We sometimes think of it as a four-letter word, but here on the eve of the great day of celebrating it, let’s talk about L-O-V-E.
Remember how simple Valentine’s Day used to be? Mom would buy the pack of perforated cartoon salutations and we would simply fill in the names of each of our classmates. “To:_______ From: Monica.”
That special someone, you know the one that left you tongue-tied and that you were thinking about a little too much, would cause you to pause. Which message from Charlie Brown and the gang best conveyed exactly how you were feeling? Should you write a special message other than Snoopy’s clever quip? Or, should you make a special card, or pick out a fancier, bigger one that would proclaim to all how you were feeling?
Who am I kidding? It didn’t feel at all simple then, certainly no simpler than it does now because, let’s face it, L-O-V-E very simply is “complicated.”
In 1997, social psychology researcher Arthur Aron published the results of his study on how to generate love with a stranger in his essay “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness.” The idea was relatively simple, a list of 36 questions that you could spend 45 minutes exploring with a stranger and by the end you would be in love. Could it really be that simple?
I didn’t hear about the study until a few years ago when The New York Times published an essay by Mandy Len Catron titled “To Fall In Love With Anyone, Do This” in Dan Jones’ Modern Love column. In it, she and a relatively new acquaintance decide to try it and she talks about the results and her thoughts about the experience.
Her essay immediately went viral and there was a rash of testing and discussion of the idea, including an episode of “The Big Bang Theory” in which the characters Penny and Sheldon ask the questions of each other, then end with the requisite four-minutes spent staring into each other’s eyes. Their conclusion on the test was similar to Catron’s observations. While they find that the test didn’t cause them to actually fall in love with each other, it did lead them to feeling much closer.
Catron points out that Aron’s goal was not to force a love relationship, but rather to create the kind of openness and trust that a love relationship requires. She suggests the test simulates an accelerated closeness, kind of like that time at summer camp when you stayed up all night with a new friend, learning all of the things that you can’t believe you have in common and forming a life-long bond.
How often do we get the chance to do that as adults? Not very, and especially not with people we don’t already know pretty well. In romantic movies there is always the “meet cute” moment in which two strangers collide in a way that allows that accelerated closeness to occur. Thrown together by happenstance, their lives are never the same again, yada, yada, yada.
In considering her experience, Catron points out that the most impactful parts were when they were asked to observe things that they like about the other person. She notes studies that show that in valuing characteristics in others we define what is important to us. It’s called self-expansion and means that as we get to know another we learn more about ourselves and actually incorporate those qualities into who we are.
“I don’t know why we don’t go around thoughtfully complimenting each other all the time,” she says, and I must agree.
We are much more quick to critique random people, don’t you think? It is often easier to generate an atmosphere for H-A-T-E than for L-O-V-E. Call it defense mechanisms or stress or preconceived conclusions, but how often do you encounter someone new and think, “I really like the way that person carefully considers their options,” instead of, “How long does it take to pick out your bread, crazy?”
In her own experiment, Catron does, in fact, fall in love with her partner in the process, but she says that what really happened is that they developed a very close and intimate friendship and the love part came several months later. The genius part is that the test assumes that love is an action, not an occurrence. We think of love as something that happens to us, that we fall into or that hits us in the heart like Cupid’s arrow, but it takes a decision to create the right circumstances to allow love to develop.
“What I like about the test is that it assumes that what matters to my partner matters to me because we have at least three things in common, because we have close relationships with our mothers, and because he let me look at him,” she said.
“[T]he real crux of the moment was not just that I was really seeing someone, but that I was seeing someone really seeing me. Once I embraced the terror of this realization and gave it time to subside, I arrived somewhere unexpected.”
Yes, there are many things that factor into finding that partner that we may seek and we certainly can’t choose who will love us, but isn’t it a nice thought that we can begin to nurture more L-O-V-E in our lives by simply being willing to develop intimacy and trust with others?
I’ve had a Rumi saying on my mirror for years, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” It was fun to realize how this project validates that thought. This Valentine’s Day, let’s try appreciating things in each other in general, kind of like we did when we took a moment to exchange those loving salutations with our classmates, and see where it might lead.
Monica Sheppard is a freelance graphic designer, beekeeper, mother and community supporter living in Rome.