"To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This."
That was the seductive promise of the New York Times' "Modern Love" headline that exploded across social media this month, leading millions of readers to wonder if a scientifically-determined set of 36 questions could really lead to romance.
As I'm sure was the case for many readers, I was drawn to the headline not because I'm longing for those first chest-tightening pangs of love with someone new, but to see how my own story measures up.
Would the 36 questions have worked for my husband and me when we first met? And if that “first love” feeling really did lie at the end of those questions, maybe a reminder of that spark would do us some good.
Yep, a headline had triggered the hope of attaching a jumper cable to my 8.5-year marriage to see if this love can purr like when the engine first started running.
To be clear, I have few complaints. I love my husband completely and I'm one of those lucky jerks who gets to say that I'm married to my best friend and that we're each better versions of ourselves when we're together. I work hard not to take him for granted even when his tenderness, compassion and dependability would make it easy to do.
But putting aside this sparkly, Valentine's Day version of ourselves, our current all-encompassing truth is that we're new parents, again. And while becoming parents certainly united us and, in many ways, brought us closer than we'd ever been in our 12 years of friendship, baby number two has brought with her not only dimples that can melt hearts and vocal chords capable of sounds so shrill I wonder if they could shatter glass, but also a distant removal from the days of my husband and me lying quietly, gazing into each other’s eyes across our equally cherubic first-born.
We are now deeply entrenched in the routines of divide and conquer. One of us tries to get the baby to sleep in her crib on the first try, while the other deftly negotiates with our 3-year-old about how many random items from across the house she’s allowed to squirrel into the corners of her bed, before then lauding the promise of special treats tomorrow, but only if she succumbs to brushing her teeth right this instant, and no you cannot have anything else to drink, and I said only two stories tonight, ok — three, but I’m not going to sing to you after, except just a little as I tiptoe out of the room, but only because you asked so nicely, and I don’t know when daddy will be done with the baby, I’ll send him in if it’s soon, no, the sun is not out right now, one more hug and kiss, no, your room is not scary, I love you too ohmygosh goodnightsleeptighthaveagoodsleep. Door shut, fingers crossed.
My husband and I meet in the sanctity of our living room for the cherished hour (if we’re lucky) of post-bedtime grown-up normalcy; i.e Downton Abbey. Rinse and repeat for a few more months — who are we kidding, years.
So when I said to him a week ago that I was scheduling a date night and that we were going to take a quiz that’s supposed to make you fall in love, he wasn't too fazed. A night of adult interaction is an easy enough sell, and the fact that we already love each other was an added plus. We just knew we were going to ACE this test.
Part of me was nervous, though. In the eight-month whirlwind since our littlest girl came into our lives, what if we had lost some of our spark? What if an attempt at intimacy now that doesn't involve cooing over our children left us not so much staring into each other’s eyes with racing hearts but awkwardly finding that the tired person staring back doesn't seem too interested in what they see?
The 36 questions are divided into three groups of 12, and the first night we attempted to give this a try, we were only able to get through the first set before we were derailed by a disagreeable infant. It was a fun warm-up, and did leave us interested in finishing the rest of the questions. Plus, we learned that:
· If given the choice, we’d both prefer to maintain the body of a 30-year-old until we’re 90, rather than the mind. (You're going to learn a lot in those 60 years! How could you give that up?)
· What constitutes a perfect day for my husband is — endearingly — essentially what we already do on a typical Sunday.
· And that, in synopsizing our life stories into four minutes, his starts as a teenager, whereas mine basically starts when we met.
While those first questions sparked a good conversation, I was still nervous to finish the quiz. I can’t pinpoint my anxiety except that perhaps I didn't want to jinx anything. I've seen plenty of movies and enough episodes of “Friends” to know that if you go poking at a perfectly good relationship to see if you can pass some external measure of compatibility, you’re asking for trouble.
But when Saturday night rolled around, I put on a dress, my husband untwisted a surprisingly decent bottle of wine we’d been gifted, I set Pandora to a non-distracting instrumental station, and we dove into section two.
