If you didn't read the wildly popular Modern Love column this weekend about how easy it is to fall in love if you and your chosen one just spend a few hours answering these 36 questions, then I guess you're just not an actual human with a beating heart.
It's a fascinating read. In it, author and academic Mandy Len Catron recounts how she applied psychologist Arthur Aron's decades-old study—wherein he made two participants fall in love in a lab with a series of increasingly intimate questions—to her own love life. She tried it with a "university acquaintance," a man she'd taken notice of but didn't yet really know. Catron writes:
I explained the study to my university acquaintance. A heterosexual man and woman enter the lab through separate doors. They sit face to face and answer a series of increasingly personal questions. Then they stare silently into each other's eyes for four minutes. The most tantalizing detail: Six months later, two participants were married. They invited the entire lab to the ceremony.
"Let's try it," he said.
It's nerdy, it's romantic, and I like it. So did Catron and her colleague. They hit up a bar, Googled the questions, and what followed is the sort of back and forth you usually build up to, conversation-wise, over weeks, or months, or even years with a new someone—except there it was, intellectual courtship on speed.
It wasn't a perfect setup, Catron notes:
First, we were in a bar, not a lab. Second, we weren't strangers. Not only that, but I see now that one neither suggests nor agrees to try an experiment designed to create romantic love if one isn't open to this happening.
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This is a really key concept here—whether you agree with it or not. In the universe where you do agree, you believe that in order to fall in love you must be open to the possibility of love. This likely means a pre-existing attraction and interest, or at least a lack of red flags, or the hesitation that might come along with, say, being really attracted to someone you can already tell is bad for you.
But anyway, those questions, which are in full here. Catron writes:
They began innocuously: "Would you like to be famous? In what way?" And "When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?"
But they quickly became probing.
In response to the prompt, "Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common," he looked at me and said, "I think we're both interested in each other."
I grinned and gulped my beer as he listed two more commonalities I then promptly forgot. We exchanged stories about the last time we each cried, and confessed the one thing we'd like to ask a fortuneteller. We explained our relationships with our mothers.
Because the vulnerability increased gradually, Catron says, it wasn't as awkward as diving in immediately to third-base intimacy. Instead, she was scarcely aware they'd become closer until in retrospect when they took a quick bathroom break, and then later, as the weeks wore on.
More interesting perhaps is Catron's observation that the questions may work in such short time because they disrupt the way we normally get to know people—which is typically by telling our story, one full of highs and lows, serious insights and funny asides that we've each been honing for years—decades even—and must unravel for a new person every time we decide to give it a try again.
These questions, taken together, mix it all up and act as a kind of shorthand version of the same thing—a more direct route to things your "story" actually reveals about you over time, like what you really value, how you see yourself, what you see your strengths and shortcomings as, how you relate to others and the world.
The first set of questions feel a bit like intention ice breakers, such as question #1:
Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
But still cruising along in the first set, you hit #10, which is no small potatoes:
If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
You've got to know a bit about yourself to answer that. By the second set of questions, you're answering things that demonstrate, more broadly, your values, desires, goals. Like #14:
Is there something that you've dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven't you done it?
You've got to be willing to admit you didn't do something that mattered to you to answer this, which is pretty vulnerable.
By the third set of questions, you're demonstrating compassion and attentiveness and empathy—in them, you are asked to reveal sensitivities and disclosures that often take a long time for people to admit to. Take #33:
If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven't you told them yet?
Yikes. 'Nother round over here, barkeep?
Catron calls this accelerated intimacy, and anyone who has met someone and moved fast knows what this feels like: It's when you want to know someone so quickly and so thoroughly and so urgently that you wish you could do it via osmosis. You want to give of yourself and be given to, equally. Which makes it worth noting: The experiment sounds like some kind of trick or shortcut to love, but if both parties are well intentioned and in agreement to try it, who is to say what sort of time it should really take to scale this terrain? We all move at our own speed. In fact, that is where many relationships stall out, no? The sharing isn't mutual, someone at some point reveals themselves to be a withholder, and so on.
Much of Dr. Aron's research focuses on creating interpersonal closeness. In particular, several studies investigate the ways we incorporate others into our sense of self. It's easy to see how the questions encourage what they call "self-expansion." Saying things like, "I like your voice, your taste in beer, the way all your friends seem to admire you," makes certain positive qualities belonging to one person explicitly valuable to the other.
It's astounding, really, to hear what someone admires in you. I don't know why we don't go around thoughtfully complimenting one another all the time.
Probably because people are too afraid to be so open, to take such risks, to put things out there they might not get back. Which, again, brings us back to the key component of the experiment: Willingness to be vulnerable.
After completing the questions, Catron and her date do the four minute unnervingly deep stare that ends the experiment, which at first involved a lot of nervous smiling, but then got a little more comfortable. She writes:
I know the eyes are the windows to the soul or whatever, but the real crux of the moment was not just that I was really seeing someone, but that I was seeing someone really seeing me. Once I embraced the terror of this realization and gave it time to subside, I arrived somewhere unexpected.
I felt brave, and in a state of wonder. Part of that wonder was at my own vulnerability and part was the weird kind of wonder you get from saying a word over and over until it loses its meaning and becomes what it actually is: an assemblage of sounds.
Spoiler: They did fall in love. But you knew that, didn't you?
Catron says she liked the study because it treated love not as something that happens to us, but as an action we take, a choice we make. My younger self might've rolled my eyes at that, but my current self knows precisely how true that is. Love is not getting hit by a force you can't control, at least, not the kind of love that provides real sustenance. It's really a choice, as Catron puts it, "to bother to know someone, which is really a story about what it means to be known."
So many people are so very terrified of being known. That seems incredibly simplistic, but at the core of any real relationship or real love affair is not mystery at all, but what you give up, and what you're getting back.
Of course, compared to the work ahead of it, then, falling in love is actually the easy part. Let's say we could predictably speed it up. Would we want to? And if we did, still, what matters next—the sticking with it, the following through, the renewed commitment to it day in and day out to keep knowing, and keep being known—well, unfortunately, that could never be solved by a questionnaire.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.