I first read about the study when I was in the midst of a breakup. Each time I thought of leaving, my heart overruled my brain. I felt stuck. So, like a good academic, I turned to science, hoping there was a way to love smarter.
I explained the study to my university acquaintance. A heterosexual man and woman enter the lab through separate doors. They sit face to face and answer a series of increasingly personal questions. Then they stare silently into each other’s eyes for four minutes. The most tantalizing detail: Six months later, two participants were married. They invited the entire lab to the ceremony.
“Let’s try it,” he said.
Let me acknowledge the ways our experiment already fails to line up with the study. First, we were in a bar, not a lab. Second, we weren’t strangers. Not only that, but I see now that one neither suggests nor agrees to try an experiment designed to create romantic love if one isn’t open to this happening.
I Googled Dr. Aron’s questions; there are 36. We spent the next two hours passing my iPhone across the table, alternately posing each question.
They began innocuously: “Would you like to be famous? In what way?” And “When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?”
But they quickly became probing.
In response to the prompt, “Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common,” he looked at me and said, “I think we’re both interested in each other.”
I grinned and gulped my beer as he listed two more commonalities I then promptly forgot. We exchanged stories about the last time we each cried, and confessed the one thing we’d like to ask a fortuneteller. We explained our relationships with our mothers.
The questions reminded me of the infamous boiling frog experiment in which the frog doesn’t feel the water getting hotter until it’s too late. With us, because the level of vulnerability increased gradually, I didn’t notice we had entered intimate territory until we were already there, a process that can typically take weeks or months.
I liked learning about myself through my answers, but I liked learning things about him even more. The bar, which was empty when we arrived, had filled up by the time we paused for a bathroom break.
I sat alone at our table, aware of my surroundings for the first time in an hour, and wondered if anyone had been listening to our conversation. If they had, I hadn’t noticed. And I didn’t notice as the crowd thinned and the night got late.
We all have a narrative of ourselves that we offer up to strangers and acquaintances, but Dr. Aron’s questions make it impossible to rely on that narrative. Ours was the kind of accelerated intimacy I remembered from summer camp, staying up all night with a new friend, exchanging the details of our short lives. At 13, away from home for the first time, it felt natural to get to know someone quickly. But rarely does adult life present us with such circumstances.
The moments I found most uncomfortable were not when I had to make confessions about myself, but had to venture opinions about my partner. For example: “Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner, a total of five items” (Question 22), and “Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time saying things you might not say to someone you’ve just met” (Question 28).
Much of Dr. Aron’s research focuses on creating interpersonal closeness. In particular, several studies investigate the ways we incorporate others into our sense of self. It’s easy to see how the questions encourage what they call “self-expansion.” Saying things like, “I like your voice, your taste in beer, the way all your friends seem to admire you,” makes certain positive qualities belonging to one person explicitly valuable to the other.
It’s astounding, really, to hear what someone admires in you. I don’t know why we don’t go around thoughtfully complimenting one another all the time.
We finished at midnight, taking far longer than the 90 minutes for the original study. Looking around the bar, I felt as if I had just woken up. “That wasn’t so bad,” I said. “Definitely less uncomfortable than the staring into each other’s eyes part would be.”
He hesitated and asked. “Do you think we should do that, too?”
“Here?” I looked around the bar. It seemed too weird, too public.
“We could stand on the bridge,” he said, turning toward the window.
The night was warm and I was wide-awake. We walked to the highest point, then turned to face each other. I fumbled with my phone as I set the timer.
“O.K.,” I said, inhaling sharply.
“O.K.,” he said, smiling.
I’ve skied steep slopes and hung from a rock face by a short length of rope, but staring into someone’s eyes for four silent minutes was one of the more thrilling and terrifying experiences of my life. I spent the first couple of minutes just trying to breathe properly. There was a lot of nervous smiling until, eventually, we settled in.
I know the eyes are the windows to the soul or whatever, but the real crux of the moment was not just that I was really seeing someone, but that I was seeing someone really seeing me. Once I embraced the terror of this realization and gave it time to subside, I arrived somewhere unexpected.
