13:54
TEDxChapmanU

Mandy Len Catron: Falling in love is the easy part

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Did you know you can fall in love with anyone just by asking them 36 questions? Mandy Len Catron tried this experiment, it worked, and she wrote a viral article about it (that your mom probably sent you). But … is that real love? Did it last? And what’s the difference between falling in love and staying in love?

- Writer
Mandy Len Catron explores love stories. Full bio

I published this article
00:12
in the New York Times Modern Love column
in January of this year.
00:14
"To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This."
00:18
And the article
is about a psychological study
00:21
designed to create romantic love
in the laboratory,
00:23
and my own experience
trying the study myself
00:26
one night last summer.
00:29
So the procedure is fairly simple:
00:31
two strangers take turns asking each other
36 increasingly personal questions
00:34
and then they stare into each other's eyes
00:41
without speaking for four minutes.
00:44
So here are a couple of sample questions.
00:47
Number 12: If you could wake up tomorrow
having gained any one quality or ability,
00:50
what would it be?
00:56
Number 28: When did you last cry
in front of another person?
00:58
By yourself?
01:02
As you can see, they really do
get more personal as they go along.
01:04
Number 30, I really like this one:
01:08
Tell your partner
what you like about them;
01:10
be very honest this time,
01:13
saying things you might not say
to someone you just met.
01:15
So when I first came across this study
a few years earlier,
01:20
one detail really stuck out to me,
01:25
and that was the rumor
that two of the participants
01:27
had gotten married six months later,
01:30
and they'd invited the entire lab
to the ceremony.
01:33
So I was of course very skeptical
01:37
about this process of just
manufacturing romantic love,
01:40
but of course I was intrigued.
01:43
And when I got the chance
to try this study myself,
01:46
with someone I knew
but not particularly well,
01:50
I wasn't expecting to fall in love.
01:53
But then we did, and --
01:56
(Laughter)
01:59
And I thought it made a good story,
so I sent it to the Modern Love column
02:01
a few months later.
02:05
Now, this was published in January,
02:07
and now it is August,
02:11
so I'm guessing that some of you
are probably wondering,
02:13
are we still together?
02:17
And the reason I think
you might be wondering this
02:19
is because I have been asked this question
02:22
again and again and again
for the past seven months.
02:24
And this question is really
what I want to talk about today.
02:28
But let's come back to it.
02:32
(Laughter)
02:33
So the week before the article came out,
02:36
I was very nervous.
02:38
I had been working
on a book about love stories
02:41
for the past few years,
02:44
so I had gotten used to writing
about my own experiences
02:46
with romantic love on my blog.
02:48
But a blog post might get
a couple hundred views at the most,
02:51
and those were usually
just my Facebook friends,
02:56
and I figured my article
in the New York Times
02:59
would probably get a few thousand views.
03:02
And that felt like a lot of attention
03:06
on a relatively new relationship.
03:08
But as it turned out, I had no idea.
03:12
So the article was published online
03:16
on a Friday evening,
03:18
and by Saturday, this had happened
to the traffic on my blog.
03:20
And by Sunday, both the Today Show
and Good Morning America had called.
03:26
Within a month, the article
would receive over 8 million views,
03:32
and I was, to say the least,
03:37
underprepared for this sort of attention.
03:39
It's one thing to work up
the confidence to write honestly
03:43
about your experiences with love,
03:46
but it is another thing to discover
03:48
that your love life
has made international news --
03:51
(Laughter)
03:54
and to realize
that people across the world
03:55
are genuinely invested
in the status of your new relationship.
03:59
(Laughter)
04:04
And when people called or emailed,
which they did every day for weeks,
04:06
they always asked the same question first:
04:11
are you guys still together?
04:14
In fact, as I was preparing this talk,
04:17
I did a quick search of my email inbox
04:19
for the phrase "Are you still together?"
04:21
and several messages
popped up immediately.
04:23
They were from students and journalists
04:26
and friendly strangers like this one.
04:29
