The New York Times' "Modern Love" column of January 9, "To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This," garnered more than 5.2 million online visits, 365,000 "Shares" on Facebook, and 745 comments. A reader even set up the fall-in-love procedure as a game on a website. People are desperate for love.
Writer Mandy Len Catron successfully tried "a Cupid-like technique to help two strangers fall in love," a series of 36 personal questions a pair asks each other, developed two decades ago by psychologist Arthur Aron. The process culminates in a four-minute eyeball-to eyeball stare-down. After a 45-minute interchange and gazing through the windows of the soul, the couple feels in sync.
Mandy Len Catron's take-away lesson: By building closeness through introspective communication, "it's possible--simple, even--to generate trust and intimacy, the feelings love needs to thrive."
If it's "simple, even" to create trust and intimacy, wouldn't it be even simpler to rekindle the same feelings, once entrenched and now faded? To re-fall in love, and avoid divorce?
Two married people drifting apart emotionally could take only a single hour answering 36 questions to steer themselves back together. With such an easy formula for closeness, why wouldn't every estranged couple give it a try? Revealing feelings is a lot less traumatic than moving out; a lot less costly than court; a lot less acrimonious than deciding custody.
Here's why not: willingness. Or lack thereof.
Willingness is a choice, of course. And certainly people have justifiable reasons to refuse. Justifiable, but often sadly selfish.
Perhaps withdrawing is the culmination of years of small slights, hurting comments or unfair expectations. And certainly there are times when a spouse feels so betrayed she can't bear the offender. (Divorce is indeed necessary in some cases.) But even after resentment and anger replace a chunk of original affection, a couple can still decide to set the bad stuff aside in order to choose closeness.
But few people now learn to put others ahead of themselves. The concept of self-sacrifice has abysmally low ratings.
Still, most who enter marriage claim intentions of "forever," and want the relationship to work (as long as it satisfies). A functioning, pleasurable, life-enhancing relationship for both partners is the prize--but it requires willingness to put others ahead of yourself.
Stubbornness is selfishness--and keeps too many partners from deciding to give in to the other. The 36 questions shift the focus. How can you stay estranged when you're telling your partner personal insights like your secret hunch about how you'll die? About why you haven't accomplished what you've dreamed of doing? About your feelings regarding your mother?
In the exercise, moving from your deepest interior life into questions focusing on the other cements the connection. "If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know." The process climaxes with 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."
Why are these 36 questions so effective at producing love between strangers (and non-strangers, too)? Because embedded in the questioning is a course on communicating and bonding. The questions require looking inward about memories, emotions and desires (ie one's past, present and future).
They require forming these thoughts into cogent words, phrases and paragraphs--expressing one's interior--and checking to see that the receiver understood. This involves offering oneself to the other, becoming vulnerable; when both do this they form a relationship combining the two individuals.
The entire process rests on a bond and a goal--a commitment (bond) to work together to connect, "to fall in love with anyone" (goal).
That's marriage: A bond that supersedes a declaration, and an ongoing goal. Everyone knows how tough it is to undo the legal contract; neglect alone can dissolve the emotional bond. But few articulate that the goal, called by the 36 questions game "falling in love with anyone," must be pursued by daily choices placing the spouse, and the relationship, first.
The goal of marriage is continuing to fall in love, every day, every moment, with "anyone," the person you've got sitting in front of you, the person you may know better than all others, and still not yet know because he changes all the time. Understanding those changes brings closeness, the substance of love, and all you have to do is choose to keep asking the questions. And gazing into each others' eyes.
(Dedicated to the love of my life, as we celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary January 27, 2015.) The 36 questions can be found here.