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.