The New York Times recently published an op-ed suggesting that romantic love can be, at least in part, manufactured. The article’s author, Mandy Len Catron, references a decades-old scientific experiment in which two strangers underwent a carefully structured encounter designed to produce a romantic relationship. They began by asking each other thirty-six questions of gradually escalating intimacy and then spent four minutes staring into each other’s eyes. The experiment was apparently a success, as the couple was married months later. Ms. Catron, eager to gain some control over her love life, recently attempted to replicate the experiment with an attractive acquaintance. Although a few variables couldn’t be repeated, the result was the same: Ms. Catron and her date ostensibly fell in love, and, at the time the article was written, are still in a relationship. Thanks, science. We’ve been culturally conditioned to believe that love is a mysterious circumstance, a serendipitous series of auspicious events that culminate, almost suddenly, into a fulfilling, effortless, ethereal relationship.
Based on the popularity of this article, it’s safe to say that readers find this scientific approach to love, at the very least, intriguing. Humans have spent centuries getting themselves tangled in love through various means. Some couples claim love at first sight. Others spend years in a platonic, or even hostile, relationship before finding themselves attracted to their partner. Even more disconcerting are those who claim that one day, after years of blissful partnership, they awoke to find themselves firmly planted outside the boundaries of love. The bewildering experience of love is so surreal and colossal that it seems only natural to attempt to define and capture the essence of what sparks and fuels romance. The premise of this love experiment is understandable, if not downright genius.
But even for an open-minded student of romance, there’s something about Ms. Catron’s approach that seems emotionally detached, clinical, and almost too scientific. The idea that two strangers, randomly matched, could engage in a single conversation, some eye contact, and then live happily ever after sounds fairly contrived. This kind of arrangement is reminiscent of a dystopia in which all couples are matched not because of choice but because of test results, confident that affection will follow technical compatibility. Presumably, there are as many ways to fall in love, and out of love, as there are people, and reducing romance down to a formula seems to discount this immense variability. And yet, the scientists who created this study would remind us to consider the results. However sterile and artificial this method may be, the fact remains that this approach worked, and if we believe Ms. Catron, continues to work. The question we should then ask is not if, but how.
Perhaps the most compelling truth about the romantic experiment isn’t that the process itself causes two people to fall in love. Rather, it successfully invites each participant to both give and receive love. It transforms the identity of each person—they are no longer strangers to one another, but potential soulmates, deep sources of love and admiration and companionship. It sounds like a simple decision, but it’s a monumental one, involving emotional vulnerability, intimate honesty, and, most notably, a willingness to fundamentally change one’s perspective. The thirty-six curated questions are meant to bring out each person’s narrative, inviting them to confess fears, share joys, divulge secrets, and recount pasts. This is the thoughtful, conscious, intentional, compressed construction of community, and it works not because of magic or science, but because of will. Each person chooses to be present and participate. That is a formidable paradigm shift, one that can invoke a lifelong commitment and, eventually, start a new family.
We’ve been culturally conditioned to believe that love is a mysterious circumstance, a serendipitous series of auspicious events that culminate, almost suddenly, into a fulfilling, effortless, ethereal relationship. Many of us, perhaps unwittingly, believe that love happens to us. This is certainly true of our early lives; many of us are fortunate that our first earthly experiences are wrapped up in unconditional love. But soon thereafter, our opportunities to offer love are solely at our discretion. It hearkens back to a fundamental element of our individual humanity—the idea that we are people of agency. We are told that, being created in the Imago Dei, we are called to a deliberate life. Circumstance may influence our choices, but it does not dictate them. The constant in our lives is not fate, but choice. We may choose to offer kindness, respect, and comraderie to whomever we select.
Ms. Catron and her partner fell in love because they wanted to. And this is good news—gospel news, in fact. Fulfillment of Christ’s commands to love one another, to be faithful in accountability and live in community, are achievable. It is simply a matter of changing perspectives, of looking at strangers as people who are worthy of love because they are created beings. Ms. Catron understands this truth. She says,
But I see now that the story isn’t about us; it’s about what it means to bother to know someone, which is really a story about what it means to be known.
We can build authentic community that is grounded in love if we choose the right perspective, ask the hard questions, and commit to engage with one another. It’s more intentionality than science, deeper than magic and stronger than fate. Love as action, the very will of God.