The New York Times recently put up a list of 36 questions that can, in theory, help you fall in love with someone. They’re from a study by psychologist Arthur Aron (et al), and snappily referred to as the ‘Closeness-Generating Procedure‘. In short, they’re designed to accelerate intimacy, to get you to reveal the kinds of things that can take months or years in just a few minutes. They’re not actually designed for falling in love with people, but rather for inducing scientifically-validated closeness that can be compared across studies – but that hasn’t stopped love-hungry humans seizing on them as a way to engineer emotion.
The New York Times’ writer, Mandy Len Catron, tried the questions with a university acquaintance she’d had her eye on for a while, and they apparently worked. Buzzfeed’s writers tried them with blind dates, people they’d been dating for a short while, and long-term couples with varying results.
But what if someone tried the questions with someone they’d split up with? And not only an ex, but someone they’d just stopped seeing, while the wounds were still raw?
Well, that sounds horrible. I’m in.
Admittedly, we weren’t seeing each other for very long before I called it off. It had been about a month: the very definition of the burn hot, burn quick relationships a lot of us seem to have in these Tinder-tinged times.
We met on Twitter initially, and I’m pretty sure I followed him because he has a really cool surname. No, seriously. That’s not a marriage joke, it’s just a cool name, and I’m a sucker for one of those. We’d had a few conversations (embarrassingly, including one that transferred to email that I didn’t even remember when he mentioned it. “Oh, that was you?!” – smooth), then ended up meeting at his birthday party. I already had a birthday party that night, but promised I’d come after if his was still going. It was, and we hit it off.
Unfortunately, it didn’t last. Lots of dates later – including a really awesome day of watching Terminator films in bed with takeaway – we started getting at each other a bit. Our last date was at a burger joint in Soho, where I got frustrated by him complaining that he was sooo tired (it was my one free evening all week, and I’d been at work since 8am, whereas he starts at 11) and generally looking bored. It became really clear that he didn’t know much about me and hadn’t tried to find out, which irritated me – I’d been interviewed on BBC radio that week and he hadn’t even listened. So he was tired and I was grumpy, and I broke it off the next day.
Oh, and did I mention that right in the middle of our first month, I was in The Guardian talking about how I never want kids and keep trying to get sterilised? Yeah, that’s exactly what you need when you’ve just started seeing someone. Understandably, it freaked him out.
Given these sad circumstances, could the love questions come to the rescue? Nope…
“I’m really nervous about this”
The guy, let’s call him Alex, agreed to do the questions – but was pretty worried about it. Both in terms of revealing that much information to me, and what I’d write about him. But he agreed nonetheless – and then told me that he’d actually been hoping we could talk about seeing each other again. I said we should do it after the love questions, to see if they worked. No pressure, then.
The questions started off fairly badly. Alex couldn’t think of answers easily, and I was visibly unimpressed when he said if he could choose anyone in the world to have dinner with, he’d go for Kanye West. KANYE WEST?!
He talked over me a lot, too. I rarely reached the end of my answers, and gave up several times. It particularly frustrated me when I’d get two or three words into an answer and he’d tell me how he felt about that particular thing instead of listening – when I said I was grateful for Twitter, he talked about how many followers he’s gained since getting verified. This pattern really reinforced what I’d said when I was breaking it off: he’s just not interested in finding out more about me. Even in the questions where he had to say something positive about me, he managed to mar it with negativity, saying that he likes my outspokenness “in parts.” Which parts? Not discussing my stance on having kids in the paper, I’m guessing.
Nonetheless, we kept going until we reached “tell your life story in 4 minutes.” Alex struggled to sum up his existence and mostly told me about what he’d studied at school, whereas I reeled off a tale of tragedy, loss and horror that seemed to render him speechless. I’ve had a fairly dramatic life. We took a drinks break at that point, and I think we were both feeling a bit drained. There was a palpable resistance to sharing that I hadn’t expected – I’m quite an open person, but found myself not wanting to tell certain parts of my story or answer certain questions, and he felt the same. We actually ended up skipping a few.
