Day 4: I CAN make you love me, if…

I knew if I waited long enough, and prayed to my gods hard enough, that one day someone would figure out how to make a man (or a woman, who knows?) fall in love with me. I knew this day would come, and it finally did. Strictly speaking, that day came 20 years ago, but let’s not split hairs. It’s official people, a couple of questions and four minutes of gazing into someone’s eyes is all you need. Can I get an amen?!

As tempting as it is to use Foreigner as today’s soundtrack, I shall curb my fondness for 80’s pop ballads and use a 60’s soul classic instead. Granted, I’m using the cover done in 1982, but it’s not a ballad so…

I need love, love, ooh, to ease my mind
And I need to find time
Someone to call mine
My mama said…

Back in 1997, a couple of scientists conducted a study on close relationships, not specifically on romantic relationships, eventually creating a set of 36 questions that, when asked in sequence, create closeness between the respondents. Simply put, the questions help in bonding. Dr Aron explains (36 Questions for Intimacy, Back Story):

The basis of the 36 questions is that back-and-forth self-disclosure, that increases gradually (not too fast), is consistently linked with coming to like the other person you do this with. We just made it a systematic method that could be used in the lab. In more recent research by Harry Reis and colleagues, another factor is also proving very important – being responsive to the other’s self-disclosure! These factors are important for both starting a relationship, and even more important, for its continued quality.

She then goes further to explain that this is not a recipe for love…

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, and we were not in that business!

The reason for that disclaimer is this article, causing a great deal of buzz the past two weeks, To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This, in which the author describes trying out this experiment, albeit in a more casual setting, and falling in love.

I first read about the study when I was in the midst of a breakup. Each time I thought of leaving, my heart overruled my brain. I felt stuck. So, like a good academic, I turned to science, hoping there was a way to love smarter.

You can see how I got hooked by this article, no?

I explained the study to my university acquaintance. A heterosexual man and woman enter the lab through separate doors. They sit face to face and answer a series of increasingly personal questions. Then they stare silently into each other’s eyes for four minutes. The most tantalizing detail: Six months later, two participants were married. They invited the entire lab to the ceremony. “Let’s try it,” he said.

You’re loving the science too now, aren’t you? But wait…

Let me acknowledge the ways our experiment already fails to line up with the study. First, we were in a bar, not a lab. Second, we weren’t strangers. Not only that, but I see now that one neither suggests nor agrees to try an experiment designed to create romantic love if one isn’t open to this happening.

And so it came to pass that 36 questions later, plus the recommended four minutes of staring into each other’s eyes, the happy couple was suitably enamoured with each other and are now in love. Aaaaawwww…

Now, the romantic in me was slightly wet of eye at the end of that article. The cynic, however, she that writes this blog, she was having none of it. ’36 whatnow?’ she scoffed. I went off in search of the questions, and the original study, convinced it was all a load of guff.

Not so much as it turns out.

The questions are grouped into three sets of 12 questions each, of slowly increasing depth, starting off with a simple, ‘1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?‘, graduating to, ‘13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?‘, with the last set starting off with, ‘25. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling …”‘ By the time you’re on the last question, ‘36. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.‘, you’ve pretty much gone past most of the boundaries you normally maintain when you meet someone new. The idea behind this is quite simple, the mutual self disclosure creates a feeling of intimacy between you.

Incidentally, I can’t find any reference to the eye gazing in the original study, but I skimmed through most of the methodology, so perhaps it’s in there somewhere (shakes head vehemently). I’m leaving that bit out, it sounds a little creepy, even for me who loves to stare at people.

Question is, does this intimacy created by the question and answer sequence lead to attraction, or does the attraction need to be there from the beginning?  Put differently, can you ask someone you like these 36 questions and get them to like you back? Come now, that’s all we really want to know, isn’t it?  The short answer.  Perhaps.  What’s important is both parties have to willing to open up for this exercise to work, which then means you can’t ambush that guy you’ve been stalking with a bloody questionnaire and expect the magic to happen.  That said, assuming both parties are genuine and don’t hold back, then, voilà!  You’ll fall in love like the author of that lovely tale, or, as was originally intended, you become friends.

The scientists issued a disclaimer at the end of their paper:

So are we producing real closeness? Yes and no. We think that the closeness produced in these studies is experienced as similar in many important ways to felt closeness in naturally occurring relationships that develop over time. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that the procedure produces loyalty, dependence, commitment, or other relationship aspects that might take longer to develop.

You can’t sue them if it doesn’t work. Now you know.

You can’t hurry love
No, you’ll just have to wait
She said love don’t come easy
But it’s a game of give and take
You can’t hurry love
No, you’ll just have to wait
Just trust in a good time
No matter how long it takes…

Can you make someone fall in love with you?

From the NYT article:

Most of us think about love as something that happens to us. We fall. We get crushed.

But what I like about this study is how it assumes that love is an action. It assumes that what matters to my partner matters to me because we have at least three things in common, because we have close relationships with our mothers, and because he let me look at him.

I wondered what would come of our interaction. If nothing else, I thought it would make a good story. But I see now that the story isn’t about us; it’s about what it means to bother to know someone, which is really a story about what it means to be known.

It’s true you can’t choose who loves you, although I’ve spent years hoping otherwise, and you can’t create romantic feelings based on convenience alone. Science tells us biology matters; our pheromones and hormones do a lot of work behind the scenes.

But despite all this, I’ve begun to think love is a more pliable thing than we make it out to be. Arthur Aron’s study taught me that it’s possible — simple, even — to generate trust and intimacy, the feelings love needs to thrive.

Ms Catron seems to think so.

I’m inclined to agree.

Don’t look so surprised.

What they describe here is not too different from what you experience during online dating, or a holiday fling cum love affair, or a long evening with good company.  That intense rush you get from getting to know someone very well, very quickly, this is what its all about, see?  This is why, she wags her finger, meeting strangers on the internet is so bloody dangerous, its an experiment!  Wait, no, sorry, that’s my conspiracy theory gear kicking in.  Ignore that bit.  Seriously though, internet dating, much like all dating, is basically one long questionnaire.  You start off on favourite colours and before you know it you’re talking about your pet dog Simba who was run over by your father that evening he came home drunk, and all this in a matter of hours.  It’s the Aron experiment, on computer.  Same thing happens when you have a mind fuck night, talking into the wee hours with a (former) stranger about anything and everything.  The questions themselves are not the point of this exercise, what matters is the order in which these, or any other questions are asked.

Dr Aron explains:

…please know that those 36 are only suggestions. If you are going to use this approach with more than one person, or more than once with a particular partner, you may need to make up new questions so your answers don’t become rote. Whatever questions you use, they should gradually escalate in personalness. If you don’t want to rewrite them, you could use every third or fourth from the list of 36, one or a few from each of the three sections, but always include the ones that build the particular relationship, such as the three things you both have in common.

What she’s describing is exactly what we do when dating.  We ask questions to find out about the other person, the questions getting more intimate as we open up more to each other, and the questions tend to focus on finding commonalities.  All this experiment does is expedite the matter, says the non-scientist with a degree in google. It also explains why we bond closely with people who, a. ask us about ourselves, b. listen to what we tell them, and c. tell us about themselves in return.

No, I can’t bear to live my life alone
I grow impatient for a love to call my own
But when I feel that I, I can’t go on
Well, these precious words keep me hanging on, I remember mama said…
You can’t hurry love…

Bottom line.  Dear Phil Collins, mama lied.  Love can in fact be hurried along.

Line after the bottom line.  Yes, I can make you love me, if, and only if you want me to.

Line after the line after the bottom line.  I’ve been right all along, you foolish buggers, asking questions is the secret to love and happiness.  If only you could hear me laugh my evil laugh right now…  For the record, I am going to milk this story the entire year.  Don’t look at me like that, this is manna from heaven, no?  Exactly. I’m thinking a new Dr A series…