I felt brave, and in a state of wonder. Part of that wonder was at my own vulnerability and part was the weird kind of wonder you get from saying a word over and over until it loses its meaning and becomes what it actually is: an assemblage of sounds.
So it was with the eye, which is not a window to anything but rather a clump of very useful cells. The sentiment associated with the eye fell away and I was struck by its astounding biological reality: the spherical nature of the eyeball, the visible musculature of the iris and the smooth wet glass of the cornea. It was strange and exquisite.
When the timer buzzed, I was surprised — and a little relieved. But I also felt a sense of loss. Already I was beginning to see our evening through the surreal and unreliable lens of retrospect.
Most of us think about love as something that happens to us. We fall. We get crushed.
But what I like about this study is how it assumes that love is an action. It assumes that what matters to my partner matters to me because we have at least three things in common, because we have close relationships with our mothers, and because he let me look at him.
I wondered what would come of our interaction. If nothing else, I thought it would make a good story. But I see now that the story isn’t about us; it’s about what it means to bother to know someone, which is really a story about what it means to be known.
It’s true you can’t choose who loves you, although I’ve spent years hoping otherwise, and you can’t create romantic feelings based on convenience alone. Science tells us biology matters; our pheromones and hormones do a lot of work behind the scenes.
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.
You’re probably wondering if he and I fell in love. Well, we did. Although it’s hard to the study entirely (it may have happened anyway), the study did give us a way into a relationship that feels deliberate. We spent weeks in the intimate space we created that night, waiting to see what it could become.
Love didn’t happen to us. We’re in love because we each made the choice to be.Continue reading the main story
So marvelous is the mind in motion in Lisa Robertson’s The Seam that by the time the poem is over, this small, seemingly insignificant noun, has rippled open corridors of contemporary life, poetics, society and activism, that it says almost too little to remember, after all, a ‘seam’ — that is, The Seam — is a poem. No ideas but in things? But ideas and things blur, and there is a wonderfully expansive gendered thinking happening here, which is constantly reminding us what starts small, meticulous, even perilously fragile (e.g. flies, pronouns, DNA), may yet yoke together weaves or textures that often enclose (and disclose) a world in miniature. This compactly epic poem is not poised on the old pillars of universalism. Rather, it telescopes how materiality (chemicals, hormones and toxins), is already magnified, too much, maybe not enough.
—Adam Fitzgerald, Poetry Editor
4:16 in the afternoon in the summer of my 52nd year
I’m lying on the bed in the heat wondering about geometry
and the deafening, uninterrupted volume of desire
bellows, roars mournfully, laments
like a starling that has flown into glass.
These are two things that I want to remember permanently:
The dog straining diagonally after the hare at dusk last night
And the glittering disco sky.
I am no longer afraid of being misunderstood when I state
the old men’s febrile gadgetry—
I don’t buy it.
What suits me better is to stargaze or to lie in stylish baths.
Now it’s time to return to the sex of my thinking.
How long do I get?
A fly moves across the pages of an open book
The pages are quivering
I want stimulants, relaxants, hallucinogens
—I’m not good at order.
The men who tremble a little bit
while speaking about passivity—
they’re all right. I could compare them
to a song:
You should live twice in time
were I contingent
upon your heart, your spleen
or embody the spate
of love, the living creature.
To add gravitas
I am alone, transcribing
If you can never be mine
I’ll get some Swinburne.
There is the sense of women
as impairment’s ability
That’s how it falls
It was difficult to sing.
Using Ovid maybe
You’d lay your tongue across my art
The poem is a hormone.
I have no idea what song means
That polishes the heart.
We press out these voices from the inmost parts
to be able to start.
Sometimes desire awakens the ears of a whole crowd
with copious particularity
with the urgent motions of membranes
with the mystic dialectic of toxins and hormones
(more hormones, less toxins; less hormones, more
toxins; movement between toxins and
hormones and sometimes their confusion
for hormones can act as toxins and
toxins also can act as hormones) so that
the fear of death falls away for a minute
Venus breaks a dew at the borders of everything.
