And yet as fervently as I hoped one of these recipes would make my confused love life resolve itself, deep down I wasn’t sure love could or should be built out of a manual, like something you assemble from IKEA. We live in an age that generally denies the possibility of the unpredictable. My and all my friends’ unspoken goal is to live flawlessly plotted lives based on perfect self-knowledge. We have to-do lists and bucket lists and two-year, five-year and 20-year plans created with the help of therapists. One of my friends has jiggered his iPhone to blink him reminders of his “core values” all day long, so he won’t even briefly swerve astray.
For me, though, love has been the thing that has broken me out of this dreary quest for perfection. We can only consciously construct what we can already imagine, which is very little. When I was 19 and living in Belgium, I happened to fall in love with a completely inappropriate man, a 33-year-old German pastor who wore white cigarette jeans like a ’70s sitcom hustler and had spent his twenties bicycling around Europe. I never could have dreamed him up with the help of a therapist. That’s what made loving him so life-altering. He was wild, irreverent, given to reading the Song of Solomon in bed and playing hooky from his internship at a theological seminary to take the train to a town he’d never heard of–in other words, nothing like the driven, well-scheduled East Coasters I’d grown up with. And he touched those dormant qualities in myself. At the time, I wrote in a journal that being loved by him felt as if I’d been living in only three cramped rooms of the mansion that was my spirit, and then he came in with a big flashlight and led me by the hand through a warren of never-seen halls, laughing and tearing the sheets off the furniture while I trailed behind him, mouth agape.
Of course, his alluring differences also bashed painfully up against my longing for a partner with whom I felt comfortable all the time. He was too old, he was too odd, he smoked too much; I agonized over the thought of introducing him to my parents. I felt at the time that forcing our relationship to “work” according to some norm would shatter it; it only worked insofar as it was broken, a queer, misshapen thing that just happened to rest beautifully atop the equally queer, misshapen circumstances that constituted our lives at 19 and 33.
Likewise, surfing the web for the solution that would bring my more recent relationship to heel, I feared we couldn’t make it conform to an ideal template. A recent Quartz article insists that when choosing a life partner, we have to search for the right “eating companion for about 20,000 meals,” “travel companion for about 100 vacations,” “parenting partner” and “career therapist”–all while admitting that contemplating such a project “is like thinking about how huge the universe really is or how terrifying death really is.” The author assures you, though, that using a spreadsheet will help you feel as if it’s “fully in your control.” I guess this is supposed to be empowering; I suspect it actually puts relationships under a kind of pressure beneath which many would crumble. My boyfriend and I came from very different countries, from different kinds of families. That we managed to love each other at all was already a miracle.
When we imagine that every human life and every complex love can be molded to fit a scientifically derived ideal, we cover our eyes to the realities of circumstance–and shame people who can’t manage to twist their circumstances to that ideal. Simon May, the philosopher who writes on love, told me that he’s known people who were accused of basic psychological failings when they couldn’t make their relationships work out. “But we have to take into account all the literature on unhappy love,” he said. “I don’t think it’s just people getting it wrong or not trying hard enough.” He called love an “earthy emotion” that often provokes restless feelings like tension and guilt, and suggested the assumption that every love affair can be managed denies the full humanity of our partners, their own “inscrutable and uncontrollable” natures. They aren’t things we can program for maximum impact like a FitBit.
As I dug a little deeper into the work behind the love articles, I found that some of the people responsible for the science felt it held fewer definitive answers than we want to believe. One of them was Arthur Aron, the Stony Brook research psychologist whose work the Times glossed in “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This.” He was working at his second home in California when I called him. He laughed when I mentioned the Times story. He’d designed the 36 questions, he said, to artificially “create closeness” in a laboratory setting between same-sex heterosexual strangers, not lovers. One of his grad students had also tried the method on some heterosexual opposite-sex pairs, and one pair had, funny enough, fallen in love, but the lab hadn’t followed up with the others.
Aron has studied love in many other experiments, and he’s been struck by how contextual factors influence relationships. “Unfortunately the single biggest [factor], if you look across the world, is stress,” he said. “If you’re very poor, if you’re in a crime-ridden neighborhood, it’s hard for any relationship to work out very well. That’s not one we can do much about as individuals.”
Aron also pointed out that a lot of the science on happy love was based on averages, creating a norm away from which couples can stray very, very far and still be happy. Take a recent study claiming the ideal age to marry is between 25 and 34. The study reflects the center hump of a scattered group of dots representing pairs older and younger that all work in their own way. And the reporting on it outrageously inverts causation. The study’s authors mused that people who married younger might have been less settled, and those who waited until later might have been be more “congenitally cantankerous,” upping their divorce rates. That doesn’t mean arbitrarily marrying in your late twenties would do anything whatsoever to improve your chances. And yet, I still read a story on Vox headlined, “Want to Avoid Divorce? Here’s the Best Age to Get Married.”