Can you really choose to fall in love?
That question is on many people's lips after reading and rereading the New York Times' latest Modern Love essay, "To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This." The essay, by Mandy Len Catron, tells the story of how, feeling helpless in a love-life rut, she turned to an experiment from a 1997 psychology study led by Arthur Aron that "tried making people fall in love" with a series of 36 personal questions.
She and a male acquaintance she'd been crushing on tried the experiment and ultimately came to a rather stunning conclusion: It worked. "Love didn't happen to us," the essay concludes. "We're in love because we each made the choice to be."
That might sound overly simple — indeed, the headlines written in reaction to the Modern Love essay were all essentially versions of "Here's the Simple Formula for Falling in Love With Anyone," a declaration even the most idealistic person would find suspect.
But the 36 questions are not so much about falling in love: They're about building intimacy.
And when it comes to long-lasting relationships and happiness, science has proven close, intimate bonds are even more important than love.
The questions, which read like the most intense version of "20 Questions" you've ever played, don't actually have much to do with love. A sample:
What would constitute a "perfect" day for you?
For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
Aron's study, the model for the 36-question love manual, actually set out a method for "creating closeness." In fact, the researchers note that the goal of their experiment, which established "sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personalistic self-disclosure" between subjects, was to "develop a temporary feeling of closeness, not an actual ongoing relationship."
Indeed, two straight bros, two coworkers or even a brother and sister might engage in the 36-question test and find that it draws them closer to each other as people, but doesn't fundamentally change the nature of their relationship. It certainly doesn't make them fall in love.
But the questions, all about vulnerability, would likely deepen the intimacy between those two people, drawing them closer together and solidifying their bond. And as it turns out, sharing a close personal bond is the most important factor for a long-lasting romantic relationship — more important, in fact, than love.
Sharing a close bond is the most important factor for a long-lasting romantic relationship — more important, in fact, than love.
A recent study found that when it comes to marriages, it's partnership, not romantic love or sexual attraction, that makes for long-lasting, happy unions. The study, conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that spouses who felt they had married their "best friend" were the happiest, gaining the most well-being benefits from marriage.
"Marriage, in a sense, is a super friendship," study co-author Shawn Grover told the Huffington Post. Other studies have shown the intimate bond of friendship also benefits non-marital romantic partners. "Valuing that aspect of the relationship," found researchers in a 2012 study, "fortifies the romantic relationship against negative outcomes."
Closeness, in short, is actually more valuable for long-term relationships than love alone. Luckily, closeness is something we can choose.
Aron and his co-researchers admitted in their published study that the experiment was meant to "develop a temporary feeling of closeness, not an actual ongoing relationship." But those feelings of closeness are what set the stage for love's possibility.
"We all have a narrative of ourselves that we offer up to strangers and acquaintances," Catron writes in her essay. "But Dr. Aron's questions make it impossible to rely on that narrative. Ours was the kind of accelerated intimacy I remembered from summer camp, staying up all night with a new friend, exchanging the details of our short lives."
"It's possible — simple, even — to generate trust and intimacy, the feelings love needs to thrive."
"Arthur Aron's study taught me that it's possible — simple, even — to generate trust and intimacy, the feelings love needs to thrive."
We can't control who we fall in love with, no more than we can write mathematical equations to conjure up a Prince or Princess Charming. But the beauty of the 36 questions is that they remind us what we can control, taking the complex question of love and distilling it down into something more attainable for even the most romantically frustrated among us.
And if the 36 questions lead only to deeper friendships or close bonds with a stranger, that's pretty amazing too.