An old study from the Interpersonal Relationships Lab at SUNY Stony Brook recently regained fame on the Internet after being written about as a successful romantic experiment for one essayist for the New York Times. The study said that falling in love is a choice, and that if strangers build intimacy by asking each other 36 probing questions, they can fall in love with anyone. When Mandy Len Catron and her now-husband asked each other these questions, it ended in wedding bells.
After a broken engagement over two years ago, I’m adventurous and up for anything in the name of love (within reason), so when I heard about the Fall in Love Spectacular, an event created to put these 36 questions to the test, I signed up. It was perfect timing, set right around Valentine's Day, on one of those cold nights you wished for a cuddle buddy.
When the day came, I entered a church gym on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, decorated with sweet candyhearts and paper dollies, to find a sizable, balanced group of diverse men and women. It felt like a middle school dance, with small groups gathered around the room. I was naturally a little nervous, although this wasn't my first blind date or social dating experiment. I wondered who I'd be matched with. Girlfriends at check-in joked about leaving after the 18th question. Earlier in the day, one of my friends recalled she and her boyfriend asked these questions to each other years ago, and fell asleep halfway through. (It's OK, they're still together).
In the pairings from the original study, facilitator and author Dr. Arthur Aron sometimes deliberately matched participants using the Meyers-Brigg personality type indicator. With some groups, the goal of intimacy was explicitly stated. But as Dr. Elaine Aron (yes, his wife) wrote in a blog post: "We had not created the 36 questions to help you fall in love. To do a good job of that we would have needed to do a study with people who, above all, came into it really wanting to fall in love."
I had filled out an online questionnaire prior to the event. How happy was I at the moment? I think I put a content 5 out of 7. I was paired with a guy named Sam.
The question's prompts (which ranged from the relatively benign "what would constitute a 'perfect' day for you" to the rather intense "of all the people in your family, whose death would you find the most disturbing?") seemed to center on innate fears, behavior when alone, grand dreams, and early or past relationships — basically information that is generally a little intimate for the first date. Neither Sam nor I had looked at the questions before. The three sets of questions seemed a bit repetitive but built on each other, or they circled back to continue on a common theme or interesting tangent along the way. We bonded over family histories and values. We were both semi-serious, self-aware, and relatively relaxed. It was nice to hear reaffirming reflections ("you seem courageous," Sam told me) I'm generally an open book these days; Sam said he was telling me things some of his friends didn't know.
Our very last task was to stare into each other's eyes for four minutes without talking. As we stared straight through our glasses, I didn't feel anything particular in my gut. I made sure to keep an "open heart" sitting stance and started in my mind to wish Sam kindness, thanking him for his sincerity.
I wondered if any strong matches or revelations were made amongst other participants. Sam walked me to the subway stop. We didn't exchange numbers. I gave him a big hug, said goodbye and wished him good luck. Sam the stranger? Not so much. If I see him on the street, I'll do more than give him a knowing smile, and I'll probably chat with him again. Yes, some kind of friendship was formed because we were both willing to delve into the potential of being present. But the moment may be fleeting, which is fine, too.
As Dr. Aron detailed in his published work, "the goal of our procedure was to develop a temporary feeling of closeness, not an actual ongoing relationship." As Bustle's Lucia Peters wrote of the 36 questions, "they’re a good starting point for a relationship — potentially a great one, even. But they can only take us so far; after that, we’re on our own."
When I got home, I poured myself a hot cup of Yogi Tea. The tag read "Where there is love, there is no question."
Love is about innately knowing and truly supporting your partner's true being. You accept where they came from and who they are without judgment, assumption or expectation. If questions like these facilitate that knowledge, then they can do a service, to couples and strangers alike.
Oh, and if you and your significant other do make it down the aisle, there are two additional questions from another study you may want to ask each other — but hey, let’s not put the cart before the horse, huh?
Image: Bustle Stock Photo; Ko Im; Giphy