Mandy Len Catron talks unsung love stories, the science of affection, and those 36 questions

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      If you’re one of the eight-million-plus people who devoured Mandy Len Catron’s Modern Love essay, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This”—in which the UBC writing instructor detailed a first date with an acquaintance that involved a progressively personal Q & A and four-minute staring contest designed to make two strangers fall in love—you likely have some questions. Or, if you made it to the end of the 2015 New York Times reader-submitted column, where Catron revealed that she and the unnamed gentleman eventually did fall in love, one question.

      “Yes, we’re still together,” the writer admits coyly to the Straight. Catron doesn’t immediately offer more, but over coffee at a South Cambie café, she has no problem sharing that she and her partner, Mark, are at a comfortable place in their relationship. That and the fact that he’s handled the media blitz following the publication of her Modern Love story particularly well. (The essay earned Catron an appearance on the Today show, inspired the plot in an episode of CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, and was the subject of two TED Talks conducted by the Virginia native, among other accolades.)

      However, don’t go asking her about cohabitation, how serious things are, or, worse, whether or not the boy is ready to put a ring on it. “I’m very aware that there’s this conventional progression of a relationship,” she explains. “We’re casually dating, and then we’re dating and exclusive, and then we move in together and get engaged and married, and have children and buy property and whatever. And I’m really trying to think more critically about that approach to relationships. I want to have a healthy sense of skepticism about it.”

      It’s these expectations that Catron tackles in her new book, How to Fall in Love With Anyone, a collection of essays by the writer and teacher that’s one part therapeutic reflection, one part examination of the limiting love stories we’re often spoon-fed in popular culture, and one part continuation of the once-viral Modern Love column that suggests that love—and how and where to find it—is a riddle worth cracking. (The hardcover even includes a list of psychologist Arthur Aron’s 36 questions, which Catron and her partner posed to one another at a Granville Street bar two years ago.)

      “I think everybody wants love, right?” Catron says, attempting to make sense of the story’s popularity. “But not just love; they want this sort of deep, profound intimacy. They want to be known. And I think the questions provide a really straightforward mechanism to achieving that.”

      Sparked by the dissolution of her parents’ 30-year marriage, Catron began researching the subject of love in 2009. At the time, she was knee-deep in doubts about her own decade-long relationship, one that sprouted in college and bonded both parties in a common-law union as part of a lengthy immigration process from the U.S. to Canada. It’s a situation many may be familiar with, where feelings of mutual love and admiration fail to form the basis of the coveted happily-ever-after. It was, as Catron writes, “a problem I didn’t know how to solve”.

      Studying love, then, allowed the creative-writing grad not only to address age-old assumptions about affection, intimacy, and commitment that led her to place her parents’ relationship on a pedestal—and that have influenced her own knowledge of love since—but to systematically make sense of an experience that, more often than not, defies logic. “It seemed like a natural thing to do,” Catron explains. “Take a thing that makes you very anxious and approach it as a legitimate topic of inquiry. And suddenly, that anxiety starts to dissipate.”

      Over the course of How to Fall in Love With Anyone, Catron pieces together the love stories of her parents, her grandparents, and eventually her own, and the ways in which popular media—in the form of fairy tales, romantic comedies, advice columns, and more—inform these experiences. Her personal and thoroughly universal accounts of breakups, what it means to be contentedly single, and dating in the swipe-right era are interspersed with academic musings and research that suggests what we’ve perhaps known all along: that we’ve been conditioned to seek and express love in a very upper- to middle-class, monogamous, and heteronormative way, and that finding love will result in a seemingly happier, more fulfilling life—especially for women.

      “Basically, I felt like there was a gap between how we talk about love in pop culture, in conversations we have with each other, in family histories, and how we actually practise it,” she says. “I wanted to try and make sense of that gap or think about what that gap looked like. And it turns out it looks like a lot of different things.”

      Catron breaks down problematic tropes with poise, pointing out that we need more diverse narratives about love, including and especially those involving LGBT, nonmonogamous, and asexual folks, should we wish to pursue relationships that feel truer and more authentic to ourselves. And although you won’t find these scripts in How to Fall in Love With Anyone, the book does offer a starting point for probing below the superficialities of love—the adorable “how we met” anecdotes and the accepted “love, marriage, baby carriage” plot, for example—and into the nitty-gritty compromises that make love work.

      Like Catron’s Modern Love essay, it also presents a refreshingly novel idea: that the experience is one we have a say in. “I think, so often, we think of love as this thing that happens to us,” states Catron. “And it definitely feels that way sometimes. But we still have a lot of choice about how we want to practise love and what it might look like. And I want people to feel like there’s space to exercise that choice.”

      Mandy Len Catron will discuss How to Fall in Love With Anyone at Book Warehouse (4118 Main Street) on Wednesday (July 5) from 6:30 to 8 p.m.