In 2015, Mandy Len Catron wrote a wildly popular New York Times Modern Love essay — “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This” — about the time she and an acquaintance went for a beer and ended up doing an experiment: They asked each other 36 questions meant to spark intimacy between two strangers. It wasn’t immediate, but she did fall in love with her now-partner Mark. They live together in Vancouver.
Last week I sat down with Catron, an English and writing professor at the University of British Columbia, to talk about her new book, “How to Fall in Love With Anyone.” The title might imply that it’s a step-by-step guide on how to sweep your next Tinder date off their feet. But rather, it’s a collection of essays about how love stories shape our ideas about love, sometimes in unproductive and misleading ways. She charts the origin stories in her family — how her grandparents and parents got together and Catron’s own experiences falling in and out of love — while wrestling with what she really wants out of an intimate relationship. The interview below is edited for length and clarity.
Bonos: Were you surprised by how your Modern Love column took off?
Catron: Yes. Before it published, I wrote on my blog: “Oh, usually a couple-hundred people read every blog post. This will be like a few thousand.” I was just off the mark by several million.
Bonos: What do you think makes these 36 questions so compelling to people?
Catron: I think there are two things that make them compelling. One is: I think everybody just wants to feel known. We want to connect with another person. But it’s terrifying to be like: Let me tell you about these intimate details of my life. It doesn’t usually go over well on a date.
Bonos: It could be too much information.
Catron: Exactly. But it’s like: “Oh hey, let’s try this fun experiment.” Which feels way less threatening but offers the same benefits. The other thing that I think made it so popular is that it is the antithesis of online dating. Thanks to Tinder or OkCupid or whatever, we have this massive amount of potential partners, which is a great thing in theory. But it’s a lot of work, and most of those interactions are either a superficial chat on your phone or a superficial date. Almost none of them have much depth. You feel lucky when you connect with someone. With the questions, you could use online dating but really interact with someone.
Bonos: Before the questions came out, I would have this visceral negative reaction — on Tinder or another online dating forum — when guys would ask a big question like: What gives your life meaning?
Catron: It’s almost like you’re on a job interview or something, right?
Bonos: Also, to want to open up with someone, you have to know them a little first.
Catron: And feel like they’re offering the same thing in return. And yet, when you have really superficial conversations, that’s often frustrating as well. How many siblings do you have? The 36 questions take all that out of the picture.
Bonos: What if you and Mark had done this exercise and felt really close to each other, but didn’t really like each other?
Catron: It’s worth noting that we did not start a relationship right away. A lot of the media coverage was like: And then they fell in love by the end of the evening. That was not my experience at all. I do think you’re almost guaranteed — if both people really participate in the questions — to feel a sense of closeness. What you do with that closeness, who knows.
Bonos: You write about how much love stories shape our ideas about love. Specifically, you couldn’t tell how much of your desire for a spouse was you — was real — and how much was scripted, based on how girls are taught to want all of that. Was there a specific moment where you realized that you needed to figure out what you wanted?
Catron: I don’t know that there was necessarily a moment. I do know that, when I was in the relationship with my ex-boyfriend Kevin, I went away to go to the Banff Center to do this writers’ studio program. That was sort of the start of this book. I remember talking on the phone to one of my best friends and saying: “You know what, I think I’ve realized that I’m actually writing this book as a way to try and figure out if I want to be in this relationship.” And she was like: “Yeah! I’ve known that for a while.”
I was in this position where I felt stuck, because I really loved Kevin and yet I just didn’t know that he was someone I wanted to make my life with. I realized: There’s no advice for how to deal with this problem. There [are] no movies about this problem. I decided: I’m just going to do some research, which is sort of my approach to everything in life.
Bonos: How can the rest of us give ourselves our own reality checks?
Catron: It’s really a matter of identifying the scripts. I went to this personal growth retreat, where I talked about what we know about the ways stories influence how we think about the world. We made a list of: What are some of the scripts that have influenced the way you’ve thought about love? Even just doing it for an hour and then saying: Where do these ideas come from? Which ones do I actively want to embrace and which ones might I want to reject? It’s not that hard of an exercise, and it’s pretty fruitful.
Bonos: I loved reading about how your parents and grandparents met. You mention that the reality might have differed a lot from the stories they passed down about their relationships. What role do you think those origin stories play within families?
Catron: I’m sure it varies from family to family, so I can only speak for myself. In my family, I had this idea that, at least in terms of love, that it was very simple: If you were a good person and you didn’t do anything to betray your spouse — you didn’t lie to them or cheat on them or fall in love with someone else — then you were more or less guaranteed to stay together. I grew up in this very white, very conservative, very Protestant community — I knew very few people who were divorced — and I had this idea that people who did get divorced were bad people. What a horrible thing to think. I felt: Well, my parents won’t get divorced because they’re good people. When my parents did split up, I was like: Oh, I’ve been misunderstanding this concept.
Bonos: You write about this common notion that singles have — that when you find the right person, they’ll just intuitively know everything about your needs and your boundaries and that you don’t need to communicate that to them. How do you and Mark communicate boundaries? Have you perfected the art of fighting?
Catron: I wrote a new Modern Love column about our relationship contract. It doesn’t prevent us from fighting, but it helps. Our domestic responsibilities are clearly outlined. So I don’t have this problem, which I had in my last relationship, where I have this buildup of resentment when I feel like I’m doing too much or my partner feels like they’re doing too much. I know that it’s Mark’s job to take out the trash, so I don’t worry about it. When it’s too full, he’ll deal with it. It’s such a small thing, but it matters.
Bonos: What sorts of other things are in the contract?
Catron: How long guests can stay; who walks the dog on which days. The contract also talks about what our goals are for the relationship. It helps that we’re both fairly conscientious people, so we feel guilty about violating the terms of the contract.
Bonos: Does the contract help you avoid being a tit-for-tat kind of person?
Catron: Yes. When I was living with Kevin, there wasn’t a lot of space for me in that relationship. And so, one of the things that I loved about being single is that I got to make all my own decisions about how to spend my time. When Mark and I moved in together, I was very conscious of what I was giving up, and I felt conflicted about it. So the contract was a good way to sort of say: Here’s what I need.
Bonos: Sex is in the contract, right? Is that about frequency or how much cuddling happens afterward?
Catron: Must be followed by 15 minutes of snuggling! No. It’s basically that we agree that sex is an important part of our relationship and that we agree to be monogamous but that we’re open to changing that at some point. I have no interest in seeing anyone else, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that these things change over the duration of a relationship, and to make space for that change.