Ever wondered where the path to true love lies? Well now we have the answer – and it’s nothing to do with Jennifer Aniston or Ryan Reynolds. The way to make anyone fall in love with you (and if you’ve found someone willing to try then that’s half the battle won already) is to ask them 36 questions, ranging from, “Would you like to be famous?” (question 2) to, “ How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?” (question 24) and even, “When did you last cry in front of another person – or by yourself?” (question 30).
The questions, which are designed to foster intimacy by creating an atmosphere of mutual vulnerability, become increasingly probing, taking us beyond the limits of our everyday, sharing-things-with-strangers-at-the-bus-stop comfort barriers.
Unsurprisingly, it’s easy to exchange musings about the weather, but much more intimidating to swap stories about your “secret hunch about how you will die” (question 7) or “the last time you sang to yourself – or to someone else” (question 5).
But if you’re tempted to try, then persevere – for if you get through all 36, as psychologist Arthur Aron mooted in his original 1997 experiment, then you greatly enhance the probability of forging a lasting relationship with your partner. After all, you can either spend the rest of your life in disguise after admitting “your most terrible memory” (question 18) or “the most embarrassing moment in your life” (question 29), or marry them. And six months after Aron’s study, in which 52 sets of male and female strangers and 19 sets of all-female strangers were thrown together in a lab under these conditions, one pair did exactly that.
The chances are, if you spend four minutes telling someone else your life story in as much detail as possible, and then spend time actively listening to theirs, rather than simply swapping small talk, something will change between you. It is this "sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure", the authors concluded, that leads to a “key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers”.
Mandy Len Catron tried it, writing in the New York Times of her experiences – and she also added in Aron’s final (and frankly terrifying) task of staring silently into each other’s eyes for four minutes (spoiler alert: she’s in love).
Romantic comedy fans may balk at the idea of artificially creating the conditions for love, and insist that it’s beyond our control; but perhaps what this study shows most poignantly of all is that we long to be listened to.
Most of all, in a world where it’s more comfortable to gaze into the cracked screens of our iPhones than to look into each other’s eyes, and easier to text, tweet or Tinder than to focus on what someone else “feels most grateful for in life” (question 9); we want to know… that someone really wants to know.
A recent study, carried out by University of Surrey psychologists, found that the overall amount of time which is actually spent with family and with engagement in self-related activities “is reduced by (mobile phone and laptop) use”, and research published last year in the US journal Computers in Human Behaviour found a correlation between social media use and divorce rates.
I’m often told I ask too many questions, the result of my job as a journalist, perhaps – or simply an inherent nosiness. On first meeting, I’ll fire off four to five lines of inquiry that leave the recipient breathless (if I’ve actually allowed them to take a breath); and it takes hours to get through the simplest of anecdotes because of a nagging necessity for every last detail.
“You got locked out of the house, you say? In your pyjamas? Were they tweed, gingham or silk? And were you wearing slippers?”
But taking time out to ask the stuff that really matters, and – more importantly, to listen to the answers – could be the key to successful, happy relationships.
Now, who’s got a spare four minutes?
36 questions that could help you 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.
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