'The 36 Questions' for Falling in Love: What Makes Them Work?

06/10/2015 11:05 am ET | Updated Jun 08, 2016

The world is full of love-worthy, eligible people looking for a way out of involuntary singleness. They want to put an end to their cycles of abandonment and find a long-term mutual relationship. They are determined to overcome any self-sabotaging patterns that might stand in their way. Some may be attracted to the unavailable. Some tend to loose interest when the person becomes available. Some have heightened abandonment fear when they fall for someone and their emotional reactivity drives the person away. Others are abandophobic and remain isolated rather than risk getting hurt again. Still others can't seem to find anyone that sparks their interest.

The bottom line is they want to know what to do about it. They would willingly climb Mount Everest if it meant that lasting love was waiting for them at the top. Just give them the path, the formula, the right set of steps -- something to Do -- and they would gladly do it.

So it is no small wonder that an article entitled "To Fall In Love with Anyone, Do This" triggered a huge response. In it Mandy Len Catron explored what can happen when two people take turns answering a questionnaire dubbed "36 Questions on the Way to Love." The questionnaire was developed as a tool for a research project conducted by Aaron et al to study interpersonal closeness. It was designed to foster intimacy by soliciting reciprocal responses that gradually increase in emotional intensity. Catron, whose article brought the research questions to light, tried them on a date with someone she'd recently met, with positive results. Since then, many others have tried them.

One of my workshop members recently asked me what I thought of the questionnaire. So I reviewed the 36 questions and found them to be a constructive tool. Being a proponent of self-therapies -- things people can do for themselves -- I believe that under the right set of conditions, the questions can be effective in creating connection.

The impact of sharing personal feelings is well known to therapists working with couples. We facilitate emotionally intimate self-disclosure between two individuals and watch their broken connection snap back into place, at least momentarily. Take John and Sandra who came into therapy in hopes of getting their relationship back on track. After explaining where they get stuck, John responded to one of my questions by saying that when he was nine, his father who was his idol, walked out the door with a suitcase and drove off in a red truck, never to return. For a long time afterward, he constantly searched for signs of red flashing by, waiting anxiously for his father to show up, call, or at least send a letter -- anything that might help his dad re-materialize in some way that could help John stop his incessant waiting.

Sandra had heard most of this story before, but never witnessed the level of vulnerability John displayed during this retelling. As we continued to explore core issues, John related that when Sandra packs a bag and storms out, disappearing from radar -- whether it's for a few hours or a few days -- he goes haywire. He knows that his reactions are out of proportion to the event but can't seem to quell his panic, and it leaves him feeling powerless, helpless, weak, disposable. He knows he needs to work on this.

Sandra, who had become the distancer in the relationship, responded by nudging a little closer to him. As therapists we often see the empathy swell in the other person following an emotionally intimate disclosure.

What helped to facilitate this moment of closeness was that John was not blaming Sandra, nor was he making excuses for his overwrought emotional reactions to her "leaving behaviors." He was merely answering a therapist's questions, expressing his own emotional truth, taking responsibility for his own abandonment fear, cooperating with a process whose goal was to resolve their growing rift. They were both there for that purpose.

For Sandra's part, she'd never felt safe as a kid. Her parents were alcoholics and rageaholics. When their chronic abusiveness escalated, her "insides would feel like a pressure cooker," and her Fight Freeze Flight response was Flight. She'd run down to the lake to remain out of sight all day or take a change of clothes and go bunk at a friend's.

This mutual sharing allowed John and Sandra to bear witness each other's vulnerability without being expected to take emotional responsibility for the other. They each owned their own realities. The session's structure helped them put in the clutch where their gears had been meshing and grinding. They were able to coast for a while, freely in their own space, feeling seen by the other, deeply known, and for the moment safely connected. It was an oasis they could choose to return to during times of stress.

The 36 Questions are predicated on similar grounds -- sharing a mutual goal and reciprocal self-disclosure within a safe structure. There is no therapist, just a questionnaire and two responsible adults.

People choosing to do this exercise together presumably share the goal of creating closeness, be they friends, colleagues, potential lovers, or long term mates wanting to rekindle. Their goals may range from wanting to experience intimacy, fall in love, create deeper understanding, or reduce the distance that set into their existing relationship.

The two take turns answering three sets of questions, each one increasing the depth of personal disclosure. As they progress through the list, they are asked to make a "we" statement and the question (#28) prompts them to produce a positive response, e.g., "Tell your partner what you like about them... saying things that you might not say to someone you've just met." The final question calls for a display of responsive empathy by asking the other what he or she seems to be feeling about a particular problem.

The exercise takes ninety minutes or longer. It concludes with the couple staring into each other's eyes for a suggested four minutes. Thus they truly experience being seen by the other -- an emotional oasis that they can, if a relationship is nurtured, choose to return to.

If you are looking to try the 36 questions, it can help to read more about it so you can gain from other people's experiences and learn how you can modify the exercise to suite your own purposes. If you find another person to try them with, please let us know what happens.