I did radio interviews and they asked.
04:32
I even gave a talk, and one woman
shouted up to the stage,
04:34
"Hey Mandy, where's your boyfriend?"
04:38
And I promptly turned bright red.
04:42
I understand that this
is part of the deal.
04:45
If you write about your relationship
in an international newspaper,
04:48
you should expect people
to feel comfortable asking about it.
04:51
But I just wasn't prepared
for the scope of the response.
04:55
The 36 questions seem
to have taken on a life of their own.
05:00
In fact, the New York Times
published a follow-up article
05:04
for Valentine's Day,
05:07
which featured readers' experiences
of trying the study themselves,
05:09
with varying degrees of success.
05:13
So my first impulse
in the face of all of this attention
05:16
was to become very protective
of my own relationship.
05:21
I said no to every request
for the two of us
05:25
to do a media appearance together.
05:28
I turned down TV interviews,
05:31
and I said no to every request
for photos of the two us.
05:33
I think I was afraid that we would become
05:37
inadvertent icons
for the process of falling in love,
05:39
a position I did not at all
feel qualified for.
05:43
And I get it:
05:48
people didn't just want to know
if the study worked,
05:51
they wanted to know if it really worked:
05:54
that is, if it was capable
of producing love that would last,
05:57
not just a fling, but real love,
sustainable love.
06:01
But this was a question
I didn't feel capable of answering.
06:07
My own relationship
was only a few months old,
06:11
and I felt like people were asking
the wrong question in the first place.
06:13
What would knowing whether or not
we were still together really tell them?
06:20
If the answer was no,
06:24
would it make the experience
of doing these 36 questions
06:25
any less worthwhile?
06:29
Dr. Arthur Aron first wrote
about these questions
06:32
in this study here in 1997,
06:35
and here, the researcher's goal
was not to produce romantic love.
06:40
Instead, they wanted to foster
06:44
interpersonal closeness
among college students,
06:46
by using what Aron called
06:50
"sustained, escalating, reciprocal,
personalistic self-disclosure."
06:52
Sounds romantic, doesn't it?
06:57
But the study did work.
07:01
The participants
did feel closer after doing it,
07:03
and several subsequent studies have also
used Aron's fast friends protocol
07:06
as a way to quickly create
trust and intimacy between strangers.
07:11
They've used it between members
of the police and members of community,
07:15
and they've used it between people
of opposing political ideologies.
07:19
The original version of the story,
07:23
the one that I tried last summer,
07:25
that pairs the personal questions
with four minutes of eye contact,
07:28
was referenced in this article,
07:32
but unfortunately it was never published.
07:34
So a few months ago, I was giving a talk
07:38
at a small liberal arts college,
07:41
and a student came up to me afterwards
07:44
and he said, kind of shyly,
07:46
"So, I tried your study,
and it didn't work."
07:49
He seemed a little mystified by this.
07:54
"You mean, you didn't fall in love
with the person you did it with?" I asked.
07:57
"Well..." He paused.
08:02
"I think she just wants to be friends."
08:04
"But did you become
better friends?" I asked.
08:09
"Did you feel like you got to really
know each other after doing the study?"
08:13
He nodded.
08:16
"So, then it worked," I said.
08:18
I don't think this is the answer
he was looking for.
08:21
In fact, I don't think this is the answer
that any of us are looking for
08:25
when it comes to love.
08:29
I first came across this study
08:32
when I was 29
08:33
and I was going through
a really difficult breakup.
08:35
I had been in the relationship
since I was 20,
08:38
which was basically my entire adult life,
08:41
and he was my first real love,
08:44
and I had no idea how or if
I could make a life without him.
08:46
So I turned to science.
08:51
I researched everything I could find
about the science of romantic love,
08:53
and I think I was hoping that it might
somehow inoculate me from heartache.
08:58
I don't know if I realized
this at the time --
09:03
I thought I was just doing research
for this book I was writing --
09:07
but it seems really obvious in retrospect.
09:10
I hoped that if I armed myself
with the knowledge of romantic love,
09:13
I might never have to feel
as terrible and lonely as I did then.
09:18
And all this knowledge
has been useful in some ways.
