"Love Rules: How to Find a Real Relationship in a Digital World," by Joanna Coles. Picture: HarperCollins

Washington - Joanna Coles hasn't been on the dating scene in decades; she's married and has two kids. But from her perch - as a former editor of Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire and current chief content officer for Hearst Magazines - she's well aware of how dating works these days.

And more important, how it doesn't work.

While editing Cosmo from 2012 to 2016, Coles spoke with hundreds of single women, and the persistent issue that came up, she says, is that the women generally felt empowered in their work lives but found it difficult to meet men with whom they connected as equals. "They thought that dating apps worked in favour of men, not women," she said at a rooftop party in Washington this month. "They felt interchangeable on them."

And among young women on college campuses, she saw an intense pressure to have sex with strangers - and high rates of sexual assault. " I felt like it was time for a wake-up call, to say: This is not good for your health; it's not good for your mental health," Coles said.

READ: How women use dating apps 'just to boost confidence'

In her new book Love Rules: How to Find a Real Relationship in a Digital World, Coles makes an interesting analogy of love to health. "I hope to do for relationships what (Michael) Pollan did for food," to help women find their way to the apples and almonds (that nourishing, supportive relationship) rather than settling for the Little Debbie snack cakes or Cheetos (that hookup that might feel good in the moment but lacks substance).

Coles approaches the quest for love the same way a dieter might approach eating right and getting in shape: by setting a realistic ideal weight, then eating right and exercising to get there. Sure, the resemblance to a women's magazine offering five easy steps to a bikini body is right there in the premise. "Love Rules" could be written off as part of the "fix yourself" genre of condescending tomes women have endured for decades, proclaiming that, if they haven't found love, there must be something wrong with them.

But there's no finger-wagging or single-shaming here. Instead, Coles recognizes that love rarely "just happens" as rom-coms lead us to believe. Coles led Cosmo from sex tips and quizzes to its current era of also covering politics, the wage gap, domestic violence and gun control. Correspondingly, her book is fun, unflinchingly honest and incredibly serious. She asks the same of her readers. "It's time to strip naked and look in the mirror," Coles writes. "Ask yourself: 'What do I want in a relationship?' What is your ideal scenario? Be honest."

She's not a proponent of sitting back and trusting that the "universe" will send you a soul mate, and that's where the health analogy works. As a culture, we recognize that being fit requires work and attention - good nutrition, exercise, sleep. Yet we haven't universally accepted that one of the most important things in life - finding love and nurturing it - requires just as much intention and maintenance. "We have no classes or schooling on relationship intelligence," Coles writes, "because we are somehow supposed to have that under control, innately, as if circumstances will one day organically present us with the perfect partner."

This book could be that class if you were to follow all the steps. Coles urges readers to keep a love journal, akin to how a dieter might chart their meals and calories consumed, collecting data on their love lives. This journal will dig deeper than whatever you had for lunch; Coles wants women to mull and write down whether they've ever been in love, how each relationship ended, how they were treated and what it would be like to date them. The goal is to find unhealthy patterns and veer closer to nourishing ones.

Unfortunately, "junk love" - like junk food - is everywhere these days. Dating apps where people feel disposable. Exes that reappear looking for no-string-attached sex. And even seemingly good relationships that fizzle without a clear reason.

The Washington Post