An interesting study provides a tool for deepening our relationships.
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Given the right circumstances, could any two strangers have a chance of falling in love with each other, or are there certain people who could never get along, no matter what? Social psychologist Arthur Aron noticed that that every good relationship seems to include a sense of emotional closeness between the partners. Could that closeness be reproduced in a lab, he wondered?
Aron did a series of studies. “One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personalistic self-disclosure,” he writes.That’s just another way of saying that two people build closeness by steadily becoming more open and honest with each other about who they are and what matters to them. He paired up strangers, and gave them a list of 36 questions of increasing intensity, and asked them to report on their feeling of closeness at the end of 90 minutes of answering the questions together (Two people who were paired this way eventually married. Talk about encouraging results!)
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The questions are aimed at creating conversation that is more meaningful than just the small-talk two strangers usually share at first. They start out relatively simple: “What would constitute a ‘perfect’ day for you?” “If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?” They become steadily more personal: “How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?” “What is your most terrible memory?” And finally, in section three, the questions get especially hard to answer: “When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?” “What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?”
Mandy Len Catronwrote about her experience, asking a casual acquaintance these 36 questions for the New York Times. She did end up falling in love with him, and concluded, “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.”
Since her story went viral, other readers have written in with their own experiences. Not everybody fell in love. Some people used the questions to renew their relationships, and rediscover closeness. Some found the courage to finally say “I love you.” Some people got to know their partners better, but didn’t like what they saw.
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The test isn’t only designed for potential romantic partners, either. It’s just as applicable to friendships, since no relationship can thrive without a level of emotional closeness. And although it’s designed to be used between strangers, my husband and I went through the questions together over the space of an hour. I was a little embarrassed at first, but by the end, we were both wishing the conversation could go on for hours more. We’ve been married for three years, but we learned a lot about each other, and I spent the rest of the day feeling especially close to him.
So if you’re interested in pursuing or deepening a relationship with somebody, romantic or otherwise, maybe skip the small talk. You can even try the freeApp, which was designed with the help of Dr. Aron. Even without going through the whole list of questions, the general principle is clear. If you want to foster closeness, you each need to be willing to let down your walls, and show the other person who you really are, no matter how scary it feels.