I click on the article “Want to Fall in Love with Your Partner Again? Science Says to Ask Them These 36 Questions” for the same reason I’m wearing pajama pants at noon on a Tuesday: I’m abiding by safer at home.
For much of his career, social psychologist Dr. Arthur Aron’s research focused on the science of love. His 1993 study “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness” explored whether intimacy could be developed between two strangers. One group of participants simply made small talk with a partner; the other group asked each other 36 questions that became increasingly more personal. For what in your life do you feel most grateful? If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be? Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it? Share an embarrassing moment.
Finally, these partners spent their last four minutes together silently looking into one another’s eyes. Aron reported, “When I came in towards the end of each set of questions, there were people crying and talking so openly.” You don’t need to be a scientist to figure out which group felt more bonded with one another after just 45 minutes. The results were used to better understand prejudice and to improve relationships between police officers and community members.
Only recently has the study been applied to igniting or rekindling romance. In 2015, Mandy Len Catron’s New York Times story went viral after her new love affair was inspired by Aron’s 36 questions. She wrote, “Ours was the kind of accelerated intimacy I remembered from summer camp, staying up all night with a new friend … But rarely does adult life present us with such circumstances.”
Until COVID-19. One recent Saturday night, my husband and I sit at our counter with drinks and ask each other some of Aron’s 36 questions. When shared with a romantic partner, these become part Cosmopolitan quiz, part pre-marital inventory. What do you value in a friendship? What is your most treasured or terrible memory? How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
Bruce reads aloud, “If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?” He smiles: “I know what I’d want . . . for you.”
“Like you’d live to see it,” I tease back. I can’t help but think we’re in our own private “The Newlywed Game” though less cringe-worthy because it’s just the two of us.
I read, “Tell your partner what you like about them.”
Bruce answers, “You’re nice and so competent.” I groan. Is this a Yelp review of his favorite dental hygienist?
“Wow,” I say sarcastically. “That’s something.”
“It is,” he says. “You’re nice to everyone.” He adds, “And anyone who knows you knows a little bit about the good things you do, but I know them all.”
I tell him: “You always say the right thing to me or to your kids or even to strangers.” I tear up. “You know how to make anyone feel better.”
Next I ask, “Anyone living or dead you’d invite for dinner?”
“Besides you?” he responds. We’re pathetic.
“I’d have my parents over,” I say. I wipe my eyes as I describe seeing them one more time. “My mom is probably less critical now that she’s dead.” I laugh. Bruce didn’t know her; he has no idea how funny this is. Still, he chuckles.
Crises — like the recent pandemic — create waves of vulnerability that sometimes speed up the usual trajectory of our lives. Consider all of the instant and intense romances during wartime or the slew of children conceived within days of watching the Twin Towers fall.
One year from now we could easily count another baby boom or even an uptick in divorces. But as social distancing throws us together in ways we didn’t expect, what’s immeasurable is the evolution of not just romantic bonds but deeper connections among family and friends. Dr. Aron reminds us, “Relationship quality is the biggest predictor of human happiness, more than wealth or success.”
Not without risks, of course. Brené Brown, whose TED Talk “The Power of Vulnerability” has been viewed over 47 million times, explores the leap of faith it is to care intensely about someone. Instead of considering the risks (rejection, heartache), she recommends instead thinking, “I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.”
We all have moments when we believe we’re unlikable and downright unlovable. Fart like a raging vegetarian? Cackle when you’re tipsy? And that’s just me. Brown points out, “Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness . . . it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”
The scholarship of caring could easily be wrapped up by an old Eagle’s song: “You better let somebody love you, before it’s too late.” More appropriate these days may be Camus’s line from The Plague: “A happiness that forgets nothing.”
After another drink, Bruce and I take these 36 questions to a new level: we choose one and answer how we think the other might. I describe what Bruce would say about his “perfect” day. He responds, “That sounds a lot like many of our days.”
Bruce tells me what he imagines I would want to be famous for. He’s absolutely right. I tell him what I know he’d want: “You’re at a small jazz club and someone in the band calls you up on stage from the audience. You sing the crap out of a song, and the crowd goes wild.”
He says, “I got no secrets.”
As the night goes on, Bruce asks, “Shouldn’t there be questions on what annoys you about a partner? Or at least something you’d like to change?”
“We’ll add our own next time,” I say. We have only time and each other on our hands.