In 2015, Mandy Len Catron wrote a piece for the New York Times Modern Love column called “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This.” At the time, I was just embarking on a new relationship, hoping to fall in love. One brilliant summer day, I read the essay aloud to my new boyfriend before proposing that we try it out.
Although he agreed, he was reluctant, which should have told me something, perhaps. Still, as the evening progressed, his answers to the questions grew shorter and more guarded. Clearly, he had no intention of falling in love that night.
After we broke up, a few months later, I thought back to that night asking questions that were supposed to lead to love. Nearly until the day of our breakup, my boyfriend had complained about that exercise. I made a mental note to employ it right away in my next relationship—maybe that was one way to identify someone who wasn’t on the same page with me.
Today, Mandy Len Catron releases a book called How To Fall in Love With Anyone, using essays to explore the love stories in her life, and filling in more details on the one she tells in her column. I caught up with her to talk about the book, online dating, and being happy as a single person, among other things.
Tell me a little bit about your book?
The book is basically a collection of essays, and each essay in some way explores the gap between how we talk about love and how we actually practice it. What I mean when I say how we talk about love, is both in terms of the conversations that we have with each other about our own relationships, but also the narratives that we tend to encounter about love in popular culture.
Your Modern Love essay captivated so many people, making its way into pop culture (the questions are featured on an episode of The Big Bang Theory) and conversations near you at restaurants, what do you think it is about the questions and their premise that attracts people?
One of the things that I’ve heard from friends who were online on various dating venues at the time was that they would see people’s profiles with a link to my article, which I thought was really interesting and maybe says a little bit about why that study was so popular. I think, ultimately, the great thing about online dating is it provides all this breadth of potential partners—so suddenly you have access to more people than you would necessarily come across in the course of your day, or through your various friend groups—and I think that’s amazing because I think it offers us more opportunities to find someone who is a good fit. But the trade-off, at least in my own experience with online dating, is that there’s not always a lot of depth, so those interactions are often fairly superficial. People talk about ghosting and feeling like, even though you can meet a lot of people, it’s hard to genuinely connect with someone. I think it’s just this really human thing to want connection, and to want to get to know someone, and maybe, even more than that, to want to be known. I really think we all just want to be known, and we have this idea that love offers us that. So I think maybe the cultural desire that those 36 questions tapped into is just that it’s a mechanism for being known, and I think it feels like a fairly safe way to reveal certain things about yourself to someone else and to ask really probing questions about other people.
Would you tell me a little bit about some of your experiences dating online?
I was online dating for about 3 years, and I really enjoyed it, and then occasionally I got very exasperated by it. I would throw myself into it and it would be fun and exciting and interesting, and I would meet all kinds of people, and then I would get really burned out and I would be like ‘Okay, I’m done, I’m taking 3 months off.’ But I think the best thing that I got out of online dating—I got a lot out of it—I started online dating right out of a very long, very serious relationship—which is the relationship I write a lot about in the book—that was a 10-year relationship, and I think initially, because I had never dated really as an adult, I was 30 years old —I just wanted to feel like there were interesting people out there and that those people would find me interesting, at least some of them. Online dating was great for that, and it was good for developing confidence. Also, the amazing thing is that I made a bunch of new friends—several of whom I’m still in touch with, one of whom I see semi-regularly and is good friends with my partner. There is a sense of community that I got out of it that I don’t think I expected going into it.
There was a lot of anxiety that came with online dating—just lots of wondering: ‘What does this other person want? What’s their goal here and what are they looking for?’ I think sometimes people don’t even know the answers to those questions for themselves, much less are they in a position to explain it to someone else, but I felt like all that ambiguity and feeling through those initial stages of getting to know someone, it was hard and it was stressful. There was this sense that there were sort of rules about how to behave and how not to behave and I found those very stressful—so the great thing about when I went out with Mark, my current partner, we did those 36 questions, it just felt like a real exchange and it felt sincere and authentic in a way that online dating often didn’t.
You write about your parents’ love story and their divorce. What do you see as valuable about love stories, even after they are over?
My parents’ divorce really caused me, ultimately, to write this book. It inspired me to question all of these assumptions I had about love, and one of them was: if you had a really good ‘how we got together’ story that you would probably stay together forever. If you think about that logically, it doesn’t really make sense, but I think I believed it to be true, and actually, I think most people probably believe something like that to be true. It’s one of those unexamined beliefs that’s really pervasive in our culture. I think one reason for that is that the ‘how we met’ narrative is a popular sub-genre of love story. Many of our romantic comedies or young adult books or even pop songs tell the story of how two people met and decided to start a relationship and then that story ends usually with some sort of commitment. But often, I think these stories convey the sense of larger forces at work—there’s some sort of fate or destiny or religious intervention—but basically some sort of force that’s larger than just the wills of the two people.
