday New York Times.   It’s also a book for those who are just plain interested – and who isn’t? – in the subject of love.  No matter what the state of your own relationship or whether you are in one or not, regardless of your gender or age or circumstance, Love Illuminated is an entertaining and useful book that will engage anyone interested in matters of the heart.

Divided into ten chapters, Love Illuminated first explores finding someone to love in sections about pursuit and destiny.  Jones encourages people to balance modern dating methods such as online dating and with more traditional methods such as random meetings and dumb luck and encourages those looking for love not to dismiss chance in favor of calculation.  In one of the more publicized anecdotes from the book, Jones details his and his wife’s unlikely meeting and coupling and describes how now, happily married twenty years later, they don’t turn up as one another’s match when, as an experiment, they both sign up for the same online dating service.   It is valuable testimony on letting the luck happen and not being too focused on what works on paper.   Yet in no way is Jones disregarding the on paper fit – rather he just cautions all of us to be open to many different ways to be happy and identify for ourselves what’s truly important, what truly works – which isn’t necessarily what OK Cupid tells us should.    Jones cautions us to consider what our values are, what our deal breakers are – and to be firm on those – and more flexible on minor things.  If monogamy is important to us we need to find someone who shares that value and is honest and trustworthy.  It’s probably not so important whether they also like hiking as much as we do or Indian food or Japanese films or are taller than 5’9”.

Jones then explores if and how love develops after meeting and deciding to pair up.  Jones carefully explores the value and importance of vulnerability, connection and trust to making a partnership work.  Jones is careful to delve into issues of practicality in making a partnership successful in the long run – which I think is both some of the most important territory in a long term relationship as well as some of the most likely to cause ongoing friction. Jones is wise to treat these often overlooked and under-discused issues of practicality with a careful and knowing eye.  He explores healthy and unhealthy ways couple strive to maintain their individuality and unique identities, he talks about name changing and kids names and ways to create family names and broaches equitable divisions of labor in a relationship – no surprise from the man who edited The Bastard on the Couch, a collection of essays from men that followed the iconic anthology Bitch in the House, edited by his wife. Both books grappled with all of these issues and anger, sadness and confusion that develop in relationships, stemming from such issues as housework, children, and finances.  These are crucial topics and it is refreshing that Jones includes them.

Jones explores common issues in long-term relationships in chapters on monotony, infidelity, and loyalty.   The thrust is toward how to keep love after finding it and committing to it.  No small feat. As he explains, “If passion is the fleeting bloom that launched the relationship, then marriage is the sturdy wheelbarrow left behind in passion’s wake.” Or, more plainly put, “The lack of passion among longtime married couples is a pervasive, intractable, and often relationship-ending problem.”

Jones says that by and large, people do one of three things in the face of this:  they become resigned to it, they fight it for a while as a couple and then become resigned to it, or they stray and then either split or become resigned to the monotony.   He takes a frank look at navigating the sexual landscape of a long-term partnership without quitting the relationship or being frustrated by it.  Acceptance that sexually things have evolved doesn’t have to mean sadness or sorrow and restlessness, an encouraging note for those of us who hope to be in monogamous relationships for the long haul.

The final chapter is on wisdom, fitting for a man whose focus for 10 years has been first person accounts of modern love, and a man who is happily married after 20 years and has raised 2 children with his wife.  It is wisdom gathered from Jones’ own life as well as insights, questions, and humor primarily gleaned from the countless stories Jones has been privy too in his role as editor.  This experience, mixed with some personal anecdotes and research, combine to form reflections on the state (or states) of love rather than a recipe for it.  Jones describes himself not as “…some guru who sits atop a mountain of accumulated wisdom in my robe and sandals, eager to dispense sage advice to the lovelorn.” Rather, he observes that he has “not been mastering love all these years so much as marinating in it.”    Love is as much mystery as science; there are as many questions as answers and every question yields hundreds more and as many different “answers”, too. Jones is abundantly clear about that.  Still, it’s nice to get this happy man’s take, to have him imploring us to cherish love, to treasure it, to make it last, to let it call us to be good, and to heed that call.   “Tell me the truth about love…” the poet W.H. Auden implored, and indeed in Love Illuminated Daniel Jones has.

Anna March’s writing appears regularly in Salon and here at the Rumpus and her work has been widely published including in The New York Times' Modern Love Column, New York Magazine, VQR, Hip Mama and Tin House. Her essay collection, Feminist Killjoy, and novel, The Diary of Suzanne Frank, are both forthcoming and she is at work on two new books. She teaches writing workshops, mentors writers, is active in promoting literary community and is the co-founder of LITFOLKS in LA and DC. She lives in Rehoboth Beach and Los Angeles. Sometimes she has pink hair. Follow her on Twitter @ANNAMARCH or learn more about her at ANNAMARCH.COM. More from this author →