What do we talk about when we talk about love? Choices, marriage, identity, time — and above all else, what it means to be human, no matter how old you are.
That's the deeply felt takeaway after 10 years of the New York Times' beloved "Modern Love" columns. On Wednesday, the column released a list of its 10 most popular submissions of the past decade.
Ranked by both number of readers and degree of influence, the essays include some very familiar tales — partnerships that lose their luster, the unanticipated effect of children on relationships, the necessity of loving yourself before loving someone else. Then there are the less conventional perspectives, like finding love at 83 or drawing inspiration for marital counseling from animal trainers.
But taken together, these 10 essays are a reminder for those in the throes of young love, enduring breakups or navigating through life single: It's all part of being human, and it's all subject to change. Certain universal themes ring true: the changing nature of love over time, the importance of identity, the hard work of marriage, the fluidity of desire. They're truths we never tire of reading about, because they speak to our experiences — not just the ones we're having now, but the ones that are to come.
That universality is what's made "Modern Love" one of the New York Times' — and perhaps the world's — most treasured columns that we can never get enough of. Below are its 10 most enduring essays, courtesy of the "Modern Love" Facebook page:
1. "What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage"
"The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don't. After all, you don't get a sea lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging. The same goes for the American husband."
2. "Those Aren't Fighting Words, Dear"
"The truth feels like the biggest sucker-punch of them all: It's not a spouse or land or a job or money that brings us happiness. Those achievements, those relationships, can enhance our happiness, yes, but happiness has to start from within. Relying on any other equation can be lethal."
3. "Good Enough? That's Great"
"As the editor of the 'Modern Love' column for nearly a decade, I have sifted through roughly 50,000 stories that have crossed my desk. I have noticed people wrestling with two questions above all others. From the young: 'How do I find love?' And from those wallowing through marital malaise: 'How do I get it back?'
Though it's not really love they want back as much as attention, excitement and passion. No one doubts the enduring benefits of long-term relationships. But marriage can also get boring, punctuated with deadening routines, cyclical arguments and repetitive conversations."
4. "Age Is No Obstacle to Love, or Adventure"
"What astonished us was that the electricity we generated was as strong and compelling as love had been 50 years before, that it scrambled the brain every bit as much ... He had said I was his last, loveliest adventure, and he brought joy and magic to my life. He died when he was 91 and I was 78. Only then did I start to get old."
5. "Coming Out as a Modern Family"
"I have never understood the distinction of 'primary' partner. Does that imply we have secondary and tertiary partners too? Can my primary partner be my sister or child or best friend, or does it have to be someone I am having sex with?
"I would like to consider myself a 'whatever,' as Jackson said. Whomever I love, however I love them, whether they sleep in my bed or not, or whether I do homework with them or share a child with them, 'love is love.' And I love our modern family."
6. "Sometimes, It's Not You"
"Did we find love because we grew up, got real and worked through our issues? No. We just found the right guys. We found men who love us even though we're still cranky and neurotic, haven't got our careers together and sometimes talk too loudly, drink too much and swear at the television news. We have gray hairs and unfashionable clothes and bad attitudes. They love us anyway."
7. "Truly, Madly, Guiltily"
"Yes, I have four children. Four children with whom I spend a good part of every day: bathing them, combing their hair, sitting with them while they do their homework, holding them while they weep their tragic tears. But I'm not in love with any of them. I am in love with my husband.
"It is his face that inspires in me paroxysms of infatuated devotion. If a good mother is one who loves her child more than anyone else in the world, I am not a good mother. I am in fact a bad mother. I love my husband more than I love my children."
8. "The Race Grows Sweeter Near Its Final Lap"
"We had nothing to do but love each other and be happy. Sam and I did things younger people do — we ran and raced, we fell in love and traveled and remodeled a house and got married ... Not only was I happy during my short years with Sam, I knew I was happy. I had one of the most precious blessings available to human beings — real love. I went for it and found it."
9. "Want to Be My Boyfriend? Please Define"
"I tried to remember that no one is my property and neither am I theirs, and so I should just enjoy the time we spend together, because in the end it's our collected experiences that add up to a rich and fulfilling life. I tried to tell myself that I'm young, that this is the time to be casual, careless, lighthearted and fun; don't ruin it."
10. "Somewhere Inside, a Path to Empathy"
"In reality she hadn't lost me. She'd found me. The facade of semi-normalcy I'd struggled to maintain was falling away, revealing the person I'd been since childhood. I didn't even know what was wrong with me, though my wife, a speech pathologist who works with autistic children, had her suspicions. Even so, it would be another two years before she would put all the pieces together and attach a name to what was ruining our marriage: Asperger's syndrome."