With my parents, here were these people who did everything right. They had this fantastic story of how they met and got together, and they were also really good people, they still are. They were loving, they were very self sacrificing for the relationship, they always put other people or the interests of the family ahead of themselves, or at least this is my view of it growing up. They went to church every Sunday and they both had a really clear sense of how to be in the world. I write a lot about football when I write about their love story—football is a good metaphor for their relationship, you follow the rules and you succeed, and I think actually, that’s not true necessarily. It isn’t necessarily enough to be kind, to want the relationship to work, and to be a good person, there’s just so much more going on. I don’t know all the reasons that they split up, but I think I learned a lot from examining their story which is that it was a lot more complicated than I believed it to be, and actually all love stories are—we just don’t always acknowledge that.
You write about learning to enjoy being single after your long-term relationship ended. Would you tell me a little about that experience?
That was the best experience. I think back on that period so fondly. I think a big part of my experience was: I was in this relationship for 10 years, there was a sort of on and off rocky start, but ultimately we immigrated to Canada together, we became common law partners, legally, for immigration purposes, and we became adults together. He got me into rock climbing and skiing. The ways that I spent my days were sort of determined by the practice of being in this relationship. In many ways that was fine, but I just didn’t realize what a pleasure it would be—not easy, in any way, there was so much grief and it was really hard—but there was just so much pleasure in the slow dawning realization that it was cool to be accountable to only me—and also my dog—but I could go out and spontaneously go for dinner or go over to a friend’s house. There was no one necessarily who knew where I was all the time or what I was doing. It wasn’t just that—I could stay up as late as I wanted, or I could watch whatever TV shows I wanted. There was no negotiation about anything and it felt so liberating. I think it’s one of the really beautiful things about being single: you’re in charge of you. There are a lot of great things about being in a relationship, but we talk about that stuff all the time and we don’t talk enough, I think about the benefits of being single. I didn’t have a model or any idea of what to expect and I was terrified of ending that relationship because I was so scared of the unknown—but it turned out that the unknown was delightful.
You mention all the advice people gave you as a single person about finding love. What were some of the things people said that you wish they hadn’t, and is there anything you wish you could have said to your single self instead?
I think we often do this, and I’m sure that I too am guilty of this, but I think when we give other people advice we are often not really trying to give someone advice but to justify our own decisions. So people who were married or in a long-term relationship, who had idealized their former single life—maybe their relationship wasn’t that happy, or maybe there was a lot of conflict— those kind of people would be like: ‘You should try dating. It could be fun. You guys should break up.’ People who were single and had anxiety about finding a partner in time to have kids and start a family—they would often be like ‘I don’t think you should be so picky. Just find someone.’ This wasn’t always the case, but often the kind of advice I was given was just people giving themselves advice. I was like a blank slate to project that onto.
The advice that I would give myself, looking back: ‘You’re allowed to ask for more from love. If you feel like this is inadequate, if you think you deserve something better, you can ask for it.’ I think that’s the thing I regret the most about my experiences with love when I was younger. I felt like I had to take what I was given. I felt so passive. If it’s not enough, either ask for more or leave.
There’s also this idea that if you end a relationship you have to go out and find something better, but actually, maybe that better thing is just not being in that relationship and figuring out what it is that you want and how you want to spend your time.
As you prepare to send this book out into the world, what is your hope for your readers?
We make so many plans and decisions about our lives. We decide what kind of career we want and we strategize and we think about where we want to live, and how many kids we want to have, but we leave this one thing up to fate. ‘I’ll let destiny decide my romantic partner.’ I think maybe that’s not a great idea. While you can’t necessarily control who you have feelings for, you can decide who to spend your days with, you can decide what kind of relationship you don’t want to be in. While that’s often easier said than done, going into the experience of love with some knowledge can be really empowering. Ultimately love shapes our lives. It helps determine what cities we move to and how we spend our time, because our partners are such an important part of our daily lives, that it seems we should choose well, and we should think about it as an active choice, not just something that happens to us.
I really want people to consume better love stories. I want people to push themselves to go beyond the mainstream. So many of our stories follow this love, marriage, baby carriage script. I think, so often, we feel like we’re failing if our lives don’t match that script, but in reality lots of people practice love in lots of different ways. I think so often our narratives don’t acknowledge that, and so I really would encourage people to seek more narratives that think about love with more complexity and sort of widen our sense of what’s possible in love.
Cara Strickland writes about food and drink, mental health, faith and being single from her home in the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys hot tea, good wine, and deep conversations. She will always want to play with your dog. Connect with her on Twitter @anxiouscook or at www.carastrickland.com.