I published this article in the New York Times Modern Love column in January of this year. "To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This." And the article is about a psychological study designed to create romantic love in the laboratory, and my own experience trying the study myself one night last summer.
So the procedure is fairly simple: two strangers take turns asking each other 36 increasingly personal questions and then they stare into each other's eyes without speaking for four minutes.
So here are a couple of sample questions.
Number 12: If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
Number 28: When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
As you can see, they really do get more personal as they go along.
Number 30, I really like this one: Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things you might not say to someone you just met.
So when I first came across this study a few years earlier, one detail really stuck out to me, and that was the rumor that two of the participants had gotten married six months later, and they'd invited the entire lab to the ceremony. So I was of course very skeptical about this process of just manufacturing romantic love, but of course I was intrigued. And when I got the chance to try this study myself, with someone I knew but not particularly well, I wasn't expecting to fall in love. But then we did, and —
And I thought it made a good story, so I sent it to the Modern Love column a few months later.
Now, this was published in January, and now it is August, so I'm guessing that some of you are probably wondering, are we still together? And the reason I think you might be wondering this is because I have been asked this question again and again and again for the past seven months. And this question is really what I want to talk about today. But let's come back to it.
So the week before the article came out, I was very nervous. I had been working on a book about love stories for the past few years, so I had gotten used to writing about my own experiences with romantic love on my blog. But a blog post might get a couple hundred views at the most, and those were usually just my Facebook friends, and I figured my article in the New York Times would probably get a few thousand views. And that felt like a lot of attention on a relatively new relationship. But as it turned out, I had no idea.
So the article was published online on a Friday evening, and by Saturday, this had happened to the traffic on my blog. And by Sunday, both the Today Show and Good Morning America had called. Within a month, the article would receive over 8 million views, and I was, to say the least, underprepared for this sort of attention. It's one thing to work up the confidence to write honestly about your experiences with love, but it is another thing to discover that your love life has made international news —
and to realize that people across the world are genuinely invested in the status of your new relationship.
And when people called or emailed, which they did every day for weeks, they always asked the same question first: are you guys still together? In fact, as I was preparing this talk, I did a quick search of my email inbox for the phrase "Are you still together?" and several messages popped up immediately. They were from students and journalists and friendly strangers like this one. I did radio interviews and they asked. I even gave a talk, and one woman shouted up to the stage, "Hey Mandy, where's your boyfriend?" And I promptly turned bright red.
I understand that this is part of the deal. If you write about your relationship in an international newspaper, you should expect people to feel comfortable asking about it. But I just wasn't prepared for the scope of the response. The 36 questions seem to have taken on a life of their own. In fact, the New York Times published a follow-up article for Valentine's Day, which featured readers' experiences of trying the study themselves, with varying degrees of success.
So my first impulse in the face of all of this attention was to become very protective of my own relationship. I said no to every request for the two of us to do a media appearance together. I turned down TV interviews, and I said no to every request for photos of the two us. I think I was afraid that we would become inadvertent icons for the process of falling in love, a position I did not at all feel qualified for.
And I get it: people didn't just want to know if the study worked, they wanted to know if it really worked: that is, if it was capable of producing love that would last, not just a fling, but real love, sustainable love.
But this was a question I didn't feel capable of answering. My own relationship was only a few months old, and I felt like people were asking the wrong question in the first place. What would knowing whether or not we were still together really tell them? If the answer was no, would it make the experience of doing these 36 questions any less worthwhile? Dr. Arthur Aron first wrote about these questions in this study here in 1997, and here, the researcher's goal was not to produce romantic love. Instead, they wanted to foster interpersonal closeness among college students, by using what Aron called "sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personalistic self-disclosure." Sounds romantic, doesn't it? But the study did work. The participants did feel closer after doing it, and several subsequent studies have also used Aron's fast friends protocol as a way to quickly create trust and intimacy between strangers. They've used it between members of the police and members of community, and they've used it between people of opposing political ideologies. The original version of the story, the one that I tried last summer, that pairs the personal questions with four minutes of eye contact, was referenced in this article, but unfortunately it was never published.
So a few months ago, I was giving a talk at a small liberal arts college, and a student came up to me afterwards and he said, kind of shyly, "So, I tried your study, and it didn't work." He seemed a little mystified by this. "You mean, you didn't fall in love with the person you did it with?" I asked.
"Well..." He paused. "I think she just wants to be friends."
"But did you become better friends?" I asked. "Did you feel like you got to really know each other after doing the study?" He nodded.
"So, then it worked," I said.
I don't think this is the answer he was looking for. In fact, I don't think this is the answer that any of us are looking for when it comes to love.
I first came across this study when I was 29 and I was going through a really difficult breakup. I had been in the relationship since I was 20, which was basically my entire adult life, and he was my first real love, and I had no idea how or if I could make a life without him. So I turned to science. I researched everything I could find about the science of romantic love, and I think I was hoping that it might somehow inoculate me from heartache. I don't know if I realized this at the time — I thought I was just doing research for this book I was writing — but it seems really obvious in retrospect. I hoped that if I armed myself with the knowledge of romantic love, I might never have to feel as terrible and lonely as I did then. And all this knowledge has been useful in some ways. I am more patient with love. I am more relaxed. I am more confident about asking for what I want. But I can also see myself more clearly, and I can see that what I want is sometimes more than can reasonably be asked for. What I want from love is a guarantee, not just that I am loved today and that I will be loved tomorrow, but that I will continue to be loved by the person I love indefinitely. Maybe it's this possibility of a guarantee that people were really asking about when they wanted to know if we were still together.
So the story that the media told about the 36 questions was that there might be a shortcut to falling in love. There might be a way to somehow mitigate some of the risk involved, and this is a very appealing story, because falling in love feels amazing, but it's also terrifying. The moment you admit to loving someone, you admit to having a lot to lose, and it's true that these questions do provide a mechanism for getting to know someone quickly, which is also a mechanism for being known, and I think this is the thing that most of us really want from love: to be known, to be seen, to be understood. But I think when it comes to love, we are too willing to accept the short version of the story. The version of the story that asks, "Are you still together?" and is content with a yes or no answer.
So rather than that question, I would propose we ask some more difficult questions, questions like: How do you decide who deserves your love and who does not? How do you stay in love when things get difficult, and how do you know when to just cut and run? How do you live with the doubt that inevitably creeps into every relationship, or even harder, how do you live with your partner's doubt? I don't necessarily know the answers to these questions, but I think they're an important start at having a more thoughtful conversation about what it means to love someone.
So, if you want it, the short version of the story of my relationship is this: a year ago, an acquaintance and I did a study designed to create romantic love, and we fell in love, and we are still together, and I am so glad.
But falling in love is not the same thing as staying in love. Falling in love is the easy part. So at the end of my article, I wrote, "Love didn't happen to us. We're in love because we each made the choice to be." And I cringe a little when I read that now, not because it isn't true, but because at the time, I really hadn't considered everything that was contained in that choice. I didn't consider how many times we would each have to make that choice, and how many times I will continue to have to make that choice without knowing whether or not he will always choose me. I want it to be enough to have asked and answered 36 questions, and to have chosen to love someone so generous and kind and fun and to have broadcast that choice in the biggest newspaper in America. But what I have done instead is turn my relationship into the kind of myth I don't quite believe in. And what I want, what perhaps I will spend my life wanting, is for that myth to be true.
I want the happy ending implied by the title to my article, which is, incidentally, the only part of the article that I didn't actually write.
But what I have instead is the chance to make the choice to love someone, and the hope that he will choose to love me back, and it is terrifying, but that's the deal with love.