Finding Love Stories in the Times Archives

From an Inside the Times column by Megan DiTrolio headlined “In the Archives, Finding Love (Stories)”:

In the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, New York Times articles slowly, and painfully, updated the rules of courtship. To have success dating in New York City, don’t order a sandwich at dinner and pick a restaurant with candlelight. (Otherwise, you might look “embalmed.”) Women are allowed to date men who are shorter — gasp — and even younger than them. A woman could indeed pick up the check. (Though some women, instead of putting their credit cards down at the table, preferred to slyly offer it to the maître d’hôtel before the meal to not bruise their dates’ egos.) There was even hope for single women over 35, according to one author of a book on marriage — if only they outgrow their “fantasies of knights in armor.”

Through the history of The Times, journalists have ventured into the amorphous arena of love and all that comes with it: dating, sex, relationships and marriage. And it’s easy, in 2023, to reflect on some of the old “rules” as head-scratchers — and others as flat-out ridiculous. One could argue that these articles are capsules of their time; as social mores have evolved, so has coverage of them.

Around the turn of the century, The Times realized the need to modernize its approach to the love beat; coverage had to be more approachable and less stilted. It had to capture the nuance and face the messiness head-on. And so a new era of love coverage began, one that is still evolving today.

A big change came in 2004 when the Styles desk brought on Daniel Jones to lead a new column, Modern Love. Mr. Jones and his wife, Cathi Hanauer, had each edited a book of essays on marriage, hers from the female perspective and his from the male. The essays were “bold, controversial and explicit,” Mr. Jones said in an interview, and The Times wanted to dabble in that type of material by inviting people to write about their love lives. “I do remember thinking,” he said, “does this really belong in The Times?”

Instead of reading about dating and sex from ajournalist, readers now could engage with personal, honest and raw, first-person accounts from people navigating their own love stories.

Mr. Jones recalled the first Modern Love column that garnered a widespread response from readers: a bracing account of a woman going through a messy divorce. Some readers, he said, felt that something so private should remain that way. But some readers, going through similar experiences, appreciated the validation — and those responses, Mr. Jones said, were much stronger than the criticism.

Modern Love has found success over the years because of the vulnerability of its writers, who sift through love’s complications and offer readers wisdom. Though there is still a Times taste barometer (submissions occasionally get racy, but never too explicit), the columns also provide room to explore topics that were previously considered taboo. There’s something universally human about love, Mr. Jones said, which is part of the reason Modern Love has attracted a global audience and has been adapted into a popular podcast and television series.

Readers may receive insight from Modern Love writers, but The Times still calls in experts when necessary. The Well desk tackles relationships, whether they are romantic, familial or platonic, from an evidence-based approach and recently hired a reporter to cover the beat. “Having strong relationships really is a pillar of good health, which is why we treat it seriously,” said Lori Leibovich, Well’s editor.

Unlike some of the guides and columns published in the ’70s and ’80s, Well offers service journalism with no judgment attached. “We’re not dispensing advice from the place of a personality dispensing it, or someone with an omnipotent voice,” Ms. Leibovich said. “We’re dispensing it by doing the reporting and talking to researchers in the fields of happiness, relationships and friendships.”

In recent Well articles, reporters have outlined ways to strengthen your relationships with family, friends and romantic partners; examined dating app burnout; and offered expert advice for how to talk to your partner about sex.

Even the most formal gesture of love looks different in The Times. The Wedding section once only covered the nuptials of the upper crust. It’s evolved to be more racially, socially and culturally diverse and to expand its purview beyond heterosexual relationships. (In 2002, The Times changed its policy and began including same-sex ceremonies in the Styles section.)

In an interview with Times Insider last year, Charanna Alexander, the Weddings editor, discussed the decision to move away from traditional wedding announcements and instead focus on telling the “stories that give us a different perspective on relationships in a way that we probably wouldn’t have thought of in the past.”

In 1983, citing high divorce rates and a singles scene “plagued by herpes, psychobabble and other such antiromantic factors,” a writer for the Opinion page questioned whether the end-time for love was near. She believed that love had “fallen upon hard times” and placed the blame on Cupid himself: “Has Cupid become so intellectual that he is too busy reading about the modern ravages of love to have any time left over to effect it?”

Forty years later, we know love is alive and well — though, as evident by Times coverage, it hasn’t gotten any less complicated. But love’s messiness is perhaps what shapes it — and what makes it so worthwhile.

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