Can 36 questions make you fall - and stay - in love with anyone?
Here’s a fairytale for the 21st century. A thirtysomething woman, weary of online dating, meets up with a handsome acquaintance in a bar, googles a Nineties experiment that promises to make them fall in love by answering 36 specific questions, and shares their happy ending in an article that goes viral online – sparking a copycat craze around the world.
Or at least, that’s the abridged version of Mandy Len Catron’s love story, which took on a life of its own after her New York Times essay (detailing the rather more nuanced truth) received 8 million views in January 2015 alone, garnering her a series of TED talks and a book deal, to boot.
Spoiler alert: three years on, Catron, now 36, remains in love with Mark, the other half of that experiment – and still receives regular emails from hopefuls who tried the ‘36 questions’ on Tinder dates, long-lost friends and timeworn spouses hoping to ignite revive a spark. A cohort are putting them to the test at a Valentine’s ‘Fall in Love With a Stranger’ event at London’s Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen, on Tuesday night.
“I’ve heard from all kinds of people, some of whom have gotten married, some who were like, ‘I tried your questions and they didn’t work!',” she marvels over the phone from her home in Vancouver. Not at their romantic failures, but that anyone should imagine her a guru who had uncovered a fast-track formula for finding lasting love.
In fairness, the beguiling title of her book, How to Fall in Love with Anyone, out today, might give them the idea.
But her tome is neither manual nor magic bullet, counsels the English and creative writing professor at the University of British Columbia. Rather, a thoughtful attempt to answer the questions she had been asking herself since her parents announced they were getting divorced when she was 26 – which “felt like the wrong ending” to the love story she had grown up with – and then finding herself single after the break-up of a long-term relationship.
It was during research for an earlier iteration of her book that she first stumbled across an experiment, developed by psychologist Arthur Aron, to see if romantic love could be created in a laboratory.
The 1997 study paired up mixed-sex strangers who took turns asking each other questions, escalating in intimacy from the ice-breaking (If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would you choose?) to the intense (Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing?) and ending with four minutes spent staring into each other’s eyes.
If that sounds terrifyingly unlike first date territory, that’s the point – encouraging the vulnerability that fosters closeness, but in just 45 minutes rather than months.
It was reading that two of Aron’s participants were married shortly after the original study – and invited everyone in the lab to the wedding – that prompted Catron to suggest it on her first date with Mark, 42, a crush from her climbing group. And her own article’s happy ending, in turn, that turned their fledgling love story into “a subject of international interest” – which wrested its narrative from her control.
“People saw what they wanted to see in the article,” she explains. “I remember reading about my own relationship and hearing people get the details wrong – they’d be like, ‘Oh my god, this woman met her husband doing this study,’ or ‘They were falling in love by the end of the evening!’.
In real life, things unfolded rather more slowly: “We did the study in late July and sort of had this ambiguous relationship for a few months,” she thinks back. “We celebrate our anniversary on November 1. That was when we had the conversation, ‘Oh, we’re doing this’.”
Which meant her relationship with Mark was barely three months old when the world’s media came knocking for proof: “People really wanted evidence that we were together and we were not going to break up.”
Musing on the startling response, she writes: “Watching my piece go viral confirmed something I’d suspected for years: when it comes to love, we prefer the short version of the story.”
The long version is “not that you can fall in love with anyone” – circumstances, character and biology still matter – “but that you can create trust and intimacy with almost anyone. And that is the condition necessary for romantic love, right? That is the starting point.”
To which end, our obsession with finding The One is mistaken; you could probably fall in love and be relatively happy with a fairly significant number of people.
The irony that Catron had spent years researching a book critiquing love stories only to watch her own become the kind of myth she doesn’t believe in was not lost on her.
She has two theories as to why it proved so irresistible. “I think one is that everybody wants to be known – to feel that deep intimate connection with another person, where it’s like they understand the smallest facets of who we are.”
The other, she believes, is timing. “in the era of online dating, where we have access to so many more potential partners than we did, even 10 years ago, we now have this huge breadth of possible connections. But we have made a trade-off between breadth and depth. So I feel like this was a way to get that depth of intimacy that probably lots of people really want.”
If the study provides a mechanism for making that happen, her book is a clear-eyed look at the power – and danger – of the love stories we tell ourselves; and how we might rewrite them to better fit our own lives.
Having used one experiment as a catalyst for falling in love, she and Mark have now tried another to stay there - drawing up a written relationship contract when they moved in together after 18 months, setting out their expectations for the future.
“So many people think of it as this really controlling thing – where there’s a penalty if someone if someone doesn’t take the trash out,” she says. Or that they schedule sex? “Exactly. For the record, if people want to schedule sex, good for them, I don’t think there’s even anything wrong with that, it’s just that’s not about that level of detail, for us.”
What it is about is, “bothering to sit down and say to each other on a regular basis, 'OK, what are we doing here, what are we trying to make together and what’s it going to look like?' And I love it. I think everyone should try it.”
The contract’s renewal is coming up soon, and bigger issues are creeping in: “Our next version will have a mortgage section, and questions about starting a family, whether or not we want to get married.”
True to form, they’re thinking about it carefully – and planning a series of podcasts, in which they interview experts, family and friends, together, to figure out if it’s the right next move for them.
If that sounds unromantic, Catron persuasively argues the opposite.
“There seems to be this consistent idea in our culture that if you look too closely at love, you’ll ruin it. And my experience has really not been like that at all. I really find that looking closely at love just makes me more attentive to it, and more appreciative of it.”
And her story no less magical, for that.
- How to Fall in Love with Anyone by Mandy Len Catron is published by Nero Books (£10.99). To order your copy call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk