Back in January, you probably came across that Modern Love essay asking whether you could fall in love with a stranger by answering a series of 36 increasingly intimate questions together. The answer, posited the column, was yes. But the more important question is probably: what next? What happens after your essay goes viral, spawns an app, countless takes, and some success stories? If you’re the writer of that essay, you aren’t just going to get to go be in love. You’re going to have symbolize true love for all of us—openness, presence, willingness to just fall right in. And to write about it. No pressure!
The original Modern Love essay was called “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This,” and in it, author Mandy Len Catron recounted her experience adapting Arthur Aron’s remarkable 1997 study to her own love life—and inadvertently replicating its results. Catron wrote:
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.
And so they did, digging in at a bar where they whiled away the hours making their way through the questions that would slowly unguard even the most guarded among us. We covered it back in January, noting:
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.
And some of the questions are as follows:
Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
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?
The “accelerated intimacy” of the proceedings hinges on a few things: A willingness to be vulnerable, a mutual openness, and, of course, a genuine desire to be in love.
And it worked for Catron. She and her acquaintance—although admittedly not strangers, and not in a lab—did fall in love. She noted at the time that what she liked most about the study was the way it demonstrates that the real work of love comes after the misty-eyed part. You can’t stay in love, she said, if you aren’t willing to be known, or if you won’t bother to know someone.
That, of course, doesn’t always make it a cinch to do the work involved in the active part of loving someone. The part where you might not be so jazzed about them but you stick around anyway. It doesn’t help when you’re being asked to write about it, and you need to convey the nuance of this particular part of all relationships while honoring the spirit and simplicity of how you got there. In a follow-up post at her site The Love Story Project, Catron admits rather bravely that the scrutiny and pressure has taken a toll, calling the whole business “strange”:
I’m supposed to be writing an essay about what it means if you spend years thinking about the dangers of love stories and then your own love story becomes a matter of international interest. This is an interesting topic! This is an essay I’d like to read! But what I’m actually writing is an essay about doubt. Sorry if you thought that other thing sounded interesting. Someone else may have to write it, because the question I keep coming back to, in writing and in love, is this: how do you live with doubt?
She expands this idea a bit more, adding:
When you write an essay (that millions of people read) about how you used science to help you fall in love, you turn your life into the kind of myth you don’t believe in.
When you ask your boyfriend what he makes of this and he says, “It’s not like you fall in love and then you’re in love. You fall in love and then you have to actually really get to know somebody,” you can feel it like a fog, the doubt that has settled over the two of you.
I have wondered this very thing before: Which part is the falling-in-love part, anyway? Is it the first part? The initial rush of feeling? Or is that first part just infatuation, and then real love is the part after, when you actually get to know them, and allow yourself to be known, and you both decide the other isn’t a complete wildebeest?
I asked a friend, who thinks the first part is real love, which you either fall deeper into or out of as time goes on. She says “infatuation” is just how we deem love as perpetrated by the emotionally immature. Either way, what’s certain is that there’s certainly a rush of feelings, and then a subsequent settling. And what comes next is anyone’s guess especially when your relationship becomes heated under international spotlight.
Catron also wonders whether what she’s feeling is not doubt after all, but, rather, ambivalence:
This is what we don’t talk about enough in love: ambivalence. And how normal it is. Maybe I am not writing an essay about doubt, maybe I’m writing an essay about ambivalence. There is a difference. Doubt is the fog. It is the feeling you can’t see through. It’s all consonants. Ambivalence is a little better. It contains some certainty. It is the yes and the no, two cards held close to the chest. You want to play them both, but you can’t.
She writes about how badly we want love to be pure, but it simply isn’t. We want transcendence, but we end up with reality. Or what she calls “profound uncertainty.” Maybe, she concludes, that is what transcendence is, anyway: accepting the radical uncertainty of love.
What do you stand to gain if you are certain, if love is easy, if it never requires you to choose? Who are these dull people who have full and constant confidence in their writing or their relationships? I do not even want to know them. If you are friends with them, do not tell me.
The rest of the essay is beautiful and honest, about love and about writing. Do go read it. It won’t get nearly the attention of the original, for obvious reasons. Most of us would rather believe that love is a pure easy thing, a pot of gold at the end of a 36-question rainbow, and not trouble so much with what’s next. But that can’t be real, can it?
Image by Jim Cooke.