And here, answering these gradually more intimate questions, we saw that our responses had clearly evolved from what they would have been if we'd taken this quiz more than a decade ago, when we (and our love) were much younger. For example:
Question 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? Both of our answers focused on the happiness of our daughters, and wanting to ensure it in every way possible.
Question 17: What is your most treasured memory? Mine: The evening we reunited after moving apart for a time after college, and we both knew this was it. His: The birth of our youngest. We weren't as afraid and nervous as the first time around, and thanks to the help of family, we spent those days in the hospital soaking each other up and welcoming our new addition.
These answers speak to the way we've defined each other’s journeys. We don’t have to pretend to be singles forcing our oral histories on one another after happy hour. We are family.
Question 21: What roles do love and affection play in your life? Both answers: When we’re together, love and affection are our world. So how lucky are we?
The quiz had become a very sweet, reflective experience. But mush-fest aside, by the end of the third and final section I must say I was a teensy bit let down. I know that’s not reasonable when so many of the questions were self and mutually affirming. But I wanted something, perhaps, juicier? Again, I could play a stale card and blame pop culture, but I thought maybe there’d be some moment of revelation, some ah-ha, Ryan Gosling in “The Notebook” standing in the rain, me-looking-at-him-and-truly-seeing-him-for-the-first-time sort of thing (my husband, not Ryan Gosling — though there are some similarities).
But perhaps the fact that our answers were warm, friendly, positive, and not-completely revelatory is a good thing after so many years together.
Perhaps 12 years into a relationship isn’t where you want to learn that your spouse has never really told you how he feels about something.
And we did end up learning some new things about each other, after all. I found out that my husband’s most terrible memory was seeing his cousin nearly be swept away after falling in a river. He learned that my most embarrassing moment stemmed from an awful experience with my third grade teacher (which I won’t be sharing here), and we both noted some recurring themes: Now that our baby is getting past her highest-needs phase, my husband would love to spend more time rock climbing, and I long for more yoga in my life. We both feel empowered to help make those things happen for each other.
The final question of the quiz is designed to solidify your newfound closeness with your partner, and for the first prescribed time, to weigh in on what they share.
Question 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.
For my husband and me, we know each other’s biggest challenges, and this gave us a fresh opportunity to voice our support and let the other know that we hear what they’re saying, and we have their back. Never a bad thing to reiterate, but again, no huge revelations to be had.
Then comes the pièce de résistance of Catron’s “Modern Love” essay, the part where you stare into each other’s eyes for four minutes. In her article and those that followed which give the details and background of the study done about these questions, much emphasis is put on the breathless awkwardness of these 240 seconds.
As Catron did, I set the timer on my phone. Cello music played softly as we sat up, facing each other on the couch, our inside knees bent toward the back cushions, my husband's arm extending across the frame toward me so we were about a foot from each other’s faces. And we stared.
It was now that the differences between our experience and those of the acquaintances in the original essay began to blur. Catron noted, “There was a lot of nervous smiling until, eventually, we settled in.”
The same was true for us. We went from having a lovely, intimate conversation as two married people who set aside distractions and made the time to really talk — no “Downton” on in the background — to being two giggling fools who truly enjoy their shared company, who still feel a little giddy when staring into each other’s eyes.
I smiled so hard my face started to ache like when you spend an evening laughing with an old friend. And that’s likely because, that’s just what I’d done. We looked at each other’s faces and took in the changes of a dozen years. Different glasses, more laugh lines, a burlier beard on my husband's face, but the same soft eyes. And we smiled and laughed — and with no first-date awkwardness, we held each other close.
While we may not spend too many nights standing in the open air and staring into each other’s “windows of the soul,” we have spent many days and years speaking to each other with those same eyes, often without saying a word.
The 36 questions didn't cause us to “fall back in love with each other,” as I flippantly hypothesized would be a successful taking of this quiz, because while our love is sometimes content to sit there quietly, or focus its depths on the affirming and adoring of our children, thanks to this essay and the trending quest of seeking out a love renewed, I was able to nervously test that spark.
And I found that it is most certainly there, tried and true and ready for us to set flint to steel anytime we like. How very lucky we are.