Valentine’s Day got an early start this year and it’s in large part due to the wonderful Modern Love essay of Mandy Len Catron in the New York Times: “To Fall in Love with Anybody, Do This.” The internet is buzzing with love. Just in case your mom, your best friend and your eighth grade lab partner haven’t already emailed it to you, allow me to summarize: A woman is out on a first date-ish meeting in a bar with an acquaintance from her university. Sensing the romantic possibility with this man who she’d seen frequently at her climbing gym, she decides to try a psychological experiment she’d heard about years earlier. The experiment, the brainchild of social psychologist, Dr. Arthur Aron, goes like this: two total strangers sit down together and ask each other 36 increasingly personal, probing questions over the course of ninety minutes. In the original experiment, two of the strangers fell in love. They got married 6 months later and invited the whole lab to the ceremony. Swoon. Back at the bar, Ms. Catron thought, if it worked for them, why not try it too? She did. It worked.
What was the alchemy that happened in that bar? Or on the bridge later when they did the last part of the experiment—staring into each other’s eyes, silently, for a death-defying four minutes? Those searching for love or in its first blushes are eagerly taking notes, but just the same couples who are already many blushes, or years, or decades into a relationship may, in that When Harry Met Sally kind of way be wondering—“Can we have what they’re having?”
Well not really in that way at all because, what “they’re having” in this instance is real. Real what? Intimacy. The kind that can’t be simulated, but apparently, according to Dr. Aron’s study and Ms. Catron’s bar-side replication, can be accelerated. Not simply falling into attraction, but love. How did they get there? How did they fast-forward into that enrapturing state of closeness that we all crave, and so quickly? Drum roll please: by talking about their relationships with their mothers, well that and their most embarrassing moments and about thirty-four other confidences.
By answering many probing questions that revealed intimate details about themselves, these couples made deep, lasting connections. This is what researchers find is relationship super glue: we consistently like the people with whom we do back and forth self-disclosure. We like them a lot. So much, that we might even fall in love them. And the good news: we might even fall in love with them again, and again, because the curiosity that fuels this romantic time warp is not just the privilege and right of the newly in love, it is an equal opportunity lender. You are never too old to wonder.
But tell the truth: if you’re no longer a rookie in this game of love, you might not remember the last time you tried, or dared or more to the point, thought you needed to ask revealing questions to your partner when you already know them so well. To sit, naked before each other as it were, but not in that way, lights on, souls open, searching for secrets that we haven’t yet told ourselves—and then— gasp—sharing them. We could, but then why would we when all 236 episodes of Friends are now available on Netflix?
When we’ve been in love, or in something, for a while, we may think we already know all there is to know. Think it, or more likely fear it. We survey the restaurant on date night at the couples sitting stone faced, silent, not talking, even if this is not you now, the fear wrangles—is that inevitable?
Here we must say no. The mystery of the other persists. Heck, the mystery of us, ourselves, persists, too. The thing about asking questions is that you don’t know what you’ll hear (even if you’re convinced you do!). And thank goodness! This is how we can fall in love again and again with the same person. Because as much as we are the same, we are also changing. We could keep that to ourselves, or we could share that together and rediscover and deepen the connections that made us fall in love in the first place. I’ll let you decide. The relationships that thrive are those that hold up the mirrors or the searchlights for each other; it’s love’s insurance policy that growth and interest persists and springboard off of the stability we’ve established.
Maybe not every day. But most days. But we’ve got to look.
We’ve got see over the treetops of all the essential infrastructural transactions: who is picking up from soccer practice or do you want tacos or pizza tonight, the dishes, the in-laws, the job…life! Forgive each other the distance that’s come between the two of you in the course of the day, week, months, and reach across it. Find out where you both are (we all want so much to be found) by communicating about things that seemingly have no immediate value in the economics of your relationship: the “what are you thinking about?” the good, the baffling, the raw, the miserable, the whimsical, the erotic, and of course—the neurotic (it’s not just for your therapist). This is the invisible capital in your relationship, the ever-renewing resource—the gold rush that will be expanded and mined for years to come.
So, here are the 36 questions from the study. Do you need to ask these very questions, or even all 36? No. Dr. Elaine Aron, (who coauthored the study with her husband) suggests in a recent blog post that readers take these as suggestions, and if you are going to use them multiple times that “you could use every third or fourth from the list of 36, one or a few from each of the three sections, but always include the ones that build the particular relationship, such as the three things you both have in common.” The clincher is that they should “gradually escalate in personalness” and the other clincher is to have welcoming and supportive responses to the personal disclosure. The heart has no wrong answers so think acceptance and curiosity rather than judgment or criticism. You are creating your secret hideout together… keep it safe.
You may, if you’ve been together for a while feel like you are getting into the small chairs of elementary school when you’re all grown up, asking such fundamental questions about people you know so well; don’t worry, you’ll settle in, and chances are you’ll probably end up making out on the couch.
For starters just read Ms. Catron’s essay to each other. I tried to read it to my husband and got so choked up that I had to hand it over to him after the first paragraph. It was great; I do love the sound of his voice. I cannot resist a good love story. And I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the possibility is there that we are sitting next to one, already being written, as we speak. We are the mystery to each other waiting to be discovered, but we’ve got to ask the questions to find out what happens next. Ms. Catron dared to. And so, undoubtedly, should we. Happy Valentine’s Day.
©Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., 2015. Author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety: 4 Simple Steps to Overcome Worry and Create the Life You Want and Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: Revised and Updated Version: Practical Strategies to Overcome Fears, Worries, and Phobias and Be Prepared for Life–from Toddlers to Teens