Classic love stories have limited our idea of what is possible when it comes to intimacy, according to the woman who wrote a viral essay on 36 questions that accelerate closeness between any two given people.
Mandy Len Catron’s piece To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This was shared thousands of times after appearing on the New York Times in 2015, and remains one of the paper’s most-read pieces.
Now Catron has a new book out, How to Fall in Love with Anyone, which expands on the premise that we have control over creating a lasting relationship.
In her original essay, Catron re-created an experiment by psychologist Arthur Aron, whereby two strangers ask each other a set of increasingly personal questions – such as “how do you feel about your relationship with your mother” – before staring into each others’ eyes for four minutes.
It sounds awkward, but the process is designed to accelerate intimacy normally forged over a period of weeks or months, into a period of a couple of hours. And amazingly, Catron and her partner Mark are still together after trying the experiment on their first date more than two years ago:
But she’s keen to ward off speculation over how serious the relationship is, or fall into the linear narrative that “love-marriage-baby-carriage” equals lifelong happiness.
“We’re casually dating, and then we’re dating and exclusive, and then we move in together and get engaged and married, and have children and buy property and whatever,” she says. “And I’m really trying to think more critically about that approach to relationships. I want to have a healthy sense of scepticism about it.”
Catron got her first wake-up call on the nature of intimacy aged 26, when her parents announced they were getting divorced.
“For most of my life, I thought if you’re a good person and you don’t betray your spouse in any way, that’s all you need to do for a long, stable marriage,” she tells CBS News.
But now she’s aware of how confined and simplified this notion is, especially as her new book involves dissecting the fallacy of love laid out for us in popular love stories.
Films such as Dirty Dancing and Notting Hill, says Catron, are “about falling in love, not staying in love” – and we would benefit from more focus on the latter. Plus, she claims, love stories limit our understanding of how romance happens.
“Most stories really narrow the way we think about love,” the author says. “They suggest there’s one right way to love that will make you happy. And in reality, there’s lots of way love can be part of our lives.
Instead of being some mysterious occurrence, Catron believes that “we still have a lot of choice about how we want to practise love and what it might look like”.
“I want people to feel like there’s space to exercise that choice,” she says.
Catron believes the 36 questions experiment shows that we have more agency in the process of falling in love than we believe.
“I don’t think you can just fall in love with a random person on the street,” she says. “But I do think the reality about love is that we often think it’s something that happens to us – and we’re just passively accepting whatever love throws our way.
“But the truth is we have a lot more agency than that, and we can really choose to invest ourselves in another person. And that might lead to love.”
The 36 questions, she says, “are not a shortcut to creating romantic love” but they do “create intimacy and closeness really quickly”. And these qualities, in turn, lay fertile ground for a more profound relationship to flourish.
For her and Mark, the questions they tackled together on their first date paved the way for something greater. “It helped me trust him in the way I hadn’t trusted other people I dated, and that was a great start,” Catron says.
She admits such personal queries between virtual strangers can be “a little awkward” but that couples are best off being transparent about it – in saying, ‘hey, this could be embarrassing but let’s try it out’.
“I think everybody wants love, right?” she adds. “But not just love; they want this sort of deep, profound intimacy. They want to be known. And I think the questions provide a really straightforward mechanism to achieving that.”
Images: Rex and Instagram @lenmandy