How long does four minutes of unbroken eye contact feel? Well, that depends on who you’re staring at.
Four minutes with a stranger? An excruciatingly uncomfortable experience. Four minutes with a friend? Sure to end in awkward giggles. Four minutes with the person you love? A strange meld of the two, characterized by a warmth unique to that relationship.
I learned this when my boyfriend of five years and I decided to answer The 36 Questions That Lead to Love, a purportedly intimacy-rousing set of questions popularized by this New York Times essay at the beginning of this year. Based on a 1997 study by psychologist by Dr. Arthur Aron, the essay recounts author Mandy Len Catron’s date with an acquaintance spent answering the study’s 36 “self-disclosure” questions that “gradually escalate in intensity.” The relationship-building questions end with four minutes of ceaseless eye contact. Famously, two of the study’s subjects went on to marry each other.
What else was there to learn? Would we end the exercise and declare our immediate intent to marry? Would I be struck by a sudden urge to reproduce with this person?
Of course, the subjects were strangers, paired based on their attitudinal similarities and left to answer the questions “alone together in a comfortable room.” My boyfriend and I make quite a different pairing. After five-ish years of dating, two spent living together, I wasn’t sure how much love there was left. I knew his darkest secrets and he knew how and when I liked my coffee. We feel all those ways you feel when you know you’ve found that person. What else was there to learn? Would we end the exercise and declare our immediate intent to marry? Would I be struck by a sudden urge to reproduce with this person?
As we sat on our unmade bed, drinks in hand (cranberry cherry juice and middle-shelf vodka, we are still young and broke, after all), I pondered the value of these questions for those in a long-term relationship. In one sense, falling in love with a stranger is a wildly romantic idea. But with our cat scratching at the bedding between our touching feet and my braless state, I didn’t feel romance as much as comfort and contentedness.
In another sense, the idea that intimacy can be generated between two similarly-dispositioned people because a psychologist knows which triggers to manipulate calls into question all we believe about love. Wouldn’t that suggest, then, that you could fall for anyone who also voted for Obama and appreciates Adele’s buttery smooth vocals (though what kind of a monster doesn’t?), given enough self-investment? Were all happy couples merely products of convenience?
Divided into three sections of 15 minutes each, the questions begin light, like summer camp icebreakers. For the most part, you’d be comfortable asking the same questions of your mother. “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” As a feminist and scientist pairing, our respective answers are pedestrian: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Robert Oppenheimer.
“What would constitute a ‘perfect’ day for you?” Revealing a hell of a lot about our lives at the moment, we both agree, “one day without responsibility.”
The questions delve deeper. “If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?” Both of us are quick to agree “the mind,” which is nice, because I quite enjoy my boyfriend’s mind.
“Do you have a hunch about how you will die?” As a research assistant in a chemistry lab, my boyfriend explains that he worries a horrible lab accident could be the cause of his death. It’s the first time a question rattles me.
The timer runs out before we finish answering the first section. This happens every section, our conversations growing more intense along with the questions, as the study promised.
In the second set, we’re asked, “What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?” Another fellow long term relationship experimenter noted the challenge with superlative questions. Judging by my boyfriend’s answer, I think he agrees. “I don’t know what a greatest accomplishment is. Who’s to say?” he says. I tell him our relationship is my greatest accomplishment, though I can’t articulate why. I just know if I had to choose between graduating with honors and landing a decent job or anything else, I’d always consider our bond more impressive.
We’re asked about our most treasured memories and terrible memories in succession, which seems somewhat cruel. We both agree we most treasure the moment we said we loved each other, then two teenagers one month into dating–an incredibly naïve move, we both acknowledge. “Actually, that’s why it’s my favorite memory. Because we were young and dumb, and still are, but we were on to something,” he tells me.
It’s awkward, at first, but I settle in as heat fills my chest and spreads throughout my body.
True to our individual personalities, I cry while recounting my most terrible memory in detail–discovering a loved one’s suicide attempt, the sobbing in a waiting room filled mostly with children and their parents, the deep shame contemplating whether it could have been my fault, the torturous attempt at a family meal hours later, and the subsequent anxiety that cripples me to this day–while my boyfriend curtly mentions the death of his parent, eager to move past the question and bury the feelings stirred by it.
In an attempt to bring back some levity, we laugh over, “If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.” Similarly, we’re prompted to “Tell your partner something you like about them already.” My boyfriend says he likes my directness. We run out of time to finish the final question set.
Initially, I’m horrified by the concept of four minutes of eye contact. I think how cringe-worthy 30 seconds of silence can be in other contexts and wonder if this will be like that, amplified. It’s awkward, at first, but I settle in as heat fills my chest and spreads throughout my body. My boyfriend has always had big, kind eyes, but they look especially gorgeous to me now. We surpass four minutes without realizing.
After roughly an hour of such intense intimacy, it feels bizarre to return to normalcy–to exit our bedroom and greet our roommates and watch the cats thrash at sparkly balls in leftover Costco boxes. I imagine it’s how the study’s subjects felt after answering the questions, as though they’d let someone in way too deep to go back. It made me grateful to have done the questionnaire with someone I trust wholeheartedly–otherwise, a complete stranger might have walked off with a part of me. Although, isn’t that what the study intends?