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From the heart

A year's worth of Love Letters, by the numbers

By Meredith Goldstein
Globe Staff / February 12, 2011

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For two years, I’ve been writing Love Letters, a relationship advice column that runs on Boston.com, and in the Globe every Saturday. Because online readers participate and offer their own opinions, it’s something like group therapy.

I get a lot of questions about Love Letters — why I write it, how many letters I get a day, what they’re about, and where they come from. So, on Jan. 22, the second anniversary of the column, I thought it was time to compile some answers: not just the whos and whys of the column but the trends that emerge. It involved crunching a lot of numbers. Be impressed.

What were most of the letters about?

I answered 250 letters last year, and each of those 250 problems was unique. That said, of all of the themes in the letters, the most common issue was cheating. Or the fear of cheating. Or about getting over cheating. Fifteen percent of the letters I answered mentioned cheating in some way. Eight percent were about money. Ten percent were about the Internet and technology, whether it be online dating, Facebook issues, or texting. Eleven percent of the letters were about FOMO (fear of missing out), as in — “Is there somebody better than the person I’m dating?’’ I also got a pack of letters from people who were waiting on marriage proposals. Five percent of the letter writers were people (mostly women) who wanted to know why their partner wouldn’t marry them.

What’s the age range of letter writers?

Our oldest letter writer was 64. I’m not sure how young our youngest was. The youngest letter writers are usually in college. I try not to post letters from teens. Twenty-six percent of problems we ran during the second year of Love Letters came from readers under 30. Thirteen percent were from readers 30 to 40. Eight percent came from readers over 40.

Where do the letter writers live?

Assuming they’re being truthful, 40 percent of Love Letters writers (or the LWs, as they’re called on Boston.com) live in Boston. Three percent live in Cambridge. Five percent live in Somerville. Two percent in Brookline. Twenty-seven percent live elsewhere in Massachusetts. Two percent live in New York, 7 percent live elsewhere in the United States. The remaining 14 percent didn’t specify where they live.

How many LWs used a food euphemism for a sexual act in their letters?

Um, 4 percent. Why? Well, some people have real problems that involve sex, but this is a family newspaper and website and we adhere to certain rules. Our readers have been respectful of our limits by finding other ways to explain their problems. The most common euphemism is “grilled cheese,’’ stemming from a June 2, 2009 letter with the headline, “Allergic to Grilled Cheese.’’

What were the most popular letters?

The Top 10 letters of the year, based on the number of Boston.com page views as of Jan. 30, were:

1. He sleeps on the couch (Oct. 18, 2010)

From a woman whose husband wouldn’t come to bed. Excerpt: “I have tried to tell him that he should come up to bed. That is where couples get close, and most couples I know sleep together.’’

2. He got naked with others (Jan. 7, 2011)

From a woman whose boyfriend went naked hot tubbing with hippie friends from college. Excerpt: “Even though I absolutely believe him that nothing happened, and that the hot tub party wasn’t exactly a sexual romp in hot water, it’s still eating away at me that he was naked with girls I don’t know in a hot tub.’’

3. Did I marry the wrong guy? (Nov. 19, 2010)

From a woman who got married but had feelings for someone else. Excerpt: “I’ve been married for two months now, and although the other man and I live in the same town, we don’t speak or see each other. So many things remind me of him, and I think about him from the moment I wake up until I fall asleep. To say that I miss him immensely is a huge understatement.’’

4. He refuses to drink (Feb. 16, 2010)

From a woman whose boyfriend was anti-alcohol. Excerpt: “Do I really want to be the only person drinking/letting loose at dinner, on vacation, with a group of friends, forever?’’

5. Am I having an emotional affair? (July 12, 2010)

From a woman who began messaging an old crush while she was up late at night breast-feeding. Excerpt: “Lately, I find myself not being able to stop thinking about him, and according to him, the feeling is mutual. He has also recently told me that his feelings for me never went away, and he has thought about me too all along. That doesn’t scare me off at all.’’

6. Am I Shallow Hal? (Aug. 25, 2010)

From a guy who wasn’t very attracted to the great girl he was dating. Excerpt: “Am I wrong to want a girl who makes me weak in the knees at the very sight of her? She is really pretty, and I think if she slimmed down via a more sensible diet and reasonable amount of exercise, my knees would be giving out regularly.’’

7. She’s a 10 (June 16, 2010)

From a guy who felt inferior. Excerpt: “In total, considering her qualities and personality, she is a 10 in both my eyes and I am sure in the eyes of others. In total, considering my qualities and personality, I rate myself as a 3.14159.’’

8. Can I grow to love my friend? (Sept. 2, 2010)

From a woman who accidentally woke up in the arms of her friend, whom she called “Safety Sam.’’ Excerpt: “I know I don’t care about Safety Sam in the same way that he cares about me right now, but maybe I could grow to love him and want to be with him?’’

9. Forgiving his dark secret (Aug. 26, 2010)

From a woman who found out that her boyfriend had served time for having relations with an underage woman. Excerpt: “My heart says stay, this man is not that man from years ago who made a very serious poor decision. My head says this could present obstacles going forward that I may not be ready or willing to handle.’’

10. He’s my boss (Oct. 5, 2010)

From a woman whose boss/secret boyfriend didn’t commit to spending his 40th birthday with her. Excerpt: “I mean, we have been together for 4 years. It’s a big birthday!’’

