Mandy Len Catron (SAMSUNG CSC/Globe and Mail Update)
It’s been two years since Mandy Len Catron, a sessional lecturer in English and creative writing at the University of British Columbia, offered the world a tempting experiment to “fall in love with anyone.”
In a staggeringly popular New York Times Modern Love essay, Catron described a date on which she and an acquaintance, Mark, spent hours on a questionnaire designed to “accelerate intimacy.” The 36 questions start out innocuously enough (“Would you like to be famous?”) but rapidly move to the highly personal (“When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?”).
Catron and Mark topped that intense mind game off by staring into each other’s eyes for four minutes on Vancouver’s Granville Street Bridge. The entire evening was modelled after a lab study intended to manufacture love, designed by American husband-and-wife psychologists Arthur and Elaine Aron. The electrifying experience (and a few beers) left Catron woozy. The couple started dating seriously soon after.
In her new book, How to Fall in Love with Anyone, Catron plays witness to just how high her story got the lovelorn masses. People started laying the questions on their Tinder dates and on their spouses in hopes they could ignite or rekindle attraction with a handy formula.
What Catron offers in her book is more of a tempered tale. Blending interviews, pop cultural narratives, insights from neurochemistry and an economic history of marriage, she deftly mines our myths about partnering up – like that it isn’t often privately very messy.
The book also reveals Catron as a woman who is unabashedly invested in her love life and determined to be its architect, first coralling a relationship with that quiz and later, with a “contract” that spells out everything from recycling duties to splitting the bills to sex, somehow. “[It] gave us a sense of control over the process of merging our lives,” Catron explained.
The author spoke with The Globe from Vancouver.
You are not a fan of oversimplified fairy tales about love. Then your essay about 36 love-inducing questions goes viral and becomes a modern romantic fairy tale itself. How did that feel?
The irony felt so crazy. It was weird watching the story circulate as people wrote about my relationship in the newspaper and talked about it on a podcast. People get the details wrong all the time. They said that by the end of that night we’d fallen in love. We didn’t actually start a serious relationship until months later.
I’d been thinking critically about love stories for so long so it was interesting to be on the other side where I could see the ways in which people took my story and turned it into what they wanted it to be. It felt like a case study that I was now in the middle of.
Why did the idea of a ready-made formula for falling in love appeal to people the way it did?
Most people want to feel a deep, intimate connection with another person where they are totally understood. Today, especially in the era of online dating, the pool of potential partners who could be a good fit is huge. The tradeoff is very superficial interactions with many people over a short period of time. Part of the popularity of these 36 questions is that they offered an alternative, a way to deeply connect with just one person. It’s a way into intimacy that feels safe. It’s scary to say to someone you’ve just met, “Let me tell you about my relationship with my mother.” The questions provide a mechanism for doing that. All you have to say is, “I read about this cool study. Do you want to try it?”
Beyond the dating cohort, what’s the appeal of this questionnaire for people in long-term relationships?
I’ve talked to lots of friends and strangers who have done it with someone they’ve been married to for a long time or in a relationship with for years. It’s a way to pause and connect. The questions are so specific that people do learn something about their partners or about themselves. When I did it, I was surprised by some of my own answers sometimes.
You said the most biggest lure of this experiment is that it allows people “to be seen.” What did you mean by that?
Sporadically, the questions prompt you to compliment your partner. You’re not just looking inward and talking about yourself the whole time. You’re bothering to notice your partner and to explicitly articulate thoughtful things that you like about them. Hearing my partner say specific things was the best feeling. You’re seeing someone notice you. This isn’t something we bother to do with our friends or the people we love. It feels so good.
This is especially interesting when you’re doing this with someone you’ve just met. Originally, researchers dubbed these questions the “fast friend protocol.” They used it to create closeness. It seems to consistently work among all different kinds of groups.
Suggesting, as you do, that people could “fall in love and be relatively happy with a significant number of people,” this is an optimistic and humanizing outlook. It tosses out the soulmate idea and recognizes that more than one good person is out there.
It’s just wild to think that in the 7.5 billion people on the planet, there’s one person and your job is to find him or her. It’s much more freeing to think, “I could be happy with any number of people. I want to find someone whose company I enjoy and who is kind.” That certainly opens the possibilities, which is kind of a relief.
A theme that reoccurs in your book is uncertainty. You find it “audacious,” “irrational” and somewhat alien when people marrying seem so sure of their lifelong love. What’s the problem with certainty?
The narrative goes that you’re dating, you find someone, you enter into an exclusive relationship and at some point it’s going to dawn on you in this unwavering, confident kind of way that “this is the one.”
The problem with that thinking is it implies that the work of romantic love ends there. Obviously the reality is quite different. There aren’t a lot of narratives that tell us what to do after we’ve found a partner. People aren’t equipped to deal with it because we don’t talk about it very often.
I wonder how many people actually feel certain. Even those who do, that certainty comes and goes.
You propose we expand our rigid romantic definitions by looking at less conventional love stories, like happily divorced couples parenting together, gay men fostering a family member’s child, partners living apart or going polyamorous. Why do you think those stories are so relevant?
The script for love is so narrow. It tells us what we should want from love and we tend to take on those desires as if they are our own. The problem with the script is that makes it difficult to think about what it is you actually want. And so whenever we go off the script we tend to feel a lot of anxiety, like we’re failing.
One way to open your sense of what’s possible in love is to consume more diverse stories – to see the many ways love can play out in people’s lives. People can be quite happy with experiences that fall on the margins of the script and way outside of it. Reading these stories I get to figure out the kind of relationship I want with my partner, rather than falling to the predetermined path.
This isn’t a self-help book. Your only advice for “making love last” is generosity: “Be good to the person you’ve chosen.”
The way I’ve come to think of it after doing all this research is that really, my job in my relationship is to be kind to the person that I love. Or if I can’t be kind to that person, then I shouldn’t be in that relationship. It’s a good starting point for thinking through what a relationship could be, what we might look for in a partner and how we might decide when to leave, if you can’t be kind or if someone isn’t kind to us.
This interview has been edited and condensed.