Three guinea pigs at various levels of relationship status put love under the microscope…
Stacey Siebritz asks a blind date 36 questions designed to make them fall in love
It is after midnight and I am sitting in a bar; it’s five hours into a blind date, and we’re breaking a lot of rules.
What we aren’t breaking is eye contact. I’m gazing into the eyes of a man I’ve just met because it’s the final task in a dating experiment of sorts, one that’s already involved a host of personal questions, ranging from “What would constitute a perfect day for you?” to “How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?” Not your typical first date fodder.
The questions come from a study by psychologist Arthur Aron that explores whether intimacy can be created between two strangers, simply by having them answer a specific set of 36 questions that become increasingly personal as they progress. The idea is that the mutual vulnerability it creates when you both open up is what fosters the intimacy. Once the quizzing is done, there’s an option to intensify it all by gazing into each other’s eyes for “up to four minutes”. Hence the midnight eye contact.
When the date, with a guy I’ll call C, came about, I wasn’t looking to meet anyone. I had been set up on too many meaningless dates; something that Zoe Strimpel, author of The Man Diet refers to as “junk food love”. Dating for the sake of dating is like bingeing on fast food burgers because you’re too bored or impatient to hold out for a nice steak. I’d had enough of the Dubai dating scene.
But the idea of a first date with some science behind it was irresistible, not to mention the possibility of meeting someone that I might actually like. Modern love means finding that balance between healthy cynicism and hopeless romanticism – and every so often, optimism wins out. Did I mention that in Dr Aron’s study, two of the participants ended up getting married? Moving on.
The thing about the 36 questions, which The New York Times app we are using instructs us to go through at a “normal, conversational pace”, is that there’s no time to construct the perfect answer. Let’s be honest, first dates are when we tend to be on our best behaviour. Men pay the cheque, women try not to eat all their date’s chips after ordering a salad.
Tonight C and I are breaking the first rule of first dates: Be As Perfect As Possible. He can’t worry if I’ll find his self-confessed OCD tendencies off-putting, any more than I have time to wonder if he’ll judge my love of karaoke negatively. We are laying everything out on the table, thanks to questions that ask us to reveal the last time we cried, or what we would do if we found out we were going to die a year from today. It is the emotional equivalent of harsh fluorescent lighting. This is #Nofilter dating.
The toughest questions to answer, it turns out, are the ones that have us evaluate each other. “Tell your partner what you like about them already.” Impossible – not because I don’t have anything nice to say, but because I do. And telling him the things I like about him means breaking yet another first date rule: Play It Cool.
Happily, the evening flew by with minimal awkwardness, until it was time for the staring part of the study. Fortunately, he was game, and in the interest of journalism, it had to be done. And so we did it. Timer set for four minutes, we gazed into each other’s eyes, while Dubai nightlife carried on around us. Music blasted from speakers, people stumbled past our table, waiters cleared our glasses – and in the middle of it, there was this pocket of stillness with just us. Looking only at each other.
And how often does that happen? In the age of smartphones and social media, sustained, unequivocal eye contact may be the biggest compliment you can give someone on a date.
So do Dr Aron’s questions work? Well, to continue in the spirit of cringe-inducing vulnerability, I will confess that C was definitely on my mind the next day, and the day after that, far more so than your average first date. Will there be a second one? Perhaps the authors of the study should have made that the 37th question.
Sarah Garden and her partner of a year-and-a-half take a relationship compatibility test
There are currently 10 pages of information detailing how my other half, Iain, feels about me spread across my desk. It ranges from the confidence boosting (looks 5/5, intelligence 5/5), to the slightly despondent (temper 3/5, commitment 3/5). Flicking through the papers, I have an insight into my notoriously closed-off partner’s mind. Overall he’s scored me a whopping 94 per cent. It’s nice to see that he thinks highly of me, but secretly I wonder whether he’s dating a Victoria’s Secret walking Harvard graduate on the side.
We’ve just spent the past few hours with Dr McCarthy at Counselling & Development Clinic Dubai analysing our results. It’s not just the compatibility test that Iain has been generous with, he’s also scored us 100 per cent on the relationship satisfaction questionnaire – possibly because I am indeed amazing; more probably for an easy life.
He’s not alone in his positivity. I’ve also aired on the sunnier side, scoring him 80 per cent for the compatibility evaluation and 90 per cent for relationship satisfaction. I feel smug. Smug and slightly awkward, as I wonder what we’ll spend the remaining hour discussing seeing as our relationship reads like the closing minutes of a Disney film.
“It’s important to remember that these are just numbers,” Dr McCarthy explains. “A couple who score low on compatibility could be very happy, while a couple with a high score might be arguing all the time.” She asks us to take out our relationship communication forms and go through our answers together. That’s when the credits close on our fairy tale… Cinderella and Prince Charming we are not – unless of course Cinderella berates Prince Charming with negative phrases like “you always” and “you never”, and Prince Charming can’t stop an argument once it’s started.
