By Kayla Dean | July 7, 2017 | People
When Mandy Len Catron wrote an article for the New York Times that suggested you could fall in love with anyone by asking them just 36 questions, it’s no surprise that it became one of the most popular essays of 2015. Readers were captivated by the experiment Catron conducted on a first date, which led to a long-term partnership. Because Catron popularized a little-known psychological study about the 36 questions that lead to love, millions have tried the same experiment with their partners, friends, and loved ones in the hopes of changing the way they think about relationships. The essay even inspired an episode of The Big Bang Theory.
Catron’s first book, How To Fall in Love With Anyone, expounds on the essay in a deeply personal collection that interrogates our cultural script for relationships through research and personal experience. Ahead of her appearance at Book People on July 9, we caught up with the English professor and TED speaker to get her thoughts on creating lasting relationships, how the 36 questions can help you find love, and why she's excited to visit Austin.
What initially made you interested in the 36 questions that lead to love? What motivated you to write about them?
Initially, I started doing research on romantic love after my parents told me they were divorcing. I was 26 and as far as I knew, everything in their marriage had been great. I was totally shocked. Part of the reason I started was because I thought that divorce was the wrong ending to their love story. I started thinking about that and it occurred to me that maybe I didn’t know much about love at all.
Because I teach students how to do academic research and writing, I think it seemed natural for me to take that same approach. I started working on my book about 7 years ago, before I wrote my article for the New York Times. I came across Arthur Aron’s study a couple of years into that research and thought it was really interesting and so I just sort of filed it away and it happened to come up one day.
How To Fall in Love With Anyone takes on big questions about love. How do you attempt to answer them through your personal and family history?
I think it’s hard to look closely at some of the mistakes you made when you were younger. It was hard for me to spend time thinking about all the assumptions that I made about romantic love and the way that I had brought those into my romantic relationships. It was definitely worth doing because it helped me really think about what exactly I want from love and how I want to experience it and the extent to which I have some say over that. Ultimately, it makes my life much better in many ways.
I think romantic love is such a big part of our lives and in many ways we want to exert a lot of agency in things like our careers, where we go to school, and who are friends are, but for whatever reason we are often so willing turn our romantic life over to fate or destiny. If you think about it, it’s sort of a crazy thing to do. It has such a big influence on our happiness and wellbeing and how we spend our time. So for me, it was kind of a relief to feel like I didn’t have to be passive.
In the book, you tell readers more about the first date you wrote about in the article. You ended up in a relationship that a lot of people were curious about. Were you surprised that this psychological experiment could work in your own life?
I was definitely surprised that it could work. In general, I am fairly skeptical of things that seem like easy answers to difficult problems. It’s important to keep in mind that the study really doesn’t guarantee love to anyone. But I do think the really amazing thing about the study and the thing that does seem to consistently work for many people is that it creates a sense of closeness and a sense of trust. I’ve heard from lots of people who have done it and then gotten married, but I’ve also heard from people who have used it with friends or with siblings or as a way to get closer to someone they don’t know that well in a non-romantic environment. So, I think of it more as a tool than a guarantee.
What would you say to those people who are looking for love? What is the best thing they can do to put themselves out there?
Maybe the best way to find love is just to be open—to figure out what you want—but just to be open to a variety of different experiences of love. One of the central arguments I make in the book is to notice the dominant script we have in our culture about how love should look, or the right way to love people. Going beyond this script and thinking about other ways that love might be a meaningful part of lives can be very transformative.
What do you think captivates so many people about love? Why is it that this essay had such a staying power?
I’ve thought about this a lot, and I feel like the main thing is that love often feels really mysterious, like we can’t know love and we can’t control it, that it’s something that we just have to let happens to us. That can feel really disempowering. The fact is that everyone wants to be known and they want to feel close to someone else. It’s a really scary thing to say, “let me tell you about intimate details of my life.” But, it is much more comfortable to ask, “Hey, would you like to try this cool experiment?” It creates a mechanism for people to create the intimacy they want.
What are you working on now that you’ve completed the book?
One of the things that I started a few months ago is an evidence-based relationship advice column for The Rumpus, which is in line with what I write about in the book. The idea is that so often, when people give relationship advice, it’s based on intuition or it reinforces the choices they made in their lives. I didn’t want to take that approach. So, I have readers send in letters about some sort of relationship dilemma and I just do some research to try and answer their questions. I learn a lot in the process, and there’s a lot of interesting information out there that isn’t necessarily making it into the mainstream. I’m definitely looking for more people to send in letters.
What do you like most about Austin?
I’ve only been once! But what I love about this city is the food. I don’t know if I can name a specific place, but I did eat a lot of tacos and barbeque. Or barbeque tacos. It was amazing.