The stranger came striding into the sea of laptops in a Starbucks in midtown Manhattan. He wore a bright orange mesh construction jersey over his Carhartt overalls, his work boots trailing dirt. He took off his hard hat, wiped the sweat from his head, and placed his order.
“Gimme a medium coffee, black,” he said, looking around. He caught my gaze before I could pretend to look away. His eyes were an unreal shade of blue. He smiled at me over the people hunched over their computers, typing into their phones.
The hormone dance, I called it. I was lured by what a girlfriend referred to as “the siren song of the blue-eyed and seafaring men.” She could pick my type out of a crowded bar, party, or restaurant. But as seductive as this siren song was, I was still single.
I pretended to get napkins. When I turned around, he was there. He told me that he was from Staten Island, working on a construction site near Park Avenue. I told him I was just visiting the city, currently living out West.
A few minutes later, I found myself at the site on Park. We sat on a planter full of flowers, staring into each other’s eyes, oblivious to traffic. I have no idea what we said.
But four months and two cross-country trips later, our Starbucks romance was over. I was in my mid-40s. And I was still both afraid of, and unable to forge, a solid foundation of love—instead falling, time and again, for the temporary rush of lust and romance.
It was clear that my dating strategy wasn’t working. And according to experts, I’m not alone in being stymied when it comes to forging a lasting relationship that’s less about hormones, and more about building intimacy and trust.
That’s the subject explored by Mandy Len Catron in her new book, How to Fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays. The book was inspired by her wildly popular 2015 New York Times Modern Love column, “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This.” In the column, she goes on a date with an acquaintance, and they decide to test out psychologist Arthur Aron’s set of questions designed to create intimacy between two strangers in a lab setting. With questions like “When did you last sing to yourself?” to “Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?” the quiz is meant to help people begin to see one another for who they truly are.
But as Catron writes in her book, “When it comes to love, we prefer the short version of the story.”
“My Modern Love column had become an oversimplified romantic fable suggesting there was an ideal way to experience love,” she explains. “It made love seem predictable, like a script you could follow. It was obvious that I’d offered something powerful: the idea that there might be a ready formula for falling in love.”
Her book is a corrective to that idea. As her own relationship sputtered and her parents’ marriage came to an end, Catron turned to research to understand not how we are initially attracted to each other, but how romance can either short-circuit or deepen.
One of her most surprising findings: Contrary to popular myths about our helplessness in the face of romance, we have a lot more control over who we love than we might think.
“Science tells us biology matters; our pheromones and hormones do a lot of work behind the scenes,” says Catron. “But despite all this, I’ve begun to think love is a more pliable thing than we make it out to be. Arthur Aron’s study taught me that it’s possible—simple, even—to generate trust and intimacy, the feelings love needs to thrive.”
Further research supports the idea that our intentions can determine a lot about the outcomes of our relationships. One 2007 study (pdf) by researchers at the University of Rochester and the University of Georgia found that people with higher levels of mindfulness—defined as “an open or a receptive attention to and awareness of what is taking place”—tended to be more satisfied in their romantic relationships. The study also linked mindfulness to better communication skills, which in turn helped mitigate relationship conflicts.
And while movies, books and TV shows from Outlander to 50 Shades of Grey emphasize the sizzle of romance, most people could benefit by looking beyond the initial rush of attraction, according to University of Washington sociologist and sexologist Pepper Schwartz. Schwartz doubles as a relationship expert on the A&E television show Married at First Sight, in which a matchmaking panel pairs couples together based on the results of detailed questionnaires that they’ve filled out beforehand. It’s a modern version of the arranged marriage, albeit with an escape hatch: After a couple months of wedded life, the couple has the option to decide to split.
The series’ rational approach to matchmaking suggests that reason can be a better guide to matters of the heart than the rush of hormones. “What matters most in arranged marriages I see is ‘Did you get a person of honor and integrity?” Schwartz says. “Is this someone you would respect as a colleague? Does this person have the ability to hold themselves accountable, hold themselves to a higher standard, and admit when they haven’t been able to achieve that? Because we all disappoint ourselves and need someone who understands that process and is doing it as well.”
Schwartz also recommends giving up on the notion that romantic love will make all our other problems go away. In general, she says, looking to another person to make you feel complete only leaves you feeling empty.
“You have to make yourself okay,” she says. “Someone can help you, but they can’t make you who you want to be. Ultimately, you have to do find things that interest you and fulfill you, and challenge you, and contribute to your own sense of worthiness. A partner can only do so much of that.”
Once we’ve found our partners, Catron has a few recommendations about how to make love last. As a recent guest on NPR’s advice segment “The Call-In,” she offered callers a practical way to keep relationships fresh, based on the psychological theory of what researchers refer to as the misattribution of arousal.
“This is the idea is that when you do something really stimulating—that leaves you excited, sweaty palms, heart racing—or even just something novel and interesting, you tend to attribute those really intense feelings that you’re having to who you’re with—not to what you’re doing,” Catron says. That’s why reality shows like The Bachelor are always sending participants sky-diving together. In long-term partnerships, it’s a good idea to make a point of seeking out novel experiences together—whether that means going to a restaurant that serves a cuisine you’ve never tried before, taking up a joint hobby like rock-climbing, or taking trips to new places.
In a recent column for the Times, Catron also recommends that couples maintain what she calls a “relationship contract,” which “spells out everything from sex to chores to finances to our expectations for the future.” Listing your emotional needs and expectations can help many couples spot problems before they get too big.
“Gaining clarity on what your personal needs are, what your marital needs are, as well as how and where to get your needs met, has a huge impact on the direction you take in your marriage,” says Susan Pease Gadoua, author, with Vicki Larson, of The New ‘I Do’: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists, and Rebels. If you know that you need time alone to wind down after work, for example, it’s better to spell that out in explicit terms before you move in with your boyfriend—thereby avoiding hurt feelings and miscommunications.
Indeed, as Catron writes, the contract “reminds us that love isn’t something that happens to us — it’s something we’re making together. After all, this approach brought us together in the first place.”
That’s right: The acquaintance that Catron enlisted to help her test Aron’s 36 questions to create intimacy? They’ve been together ever since.
For my own part, I wish Staten Island Steve and I had made use of those 36 questions that day on Park Avenue. And I wish that in the months we’d dated, we’d tempered our hormones a bit with questions that went to the heart of who we were and what we were looking for. But the next time I lock eyes with a blue-eyed, sea-faring man, I’ll know that falling—and staying—in love doesn’t always mean being swept away.