What’s refreshing about discussing these issues, though, is we aren’t accusing each other. We’ve actually made these observations of ourselves. There’s something quite empathetic about the resulting conversation. Hearing someone else point out their’ flaws makes you want to hug them rather than punch them in the face.
From this, Dr McCarthy is able to make very accurate observations about our character traits and general relationship. She asserts that although we are very compatible on the test, there’s a fundamental area where we differ. Iain shows his affection by being reliable rather than romantic, while I am all about the amorous gestures and sentimental words.
We both nod our heads in agreement, finding it difficult to believe she hasn’t known us both our whole lives. I can’t help but stick up for Iain though, because he does try and roll out the romantic red carpet every now and then – apart from that one time that he forgot to buy me a birthday card (“bringing up past failures” is also something I scored badly on).
The test didn’t bring an immediate epiphany, and I wouldn’t say that percentages can portray love or longevity. The experience has, however, had priceless subconscious effects. We’re more aware of each other’s needs, and able to draw on the experience as a springboard for discussion. The therapy session in particular was far more constructive than I thought it would be, seeing as we didn’t have anything we wanted to discuss.
At the end of our session, Dr McCarthy asked us what we liked about each other when we first met. It’s then that I realise that all the qualities I saw in him then, I still see now. I’m with a man who hates talking about his feelings, yet is happy to sit down with two women and do nothing but talk about his feelings for over an hour, just to make me happy. That’s a kind of love that science can’t measure.
For more information visit drmccarthypsychologyclinic.com
Lyndsey Steven and her husband of five-and-a-half years turn to the stars – the ones in the zodiac that is – for a compatibility report
I need to stress from the outset that my husband, Barnaby, is not best pleased at his non-consensual participation in this analysis. Scrap that, he’s livid. While he takes great pride in plastering pictures of our kids all over Facebook, when it comes to our relationship he’s a lot more private.
Trying to convince him that ours is the least invasive of the three tests doesn’t work. With narrowed, disapproving eyes and his jaw firmly and sternly clenched, I fear we may actually need a full-blown counselling session after this. At least he doesn’t have to physically participate as all I have to do is send off our birthdates to Jacqui Deevoy, who has been working as an astrologer for 25 years.
After assessing our birth charts she replies with a detailed report. Her opening line is positive: “Librans and Sagittarians have a fair bit in common. Signs that are two positions apart almost always have a deep connection. Any relationship between these two will be energetic and passionate. They are destined to go far, romantically and geographically”. Great, so we’re not going to get divorced any time soon and we will most likely end up living in British Columbia (or the Bahamas). I like this woman.
Then comes my favourite part, the bit that I’d most like to believe is true. “The Libran lady is excited by her Sagittarian partner’s enthusiasm and desire for adventure. They’re both romantic and affectionate. She keeps him intrigued as she knows how to appeal to his big brain”.
“You see, this isn’t so bad,” I enthuse to Barnaby, reminding him that one of the things that attracted me to him in the first place was his interest in, and knowledge of, everything that is happening in the world. (And according to Julia, I’m the perfect person to keep him both interesting and interested).
There are a few more positives: we understand each other’s needs, make a great team and are resourceful: “They’re not the type to put their plans at risk by overindulging in any way or wasting money. Strangely, although as individuals they can be quite reckless and extravagant (me: shoes, travel and beauty treatments, him: football shirts, travel and Toblerone) together they go the other way and become rather sensible. Because of this, they’re capable of setting up a happy and stable home together.” I’m not sure if this is down to our star signs or the fact that we now have kids and are older and more boring than we used to be, but it does strike a chord.
Of course, no relationship is perfect and while it’s not exactly War of the Roses in our home, our neighbours will no doubt be able to recite one or two of our more, erm, expressive, arguments verbatim.
“There’s the risk that they’ll both spend a lot of time and energy trying to resolve their differences,” says Jacqui a little too accurately for comfort. Because while – despite our South African and Irish origins –we like to think we’re an Italian family where arguing is considered just an exchange of ideas, it can be exhausting. “There could be an ongoing battle for supremacy with each trying to impose their will on the other” gets a big fat tick from us both.
The following comment, however, really raises my husband’s shackles: “She’s more practical and his occasional laziness may bother her”.
“Define occasional laziness!” barks Barnaby, who, be to fair is a new age man in that he does more than his fair share around the house and likes and respects the fact that I have a career.
“Is the laziness displayed, when wiping countless bottoms, washing up for the zillionth time or sterilizing bottles? When I’m suddenly asked if the sterilizer is broken and have to point out that it hasn’t worked for almost a year?”
I quickly steer his attention to the more sanguine commentary and the aspects of our relationship that we can both work on during the year ahead – Jacqui highlights communication and maintaining our own individuality, which seems reasonable enough.
An email pops up. “I have read it a few times now and I’m loath to admit it, but it’s pretty spot on,” Barnaby writes, signing off with a kiss. Perhaps all those songs about love being written in the stars have some substance to them after all.