Some people might think they’re professional advice-givers: Your best friend, maybe, or your mother or nosy co-worker, butting in and “solving” all your problems, even if you haven’t asked for their opinion. But Meredith Goldstein, who writes the Boston Globe’s Love Letters column, is an actual professional.
For more than nine years, she’s been answering letter writers’ queries about their love lives. In her new memoir, “Can’t Help Myself,” Goldstein turns the focus on herself, illuminating what it’s like to address everyone else’s problems while muddling through her own.
Solo-ish chatted with Goldstein about her philosophy on offering advice and how she tries to live by the counsel she gives to others. Goldstein will discuss her book at Kramerbooks in Washington at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, moderated by yours truly. The conversation below has been edited for clarity and length.
Lisa Bonos: From the letters people have sent you over the last decade, what has changed the most when it comes to finding love, keeping it, getting over it when it doesn’t work out?
Meredith Goldstein: Some of it is like super-timeless, like people disappearing; there’s a name for it now (ghosting). But that’s been happening since the start. As language evolves, people notice their problems a little bit more. When the concept of “gaslighting” was reintroduced in the 2016 election, I started seeing that in letters — as in, “I knew there was a problem, but I couldn’t put a name to what someone was making me feel.”
And as technology changes, those kinds of issues evolve as well. One thing that gets worse and worse is privacy and how people feel like they’re entitled to know everything about their partner’s lives.
Bonos: How so?
Goldstein: For every year I do this column, there’s less and less privacy — and that’s really jarring to me. There’s so much that’s so easy to know that we wind up starting to feel entitled to everything. We can know what they’re spending (we can look at their Venmo); we can look at their Instagram to see where they were.
One thing that’s really missing in any partnership is the idea that you’re going to be with somebody who will do things throughout the day that you won’t know about, and have thoughts that you don’t know about. They might even have a sexual fantasy about someone who is not you. And that is okay. It’s important to give each other that space.
Bonos: What’s the biggest constant that you’ve seen?
Goldstein: There’s a letter I can never answer, which is: How do you meet somebody? If I knew how to meet somebody, I would open up a business. All these people writing, saying: “I tried this. I’ve tried that, and I just am not finding that partner.” I wish I had magic for that. So that’s the constant one.
Bonos: In the book, you write about launching a love advice column while going through a breakup. What was that like?
Goldstein: I thought it was going to be terrible, but in the end it was a good reality check. Because if I’m telling other people to get out of the house, improve their lives, be open to meeting new people, it sort of requires me to live my own advice. It helps keep me accountable.
I try to be good to others in the way that I tell readers to be good to others. But where I really fail is that I’m constantly telling people to be open to things and to work on meeting people — and just do that forced thing that you have to do when you’re dating. And I do not do that. Sometimes I will be in my pajamas, with my laptop, and I will have just answered a letter telling somebody to get out of the house, and I’m just watching repeats of shows I’ve seen eight times.
Bonos: You dated a co-worker and the relationship ended right around the time you started Love Letters. Dating in the office is always such a minefield — in the #MeToo era and before the #MeToo era. What sort of words of wisdom do you give people when they’re thinking about dating someone they work with?
Goldstein: It’s always been difficult. As an advice columnist I would never tell people that it’s impossible, because I know too many happily married people who met at work. With Patrick, it didn’t work, but it did work to some extent in context because we were quick to take the relationship out of the office. Sometimes I’ll advise people to ask the person if they want to go out in the group, outside of work, so you can see if someone is comfortable with knowing you outside of the building.
It was really difficult to have to see somebody who had broken up with me at work. But it’s also difficult to see a neighbor after you’ve dated. It’s hard to see anybody who broke up with you — unless that person lives in a different place and you never see them again.
Bonos: How much of yourself and your own experience do you put into the advice that you give, and how much distance do you try to maintain?
Goldstein: I’d like to think that I can completely separate myself and my own life experience from these letters. But as an advice column, it would be irresponsible for me to assume that what I’ve seen in my life, in the lives of my friends, in the lives of my family, hasn’t influenced me; it has. So I really have to say: Where does this answer come from? Is it a fair answer? Is this answer being influenced by what I know of the letter-writer? Or how this letter-writer reminds me of someone in my life?
In some ways, your own life can really help give context. Living with a biracial woman, my friend Jess in the book, for so many years and watching her navigate Boston and how her dating experience was different than my own, gave me some pretty important context about how that experience can differ.
Bonos: You mention in the book that you answered more than 450 letters in the first two years — and that that allowed you to figure out what you stood for. What are your guiding principles in giving advice to these people whom you don’t know?
Goldstein: I stopped reading advice columns when I started writing one. Occasionally I let myself cheat. Because I didn’t want anybody else in my head. When giving advice, I wanted to feel like I would say whatever I wrote to the person if they were sitting next to me. And that’s really hard, because my instinct often in reading these letters is like: Dude, you’ve got to break up with him. What’s your problem? But I would not say that to my friend, and it’s not helpful.
Bonos: When your mom died of cancer, you only took a day or so off from writing the column. How did you keep working and writing through all of that?
Goldstein: I cannot tell you. I just kept thinking about how there were terrible days during her illness. When you are going through an illness with someone who is close to you, there are incredible highs and lows almost every day. Sometimes I look at that whole four years and say: How did I write anything? How did I do anything?
But consistently through all that, my mom would say, every morning: “Did you post? Did you post?” Because for her, it meant that she had something to read that day. The first thing that was in my head when she died was: “Did you post?” And same with the following week. In some ways it’s not your traditional Jewish shiva, but it’s one that meant something to me where I was like: “I need to be around my friends, both in real life and online.”
Bonos: Who do you turn to when you need your own Meredith Goldstein?
Goldstein: I turn to Mark, my work friend, and Brette, my sister. Definitely my sister, because I know she’s going to require honesty from me. And my friend Jess, whom I write about in the book. Having that kind of best friend who knows your insides even when you don’t is scary. Looking at her and talking to her requires a level of me being honest with myself that I’m not always ready to do. So when I’m ready for the reality, I’ll call Jess. She’s not going let me talk around anything.