At some points, I got frustrated with Alex not playing along – he’d over-analyse the questions and then refuse to answer because they were too open-ended. For instance, question 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?” – yes, that’s a hard question, but Alex didn’t want to know anything about himself (even straightforward things like whether he’d get married, or be successful) and decided the “anything else” was too broad. I thought declining to answer was a bit of a cop-out when we were supposed to be sharing – it wasn’t going to work if we didn’t do it properly, surely.
Two questions later, it became clear that it was never going to work in the first place.
Question 15 on the list is “What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?”. Fairly straightforward, you’d think. Alex again decided he couldn’t answer, so we skipped to me. I talked about an advertising campaign I’d got banned, because it made light of the way my father died and could encourage suicides. Alex said he remembered the campaign, and had actually written a newspaper article when it was banned (he’s a journalist).
“It didn’t mention you, though. It was just about the backlash to the ad.”
“It HAD to mention me. I was the backlash to the ad. You couldn’t have written the story without that bit.”
He looked at me skeptically, as if I were vastly overestimating my own importance. But I wasn’t. We continued sparring for a bit, until he eventually decided to settle things by finding the article he wrote. Sure as you like, he’d named me in it, and even included a quote. He passed his phone to me, somewhat reluctantly, to let me see what he’d written, and could see on my face that I was hurt. It was a cold, dispassionate piece that listed the details of my father’s death alongside a comment about the effect on the company’s profits. It was heartless, and I was upset.
Alex pressed me for details as to why I was disappointed, and I told him. He got very defensive, explaining that his job had just been to report the news, not to react emotionally to it. I said I could tell he hadn’t even read my painfully personal open letter to the company whose ad it was, and that he’d just yanked the quote from another publication. He protested, we argued, he got very angry and I got very upset. My reaction wasn’t rational, but we were talking about my beloved dad, and I felt like he’d been slighted by lazy journalism. The other outlets that reported on the story, I said, had all commented on what an emotional letter it was, how heartfelt – his article left out all the humanity. Again, he disagreed.
At this point, he was giving me a death stare that could boil water, and I kept trying to make it OK by saying “It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter.” Eventually I asked him if I should leave. He said he didn’t know.
We decided – amazingly – to carry on with the questions. I was desperate to change the subject and didn’t want to leave things this way. So we pressed on, and gradually anger faded into normality, and we were OK again. I even made a joke about the whole thing and we laughed in relief – although there was an awkward silence when I mentioned my dad in my “most treasured memory.”
At the end of the questions, Alex seemed a bit disappointed – he’d thought there were more. But there was one last task: to stare into each other’s eyes for four minutes, not talking or looking away. We set a timer, but did a terrible job – we laughed, looked away, blinked, checked the timer – everything but staring lovingly at each other. It didn’t help that the pub table meant there was considerable distance between us, but honestly I think it would have been hard anyway, given the argument.
At the end of the four minutes, Alex said he felt as if he’d run an emotional marathon, and kept commenting on how drained and deflated he was. It reminded me a lot of our last date in the burger place, where he kept bringing up his tiredness. Commenting that he’d been “pretty happy” until we did the questions didn’t help, either – it made me feel guilty for pressing them on him.
I asked if he’d like to go home, and he said he would, because he didn’t want it to turn into our last date again (too late). Before we left, though, I thought I’d better ask if we were still going to discuss seeing each other again – obviously, after our giant row, this was looking fairly unlikely, but I wanted to have a definitive answer on record so we could categorically say the questions hadn’t worked. He replied that he didn’t know how he felt about it. And we left.
It probably sounds surprising given what happened that night, but Alex and I are still good friends. We haven’t had the ‘should we?’ discussion again, and I think we probably won’t. A lot of the issues I considered when I said we should stop seeing one another raised their heads again during the questions, and although I no longer feel hurt about his article on my dad, his reaction to mine was telling. He wasn’t sorry. He was angry.
So did the questions work? A resounding ‘no’. Fundamentally, Alex and I are not meant to be, and no amount of “What’s your most treasured memory?” is going to change that. Sorry, science.
Main image via Flickr Creative Commons.