Mandy Len Catron: Can You Jumpstart Love?

Nov 22, 2019

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode In & Out Of Love.

About Mandy Len Catron's TED Talk

Can you fall in love after just one date? With the help of 36 questions, author Mandy Len Catron did. She says, reframing love as something you can control can lead to healthier, longer relationship.

About Mandy Len Catron

Mandy Len Catron is an author and creative writing lecturer at the University of British Columbia, and a teacher at the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre in Vancouver.

She wrote How To Fall In Love With Anyone: A Memoir In Essays and it made the list for the 2018 RBC Taylor Prize and the Kobo Emerging Writer Award. In 2015, Catron wrote "To Fall In Love With Anyone, Do This," which was one of the most popular articles published by the New York Times that year. Catron work has been featured in The Atlantic, The Guardian, as well as in anthologies and literary journals. Her work has been translated into more than thirty languages.

Her stories are also featured on her blog, The Love Story Project.

The 36 questions, made popular by Mandy, were written in 1997 by Arthur Aron. Dr. Aron, a research professor at Stony Brook University, has for decades studied how people form attraction, intimacy, and close relationships.

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and on today's show, In And Out Of Love.

MANDY LEN CATRON: Yeah. So I was out on a date.

RAZ: And let's start with a story about falling in love.

CATRON: It was one of those dates where, initially, I didn't know it was a date.

RAZ: This is Mandy Len Catron, who's written a lot about love.

CATRON: He had presented the idea of going to the art gallery so casually. Like, he mentioned it via Instagram, which I think suggests something about how casual it was. I really thought, oh, we're just two people going to look at some art together.

RAZ: But pretty soon, Mandy realized it was a date.

CATRON: Yeah, it was a date.

RAZ: So Mandy and Mark - that's her date...

CATRON: Mark said to me, do you want to go grab a beer? And I thought, OK, sure. And then we started talking about love and relationships, and he said, you know, I have this theory that you could fall in love with anyone, and if that's true, like, how do you choose someone? And I said, oh, yeah, that's an interesting theory. There's actually this study that I read about one time where these scientists tried to create romantic love in the lab. And I was pretty skeptical, but it sounds interesting. And then just on this, like, impulse - I feel like I'm pretty shy on dates, but I was feeling brave, and I said, oh, you know, I've always wanted to try it. And immediately, he was like, great. Let's do it. And so we did.

RAZ: Right there and then?

CATRON: Right there in the bar.

RAZ: You decided to turn your date into a science experiment?

CATRON: Yep. We spent several - the next several hours just sliding my phone back and forth across the table, taking turns asking the questions.

RAZ: The questions - 36 questions, to be exact - and let me pause to say that some of you may have heard about these. Mandy wrote about the questions for The New York Times a couple of years ago.

ARTHUR ARON: No. 1 - given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?

RAZ: This is Arthur Aron.

ARON: I'm a research professor at Stony Brook University, and I do research on relationships.

RAZ: And Arthur, he wrote the 36 questions as part of that research.

ARON: No. 4 - what would constitute a perfect day for you?

These questions were designed as a laboratory procedure to create closeness - usually not romantic closeness; just a sense of connection with another person quickly.

RAZ: And the questions do this by getting increasingly more and more personal.

ARON: Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth - what is your most treasured memory? What is your most terrible memory? What roles do love and affection play in your life? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people's? Tell your partner what you like about them, saying things that you might not say to someone you've just met. No. 29...

CATRON: People pretty consistently report feeling a sense of closeness with whoever they do this with, which is not the same thing as falling in love, but it's kind of the - it's not unrelated, let's say. It's one of the essential steps in that process.

RAZ: So Mandy and Mark take that step, and for the next several hours, they get to know really intimate details about each other's lives. And then it was over.

CATRON: And I remember thinking, like, wow. That was, like, super intense. We just had this, like, deeply vulnerable, intimate experience, and then suddenly, we needed to leave. Like, we needed to end the date.

RAZ: Yeah.

CATRON: We're just thinking, like, it was so weird to have small talk with someone after telling them these details about my entire life. Yeah. I just remember walking along and feeling like I had nothing to say to him (laughter). But we went out again, so yeah, it worked out pretty well. And let's see. Next - I guess two weeks. Two weeks, we'll celebrate our five-year anniversary.

RAZ: Meet someone new, ask each other some questions and bam - love and wedding bells. Of course, it's not that simple. Mark and Mandy's love certainly wasn't destined. But Mandy says those 36 questions, they mattered.

CATRON: Like, if you were to ask my partner Mark, would we have fallen in love if we hadn't done the 36 questions?, I think his answer would be maybe - probably, even. If you were to ask me that, I am less sure (laughter). I didn't know him well, but I could see how much his friends seemed to really admire him. And I thought, oh, this is a good sign. Like, this would be a good person to fall in love with. And doing the questions really sort of, like, convinced me that, in fact, he was like a really decent human being and was worth bothering to get to know. And so I think that mattered.