Do the most popular letters get the most reader comments?

Not necessarily. Sometimes less popular letters provoke more conversation among readers. Sometimes, toward the end of the day, the number of comments are inflated by readers who are talking about unrelated things. With the exception of the naked hot tubbing letter, the most commented-on letters are not the most popular letters. The Top 10 most commented-on letters were:

1. His Clock Was Ticking (March 12, 2010) — 1,554 comments

2. He Got Naked With Others (Jan. 7, 2011) — 1,444

3. I’m Afraid to Break Up With Her (Jan. 4, 2011) — 1,423

4. He Went From White Collar to Blue (March 5, 2010) — 1,415

5. Should I See the Evidence? (March 4, 2010) — 1,258

6. No One Takes Me Seriously (April 4, 2010) — 1,234

7. Should I Be Suspicious? (Jan. 15, 2010) — 1,231

8. Can’t Forget My Ex (Dec. 29, 2010) — 1,228

9. We Can’t Stay Broken Up (Jan. 6, 2011) — 1,212

10. Will He Come Around? (Jan. 20, 2011) — 1,118

How are letters chosen to run in the Globe on Saturdays?

Of the five letters that run online each week, I choose one for the paper based on variety and popularity. And then I pick about five to 10 comments that are representative of the entire online bunch.

How many submissions does Love Letters receive a day?

Anywhere from 0 to 25. But we only run one a day, so not everything gets answered. I recommend that people resubmit their letter from the same e-mail address if it’s been a few weeks and they haven’t heard from me. But I try to do as many as possible as quickly as possible.

Readers give their significant others fake names in letters to protect their identity. What’s the most common fake name used in Love Letters?

Joe.

Do you ever talk about your own past relationships in the column?

I do. I’ve mentioned the same ex five times since the column started.

When you’ve mentioned him, does the ex have a pseudonym?

Draco Malfoy.

Love Letters readers like music, and every morning, your Twitter followers suggest songs of the day. What songs have made the list?

There have been many, but we’ve matched letters to Talking Heads’ “Stay Up Late,’’ Depeche Mode’s “Policy of Truth,’’ Yo La Tengo’s “Sometimes I Don’t Get You,’’ George Michael’s “One More Try,’’ Bat for Lashes’ “Sleep Alone,’’ Billy Joel’s “Tell Her About It,’’ and Ben Folds’s “The Luckiest.’’ A year of our songs would make for quite a playlist.

Sometimes the column includes updates from letter writers. Were there any that were particularly surprising?

I was surprised that Shallow Hal, the writer of the sixth most popular letter of the year, was still dating the woman he wasn’t very attracted to when he checked in three months later. Excerpt: “We recognize that when one of us meets another person who we want to pursue, our relationship will probably settle into a friendship, and we are both cool with that. I didn’t tell her that it had anything to do with the physical attraction, so I just kept that detail to myself.’’ Yikes.

On Boston.com, people can “recommend’’ a comment. Who is the most recommended commenter?

A brilliant reader who calls herself TheRealJBar. She had the most recommended comment of the day for 27 percent of the letters. Her most recommended comment (with 463 recommends) included the following: “You deliberately became involved with Mr. Party Pants, knowing that he had a serious GF. You had no qualms about trying to break them up (admit it sweetheart — that’s what you wanted). Then when she finds out about you, Mr. Courageous goes underground and you feel, what, abandoned? You really frost me Toots.’’ Other frequently recommended commenters included Twinster, ItDoesntMatterWhatIThink, Lily87, diamondgirl, and Sally, who, in her most popular comment told a young reader, “Ignore the well-meaning morons. Live the life you want. Love and other responsibilities will hold you hostage soon enough.’’

Some commenters stay for a while and then leave the forum. Is there anyone you really miss?

Rico — a popular commenter who always refers to himself in the third person — returned after a long absence this year, which thrilled me. I mostly miss Alice, who offered wonderfully useful and often sarcastic advice, used an “Alice in Wonderland’’ avatar each day, and said to her fellow commenters when she left, “I’m out. Disappearing like a Cheshire Cat.’’

What’s the most common name people give themselves when they sign their letters?

There are lots of people who say they’re sad (as in, “Sad in Somerville’’), but many are confused. In fact, 5 percent of letter writers used “Confused’’ in their signature.

Favorite letter writer sign-off?

From a woman developing feelings for her ex-husband, “I am a lonely painter, I live in a box of paints, Boston’’

Favorite piece of advice you gave from the second year of Love Letters?

To a reader afraid to date because of his cancer diagnosis: “Fight your illness and search for companionship at the same time. Keep living. That’s the point, right?’’

What piece of advice do you feel ridiculous to have given?

To a man having dreams about an ex: “Keep a picture of Justin Timberlake in your bathroom. You’ll wind up having my upsetting dreams, which might be a nice change. ’’

Favorite letter of the year?

All of them. Keep them coming. We’re here to help.

Boston Globe staff writer Matt Carroll, Boston.com producer Glenn Yoder, and Globe correspondent Steve Miller contributed to the arduous task of Love Letters number crunching. Meredith Goldstein can be reached at Boston.com/loveletters.

Meredith Goldstein chats Wednesdays at 1 p.m.
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