09:24
I am more patient with love.
I am more relaxed.
09:28
I am more confident
about asking for what I want.
09:31
But I can also see myself more clearly,
09:35
and I can see that what I want
is sometimes more
09:39
than can reasonably be asked for.
09:43
What I want from love is a guarantee,
09:46
not just that I am loved today
09:50
and that I will be loved tomorrow,
09:52
but that I will continue to be loved
by the person I love indefinitely.
09:54
Maybe it's this possibility of a guarantee
10:01
that people were really asking about
10:04
when they wanted to know
if we were still together.
10:06
So the story that the media told
about the 36 questions
10:10
was that there might be
a shortcut to falling in love.
10:14
There might be a way to somehow
mitigate some of the risk involved,
10:18
and this is a very appealing story,
10:21
because falling in love feels amazing,
10:24
but it's also terrifying.
10:27
The moment you admit to loving someone,
10:30
you admit to having a lot to lose,
10:33
and it's true that these questions
do provide a mechanism
10:36
for getting to know someone quickly,
10:40
which is also a mechanism for being known,
10:43
and I think this is the thing
that most of us really want from love:
10:45
to be known, to be seen, to be understood.
10:50
But I think when it comes to love,
10:55
we are too willing to accept
the short version of the story.
10:57
The version of the story that asks,
"Are you still together?"
11:01
and is content with a yes or no answer.
11:05
So rather than that question,
11:09
I would propose we ask
some more difficult questions,
11:11
questions like:
11:15
How do you decide who deserves your love
11:17
and who does not?
11:20
How do you stay in love
when things get difficult,
11:22
and how do you know
when to just cut and run?
11:26
How do you live with the doubt
11:29
that inevitably creeps
into every relationship,
11:31
or even harder,
11:34
how do you live with your partner's doubt?
11:36
I don't necessarily know
the answers to these questions,
11:39
but I think they're an important start
at having a more thoughtful conversation
11:43
about what it means to love someone.
11:48
So, if you want it,
11:52
the short version of the story
of my relationship is this:
11:54
a year ago, an acquaintance
and I did a study
11:58
designed to create romantic love,
12:01
and we fell in love,
12:04
and we are still together,
12:06
and I am so glad.
12:08
But falling in love is not
the same thing as staying in love.
12:11
Falling in love is the easy part.
12:16
So at the end of my article, I wrote,
"Love didn't happen to us.
12:20
We're in love because we each
made the choice to be."
12:24
And I cringe a little
when I read that now,
12:28
not because it isn't true,
12:32
but because at the time,
I really hadn't considered
12:34
everything that was contained
in that choice.
12:37
I didn't consider how many times
we would each have to make that choice,
12:41
and how many times I will continue
to have to make that choice
12:46
without knowing whether or not
he will always choose me.
12:50
I want it to be enough to have asked
and answered 36 questions,
12:54
and to have chosen to love someone
so generous and kind and fun
12:59
and to have broadcast that choice
in the biggest newspaper in America.
13:04
But what I have done instead
is turn my relationship
13:10
into the kind of myth
I don't quite believe in.
13:14
And what I want, what perhaps
I will spend my life wanting,
13:18
is for that myth to be true.
13:22
I want the happy ending
implied by the title to my article,
13:25
which is, incidentally,
13:30
the only part of the article
that I didn't actually write.
13:31
(Laughter)
13:35
But what I have instead is the chance
to make the choice to love someone,
13:38
and the hope that he will choose
to love me back,
13:43
and it is terrifying,
13:46
but that's the deal with love.
13:49
Thank you.
13:51

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About the Speaker:

Mandy Len Catron - Writer
Mandy Len Catron explores love stories.

Why you should listen

Mandy Len Catron is a writer living and working in Vancouver, BC. She blogs at The Love Story Project, a collage of research, memoir and family mythology. As she says: "I’ve been writing a book about love stories for the past five years and, miraculously, I still haven’t tired of talking about it. If you’d like to share your own story or theory or rant, get in touch at @LenMandy."

More profile about the speaker
Mandy Len Catron | Speaker | TED.com