RAZ: You know, we think - I mean, through a variety of influences, whether it's media or literature or just human interaction, I think most of us believe that love is not something you can necessarily control or engineer or that it's one of those things that kind of happens. You let fate take you by the hand.


RAZ: But this whole concept suggests that isn't true.

CATRON: Yeah. It's not entirely true. Like, there are real things that are happening inside our brains and inside our bodies when we fall in love. There is this whole biological component. But we also have these cultural scripts about how love is supposed to work, and having spent a decade of my life writing about these things, like, the thing that it's left me with is the notion that we have a lot more say over our experiences in romantic love than our cultural stories would lead us to believe.

RAZ: We often think of love as this mysterious, unknowable force, something that happens to us on a timescale beyond our control. But what if we could control it? What if we could decide when we fall in love and even when we might need to fall out of love? So on the show today, we're going to explore ideas about falling in and out of love. And for Mandy Len Catron, she argues our understanding of how love works begins with how we talk about it, the words and the metaphors we use. Here's more from Mandy on the TED stage.


CATRON: So most of us will probably fall in love a few times over the course of our lives, and falling is really the main way that we talk about that experience. And I don't know about you, but when I conceptualize this metaphor, what I picture is straight out of a cartoon. Like, there's a man. He's walking down the sidewalk. Without realizing it, he crosses over an open manhole, and he just plummets into the sewer below. And I picture it this way because falling is not jumping. Falling is accidental. It's uncontrollable. It's something that happens to us without our consent.

And I would like to argue that many of the metaphors we use to talk about love, maybe even most of them, are a problem. So in love, we fall. We're struck. We are crushed. We swoon. We burn with passion. Love makes us crazy, and it makes us sick. Our hearts ache, and then they break. So our metaphors equate the experience of loving someone to extreme violence or illness.


RAZ: I mean, why is love, at least in popular literature and in our culture, just so associated with pain and suffering?

CATRON: I think that it's because it can cause us lots of pain and suffering. Like, I think when you are first in romantic love, you can't stop thinking about the person. You always want to be with them. Like, you do feel really high when you're together. It does feel really sad when you have to be apart for a few days. Like, those metaphors make sense. But I think the fact that we position ourselves as so passive suggests there's nothing we can do about this and that we should take these feelings as a sign that this is a meaningful connection and we should act on them. Like, if we think that love is supposed to be painful or it's supposed to cause us suffering...

RAZ: We're supposed to be crazy in love.

CATRON: Yeah. If we think about it that way, you know, it is very easy to get into relationship dynamics that I think are really unhealthy or maybe even rationalize being in a relationship that is abusive. So I actually think the way we talk about this and the way we think about it really matters in that there are real-world stakes for it.

RAZ: So if we understand that this is a - this is, like, the wrong way to frame love - like, if our metaphors are off and our language is off, which - and we're talking about, like, hundreds of years of literature.

CATRON: It's deeply entrenched.

RAZ: It's in poetry. It's just - right? It's super entrenched. How do we begin to even reframe the way we talk about love?

CATRON: Yeah. You know, I think if we think about a relationship as an opportunity for kindness and generosity, as something that we have some say over.


CATRON: So in their book "The Metaphors We Live By," linguists Mark Johnson and George Lakoff suggest a really interesting solution to this dilemma.

In my talk, I talk about the metaphor that Lakoff and Johnson suggest, which is the collaborative work of art.


CATRON: Love is a collaborative work of art, and I really like this way of thinking about love. Linguists talk about metaphors as having entailments, which is essentially a way of considering all the implications of or ideas contained within a given metaphor. And Johnson and Lakoff talk about everything the collaborating on a work of art entails - effort, compromise, patience, shared goals.

We think of art often as, like, beautiful or inspiring, but it also means, like, love requires effort, right? Like, you can't make a work of art without putting time and energy and critical thought and attention into it. So I think it puts us in a much more empowered position, right? Like, it's not something that happens to you. It's something you do together. It's not something that comes easily. It's going to be challenging at times, but it's something that - you get to decide what it looks like. You have some say over it.

RAZ: Yeah. You have to be intentional about it.

CATRON: Yeah. And actually, Mark and I have tried to build that into our relationship in, like, really intentional ways. Like, oh, we're making something together. How do we want it to work? What do we want it to look like?

So, like, we have a relationship contract, and the word contract tends to sound really controversial to people. It is not a legally binding document. It's more like just a statement of our intentions. And we kind of sit down together every year and say, OK. Like, what do we want this relationship to be like going forward? And we adjust it. And it covers everything from who does which chores around the house to, like, what our goals are together as a couple and steps we can take to support each other.

It's such a simple thing, but, like, to me, it makes it feel like this relationship isn't something that I've gotten myself stuck in because I had strong feelings for this person one day. It's like - it's a thing that we're making together.

RAZ: That's Mandy Len Catron. She's a writer and a lecturer at the University of British Columbia. You can find her two talks at On the show today, In And Out Of Love. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.