But what if falling in love is actually a recipe - where all you need is one partner, three dozen questions, and four uninterrupted minutes of looking deeply into each other’s eyes?
Arthur Aron, professor of psychology at the State University of New York, is now famous for developing 36 questions that bring people closer together - most recently brought into the limelight by an iconic New York Times Modern Love column.
Some of the questions are pretty innocuous; others confronting.
Completed all at once, they can be a shortcut to intimacy in an hour.
How the questions came about
In 1967, Arthur Aron found two profound things: love, and the basis of his life’s work.
“When I was in graduate school, in social psychology, the culture back then was to look for a topic that people don’t think can be studied scientifically - and do it,” Arthur Aron told Hack.
“I fell deeply in love with Elaine Aron, my long term partner and collaborator. I looked around and there was almost no research on love. So I said, ‘there’s my topic’.”
Thirty years later, the Arons published the results of their study’s “closeness-generating procedure”, or what we now know as the 36 questions that lead to love.
“The idea was that we wanted to study what goes on with closeness, how does it affect your hormones, your brain, your behaviour,” Dr Aron explains.
The questions ended up having a knack not only for generating closeness between strangers, but making them fall in love.
“The very first couple that pilot tested the questions were research assistants in our lab involved in some other research, they didn’t know what this was about.
They actually fell in love and got married, and invited the rest of the lab to their wedding.”
Why the questions bring people together
The questions are divided into three sections (read them at the end of this article), which gradually become more and more intense.
One of the first questions asks if you’d like to famous; one of the last asks which death in your family you would find most disturbing.
“One of the main things [about these questions] is self-disclosure. Revealing things about yourself, and going both ways, and it has to be gradual,” Dr Aron says.
“If you say too much too fast, it puts the person off. But if you start with something that’s not too personal and then gradually move to personal, both are comfortable and it develops a great deal of closeness. We have a few questions in there that are things like, ‘name some things you’ve noticed about the other person that you like,’ or ‘name some things that you have in common with the other person.’
“Turns out that actually being similar doesn’t matter very much, but believing you’re similar matters a huge amount. And if the information matches your own information, especially with attitudes, you’re more likely to like them and want to get to know them.”
There’s been a lot of hype around the 36 questions: the New York Times column, threads on Reddit gushing about its success, apps, Youtube experiments and articles galore.
But do the questions bring people closer together, and keep them close? Or is it temporary?
“There’s been not much study of long term impact, most of our studies have looked at the effect in the lab. After doing this procedure, an hour later people report being very close to the other person, but what that would be six months later, we don’t know,” Professor Aron says.
“The one place where it has been looked at with a little bit bigger and longer term effects, is with pairs of married couples. The not only get closer to the married couple, but they get closer and increase the passionate love for their own partner.”
What about unrequited love?
Falling in love is the best thing about romance, Dr Aron says; getting rejected is the worst.
“What we know is that [unrequited love] is very common. Almost everyone has experienced it once in their life. Typically it happens where the person is appropriate for you, and you have misinterpreted something they did initially as indicating they make like you,” Dr Aron says.
“How you react depends on what we call attachment style which comes from how you were raised. If you were raised in a way with parents that were very unavailable or difficult or even abusive, you may be what we call ‘avoidant’. Avoidants actually have the best experience with unrequited love, because they’re not really looking for a relationship.
“Then there’s what we call ‘ambivalents’, and these are people who were raised with parents who were inconsistent - sometimes very there and sometimes not very there. Ambivalents tend to be really attracted to people, but don’t believe they’ll be attracted back, and they’re the ones who suffer the most.
“Then there are the majority of people who are called ‘secures’, who had reasonably okay upbringings, and for them it’s not as common to have intense unrequited love, and usually when they do it it’s through a mistake and understanding of the other’s response.
When people are rejected, of course it’s very hard on them. But it does get better over time. That’s hard to tell people, they don’t want to hear it - but in fact it does.”
The secret to a long, loving relationship
Arthur Aron has spent his life studying love, and he’s been with his wife Elaine for fifty years. So what’s the secret?
Dr Aron says that there’s four major things that can put strain on a relationship and make it worse: poor mental health in either partner, a life-changing stress like the death of a child, poor quality of friends or family around you, and poor communication skills.
Keeping those things in balance as best you can will strengthen a relationship, Dr Aron says, and there’s also a few things that can go a step further.
“One of the biggest is doing exciting, challenging, novel things with your partner on a fairly regular basis. Turns out that’s really impactful on increasing the passionate love and maintaining it and rekindling it.
“Another one that’s very easy for couples to do is called capitalisation. It’s important of course to support your partner when things go badly, but it’s important in terms of making things good in your relationship, to celebrate their successes.”
Try out the 36 questions with a partner or stranger below. Did you have a surprising result? Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The 36 questions
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.
Final task / suggestion: Stare into each other’s eyes for four minutes.