Cristina-Indrie/ShutterstockMore than 20 years ago, the psychologist Arthur Aron succeeded in making two strangers fall in love in his laboratory. Two summers ago, I applied his technique in my own life, which is how I found myself standing on a bridge at midnight, staring into a man’s eyes for four minutes. (Don’t miss these touching stories on how 28 real-life couples fell in love.)
Let me explain. Earlier in the evening, that man and I were hanging out for the first time one-on-one. He was a university acquaintance I occasionally ran into at the climbing gym and had thought, What if? We were nursing our first beers when our conversation took an unexpected turn, and he said, “I suspect, given a few commonalities, you could fall in love with anyone. If so, how do you choose someone?”
“Actually, psychologists have tried making people fall in love,” I said, remembering Dr. Aron’s study.
I explained the study to my friend. A man and a woman enter the lab through separate doors. They sit face-to-face and ask each other a series of increasingly personal questions. Then they stare silently into each other’s eyes for exactly four minutes. Six months later, the two were married.
“Let’s try it,” he said.
Let me acknowledge that, first, we were in a bar, not a lab. Second, we weren’t strangers. Not only that, but I see now that one neither suggests nor agrees to try an experiment designed to create romantic love if one isn’t open to this happening.
I Googled Dr. Aron’s questions; there were 36, which you can check out here. We spent the next two hours passing my iPhone across the table, alternately posing each question. They began innocuously: “Would you like to be famous? In what way?” And “When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?”
But they quickly became probing.
In response to the prompt “Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common,” he looked at me and said, “I think we’re both interested in each other.”
I grinned and gulped my beer as he listed two more commonalities I then promptly forgot. We exchanged stories about the last time we’d each cried and confessed the one thing we’d like to ask a fortune-teller. We explained our relationships with our mothers. I liked learning about myself through my answers, but I liked learning things about him even more.
We all have a narrative of ourselves that we offer up to strangers and acquaintances, but Dr. Aron’s questions make it impossible to rely on that narrative. The moments I found most uncomfortable were not when I had to make confessions about myself but when I had to venture opinions about my partner. For example: “Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things you might not say to someone you’ve just met.”
It’s astounding, really, to hear what someone admires in you. I don’t know why we don’t thoughtfully compliment one another all the time.
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We finished at midnight, taking far longer than the 90 minutes for the original study. Looking around the bar, I felt as if I had just woken up. “That wasn’t so bad,” I said. “Definitely less uncomfortable than the staring into each other’s eyes part would be.”
He hesitated and asked, “Do you think we should do that too?”
“Here?” I looked around the bar. It seemed too weird, too public.
“We could stand on the bridge,” he said, turning toward the window.
The night was warm. We walked to the highest point, then turned to face each other. I fumbled with my phone as I set the timer.
“OK,” I said, inhaling sharply.
“OK,” he said, smiling.
I’ve skied steep slopes and hung from a rock face, but staring into someone’s eyes for four silent minutes was one of the more thrilling and terrifying experiences of my life. I spent a couple of minutes just trying to breathe properly. Eventually, we settled in.
I know the eyes are the windows to the soul, but the real crux of the moment was not just that I was really seeing someone but that I was seeing someone really seeing me. Once the terror subsided, I arrived somewhere unexpected.
I felt brave and in a state of wonder. Part of that wonder was at my own vulnerability, and part was the weird kind of wonder you get from saying a word over and over until it loses its meaning and becomes what it actually is: an assemblage of sounds.
So it was with the eye. The sentiment associated with that clump of nerves fell away, and I was struck by its astounding biological reality: the spherical nature of the eyeball, the visible musculature of the iris, and the smooth wet glass of the cornea. It was strange and exquisite.
When the timer buzzed, I was surprised—and a little relieved.
Most of us think about love as something that happens to us. But this study assumes that love is an action, that what matters to my partner matters to me because we have at least three things in common, because we have close relationships with our mothers, and because he let me look at him.
It’s true you can’t choose who loves you, and you can’t create romantic feelings based on convenience alone. Science tells us our pheromones and hormones do a lot of the work.
But despite this, I’ve begun to think love is a more pliable thing than we make it out to be. Arthur Aron’s study taught me that it’s possible—simple, even—to generate trust and intimacy, the feelings love needs to thrive.
You’re probably wondering if he and I fell in love. We did. Although it’s hard to credit the study entirely, it did give us a way into a relationship that feels deliberate. We spent weeks in the intimate space we’d created that night, waiting to see what it could become.
Love didn’t happen to us. We’re in love because we each made the choice to be.