A few days before Mandy Len Catron’s essay “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This” appeared in Modern Love, she aired some concerns about the coming exposure on her blog, writing that while a few hundred people may see one of her blog posts, thousands would see this column.
She underestimated by about 8 million.
In the essay, Catron told of how she found love by replicating a 20-year-old experiment by the psychologist Arthur Aron that involved two strangers asking each other 36 increasingly personal questions followed by a four-minute staring session to see if doing so would lead to intimacy and love. For Catron and the man she barely knew, the experiment worked.
Readers found this combination of romance and science (with a happy ending) irresistible. Catron’s story went viral, with couples across the country and around the globe trying the questions themselves.
The notion of falling in love from a quiz may sound like a gimmick, but the broad resonance of Aron’s 36 questions may be partly explained by the fact that there is nothing gimmicky about them.
As Aron cautions, this isn’t an experiment that can be easily repeated with a series of romantic prospects, because you risk having canned answers if you keep using the same questions.
Since the essay appeared, we have been receiving reports from strangers and longtime couples who have tried the quiz, often armed with one of several quickly created apps featuring the quiz (The New York Times, in consultation with Aron, has created one as well, at nytimes.com/36questions).
Two weeks after her essay appeared, Catron was still trying to adjust to what it had wrought. She and her boyfriend were at a pizza parlor when he took out his phone and started typing. She assumed he was texting someone, but he slid the phone across to her. It read: “the couple next to us is doing the 36 questions.”
Sure enough, they were. In that moment, the full scope of her article finally hit home.
Here’s a sampling of the stories we have heard.
I recently had a first date with a man I met in a parking lot. I was selling a scanner for $20 and he was the buyer. We had emailed to arrange a place and time. He pulled up a few minutes late, beaming a wonderful smile. I give him the scanner, he handed me $20, and I kept wishing there was a way to stall the transaction.
I had never understood the adage “When you know, you know,” but I get it now. I went home and emailed him that I was worried I gave him the wrong cable (a lie). We continued a back and forth that culminated in me asking him out for a beer.
We cooked a simple meal at my house and talked long past the time when everything got cold. Over tea and cookies, we decided to try the questions, starting at 11 p.m. and finishing at 2 a.m. We had both cried and laughed. Then we sat under the skylight in my closet and stared into each other’s eyes for four minutes. I was surprised at how quickly the time passed.
At the end we talked about whether or not we should kiss, each of us saying that it was as if we were past that point already.
He slept over. When we were in bed, I felt like I should say, “I love you.” I didn’t then, but I could see it happening soon. Maybe he and I would have arrived at the same place without having asked the 36 questions, but I doubt it.
Over the course of two nights with my husband, we answered the questions together over cocktails at our favorite restaurants.
This is my second marriage and his first; we met when we were 41 and 39. I have to admit that sometimes, talking about work and the kids can get boring, and answering the questions brought us closer together. It reminded me of when we first met, and frankly, it was kind of hot. It felt like dating again. It was intimate and a good reminder to reconsider that your partner is not just someone to empty the dishwasher with. There are always opportunities to learn more about each other.
We did the 36 questions on the last night I would see him for an unknown amount of time. We were already in love but didn’t know what that meant anymore. It’s hard to be in love with someone when you’re apart for months.
It was 3 a.m. when we got to the last question. It was his turn to answer.
“I think we need to take a break,” he said.
A couple of hours later, I kissed him goodbye at the airport and won’t be seeing him until June. The questions cemented that I love him. They didn’t make us fall in love, but they made him brave enough to say what needed to be done. And they made me brave enough to accept it.
My partner and I are both in our early 20s and have been together for 2 1/2 years. Tired from school and multiple jobs, we pass out to Netflix most nights. We see each other a lot but aren’t present all of the time.
I pulled up the 36 questions on my phone and we answered them before we went to sleep.
We laughed and cried. Looking into the each other’s eyes for so long was surreal, something we hadn’t done since the puppy-love stage of our relationship. It went by fast, and I never felt more in love.
Modern Love editor Daniel Jones is the author of “Love Illuminated: Exploring Life’s Most Mystifying Subject (with the Help of 50,000 Strangers).”