A few months ago, I read several articles touting the health benefits of writing in a deeply personal way.
Studies had shown that writing introspectively on a regular basis can lead to lowered blood pressure, improved liver function and even the accelerated healing of postoperative wounds.
I bet a lot of them wrote about love. As the longtime editor of this column, I have spent much of the last decade reading stories of people’s turbulent emotional experiences, and they all involved love in one way or another.
Which isn’t so surprising. Who hasn’t been stirred up by love? But these writers had spun their experiences into stories and sent them here, where more than 99 percent must be turned away.
Although the would-be contributors may be happy to learn of the surprising health benefits of their writing, I think they hoped for a more glamorous reward than improved liver function.
I have been thinking about those tens of thousands of passed-over stories and all the questions and lessons about love they represent. When taken together, what does all this writing reveal about us, or about love? Here’s what I have found.
First, and most basic: How we write about love depends on how old we are.
The young overwhelmingly write with a mixture of anxiety and hope. Their stories ask: What is it going to be for me?
Those in midlife are more often driven to their keyboards by feelings of malaise and disillusionment. Their stories ask: Is this really what it is for me?
And older people almost always write from a place of appreciation, regardless of how difficult things may be for them. Their stories declare: All things considered, I feel pretty lucky.
In writing about love, the story of how we met looms large because a lot of us believe, validly or not, that a good meeting story bodes well for the relationship.
It seems the harder we work at finding love, the more prone we are to second-guessing the results. High-volume online daters worry about this, along with those who routinely attend singles events.
The fear is we may force things or compromise after pushing so hard for so long. We may admire hard work in most endeavors, but we admire laziness when it comes to finding love. (If you manage to stay together over the long haul, however, it will be because of effort, not chance.)
When some people write about love, they can’t find the right words to capture the intensity of their feelings, so they rely on terms that are best avoided. These include (but are not limited to): amazing, gorgeous, devastating, crushed, smitten, soul mate and electrifying.
Popular phrases include: “meet cute,” “heart pounded,” “heart melted,” “I’ll always remember,” “I’ll never forget” and “Reader, I married him.” Then there is everyone’s favorite stock word regardless of subject: literally. As in, “our date was literally electrifying.”
Venus and Mars
Women and men may feel love similarly, but they write about it differently.
A lot of men’s stories seem tinged by regret and nostalgia. They wish previous relationships hadn’t ended or romantic opportunities hadn’t slipped away. They lament not having been more emotionally open with lovers, wives, parents and children.
Women are more inclined to write with restlessness. They want to figure love out. Many keep mental lists of their expectations, detailing the characteristics of their hoped-for partner with alarming specificity and then evaluating how a new romantic interest does or doesn’t match that type.
Love stories are full of romantic delusion, where we idealize love to an unhealthy degree. But in the accounts I see, men and women delude themselves in opposite directions.
A woman is more likely to believe her romantic ideal awaits somewhere in the future.
A man’s romantic ideal typically exists somewhere in the past in the form of an actual person he loved but let go of, or who got away.
Writing about love can be similar to falling in love in that we must be as vulnerable on the page as we are in person when revealing ourselves to someone we hope will love us back. That means exposing our flaws and weaknesses and trusting we will be seen as more appealing, not less, for having done so.
Good writing about love features the same virtues that define a good relationship: honesty, generosity, open-mindedness, curiosity, humor and self-deprecation. Bad writing about love suffers from the same flaws that define a bad relationship: dishonesty, withholding, defensiveness, blame, pettiness and egotism.
Let me close by simply wishing you an amazing celebration of electrifying romance that you never forget and always remember.
Daniel Jones is the author of “Love Illuminated: Exploring Life’s Most Mystifying Subject (with the Help of 50,000 Strangers)”.