Relationships are hard. They can bring out the best in us, yes, but also the worst. They test the very essence of our beings: our capacity for forgiveness; our ability to trust (both ourselves and another); the true extent of our self-love; the strength of our boundaries; and the power of attachment.
Anything that can help bring us together, then, should be explored. And one scientific finding about love rises above others in the literature, if only for its rom-com level of magic.
Yes, I'm talking about the study made famous by the viral New York Times article by psychologist Mandy Len Catron. It not only outlined the original study, but backed it up by revealing that Catron herself had tested the concept ... and fallen in love with her question-answering companion.
The original research was conducted by psychologist Arthur Aron at Stony Brook University. He split participants up into two groups, then had people pair up to talk to one another for 45 minutes. One group made small talk; the other received a list of 36 questions they went through one at a time -- a list that got increasingly more personal. They then shared four minutes of sustained eye contact.
If there was ever a question of whether you can generate intimacy in a lab setting, it was answered by this study. Six months later, one of the pairs was in love. When they got married, they invited the whole lab staff to the ceremony.
When Catron, author of the New York Times piece, did the questions with an acquaintance, she wasn't totally prepared, especially for the eye contact at the end:
"[T]he real crux of the moment was not just that I was really seeing someone, but that I was seeing someone really seeing me. Once I embraced the terror of this realization and gave it time to subside, I arrived somewhere unexpected."
The unexpected place? It was a state of being more than anything, and one that led to more connection than perhaps either thought possible.
"I wondered what would come of our interaction. If nothing else, I thought it would make a good story. But I see now that the story isn't about us; it's about what it means to bother to know someone, which is really a story about what it means to be known."
We all want to be known. We want to be known by our friends, our colleagues, our family members, even our neighbors. We want to be seen for what we have to offer, what we provide, for who we are.
But the person we often crave to feel most known by is our partner. This is the person with whom we share the most intimate details of our lives (not to mention our bodies). It's the person who sees us at our best and our worst. The one who knows our history and is a primary part of our future.
We want them to know us -- really know us, and these questions can help. As Catron says, "Most of us think about love as something that happens to us," she said. "We fall. We get crushed. But what I like about this study is how it assumes that love is an action."
There are lots of ways to celebrate upcoming Valentine's Day. This year, consider doing something different. If you're not in a relationship, propose doing this experiment with someone you've always thought was interesting but have yet to take the leap with. What do you have to lose?
And if you're in a relationship, skip the fancy dinner or other high-pressure, conventional thing.
Instead, grab a bottle of wine and make the choice to commit to the magic of the questions. Allow the vulnerability of the answers to carry you even closer together. Take on the challenge of revealing yourself even more deeply to the person you cherish most in the world, and revel in the soul-deep connection that can ensue.
Fall in love.
1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?
3. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?4. What would constitute a "perfect" day for you?
5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
6. 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?
7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
11. Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
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?
14. Is there something that you've dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven't you done it?
15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
16. What do you value most in a friendship?
17. What is your most treasured memory?
18. What is your most terrible memory?
19. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
20. What does friendship mean to you?
21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?
22. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people's?
24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
25. Make three true "we" statements each. For instance, "We are both in this room feeling _______."
26. Complete this sentence: "I wish I had someone with whom I could share _______."
27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
28. Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you've just met.
29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
31. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
33. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven't you told them yet?
34. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
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.