Right now when I think of her
I have no problem with the feminine pronoun
I’m stupid against its animate insult, me
with my scaly feet, my rubbed thorax,
my vibrating wings, my periodic
radiation, my repetitive chant and cunt. . .
A fly moves across the pages of an open book
(the wind rifles the pages slightly)
I think of girls saying “I” in novels
people saying “we” in plazas and restaurants
students and cops—
People’s mouths are brutal portable things.
The pronoun is gratuitous expenditure
I was a sucker in stairwells
a daughter in blouses
I was the only human to ever feel desire
for the fly moving across the open book
for the shimmer of gnats above a frugal terrace
I’m stupid against flowers, quotas
I’m stupid against tables
All my cells bust
I got a little shipwreck, a frugal little ship
on a decorated terrace
—it’s hard not to read this as testimony—
I was a sucker in blouses, I was the only human
to ever say “we”, I sat at frugal tables and
I undertook the ceremony of brutality
or pronouns. I knelt, I bust
a testimony, I was a shimmer
of gnats at noon, I was living in a hut
as a form of protest and it didn’t matter. I lied
and I held it together and the light
was for my body, and the fly
was a shipwreck. To thee I went
but I didn’t. I shelter my lesion.
Some are masters of desire, all deferral
and expletives, using the word triumphant
while they lounge in their marriages.
To choose, to think, to mean, to gather
to eagerly pursue the shimmer that can’t cohere
above the table, to occupy the silent terrace
as the flowers just pour upwards
To be organized towards sugar
But then we would become enemies.
Innovation is not a quality—
I want you to really mean it.
The truth is, everything that isn’t poetry bores me
and within the problem of lamentation’s
my perennial resistance-sensation.
I’m telling you things you already know
to keep myself intact.
There is no everyday life.
That was a bribe from the masters.
I have taken down the curtains so I can watch the foliage move.
To be accurate, to be objective
my idea of myself relates to landscape’s
an event I never sought
will shift through the frail silence
as I sit in a chair not moving.
We have loved nothing, brutally.
The DNA of loss moves through leaves—
some hidden occident of vibration
played on a disintegrating cassette-tape
to the tune of you are the tenderness of strangers
half-sleeping on a train.
Gods still move by river
the flat warehouses
and I wonder about silt and trees and chemicals
as boats are loaded.
What if the body does not signify?
Its wee lost cluster
starts to fade
the skin opening to the moisture of the season
its immunity’s the landscape.
(here by landscape I mean political economy)
To have a bath, to write in bed in a hotel
so obvious and so easy
An entire day til the light starts to fade
to arrive at the long duration of an instability.
How to walk with this til the end
speak its tongue like a guest
at the discontinuous table
my hands shake
lilacs are everywhere
This fundamental torsion
so thoroughly unskirtable
there will never again be sex in 1983 and
I don’t mind really.
Must I fear formlessness?
If it weren’t for this I’d be free
as body organs cast in metals
to decorate time
I like to spit from moving trains.
So much can be passed over
in avoidance of the rupture
The driver of the team of 6 horses, ploughing
was a woman, cotton sleeves
rolled to the elbow, hands to straining
harness, skinny, capable
my kinship with this woman
her 6 huge horses and the surge
of their vitality running through leather into my body
we who have no memories at all
mount the pulsing tree in evening
every desire emits
a throw of dice
I start a school called how can I live.
In my school called how can I live
in my theory of appearing
I lay out my costume.
We don’t belong to culture. We’re sunsets.
We simplify our thoughts
until they resemble
Stop hiding from life we say to ourselves!
Our skin itches.
I beg you—show me something unknowable.
I don’t believe in this possibility of knowing.
How will you start?
The flipped-over buses
The strange stuff suspended in the air
While they copulate they turn their heads
towards the east.
Tell me now about shame and isolation
the shame that has not even
—it distracts us from our purpose.
Sometimes I see things and I know right away
like looking someone in the eye.
The great health is unknown gratuitous expenditure towards the material ideal.
It is not a metaphor.
From now on, everything will be called The Middle, everything will be called The Seam, everything will be called Toxins, everything will be called The Great Health.
Everything will be a hormone.
Adam FitzgeraldLisa Robertsonpoems