Intimacy, Intersectionality and Arthur Aron’s “36 Questions To Fall In Love”

By Maxine Kozak, Writer for RU Student Life

Cynics reduce love to a neurochemical con job. Romantics understand it as something beyond the realm of cause and effect. Ultimately, how can the extremely subjective and difficult to articulate experience of love be reconciled with the objective, definitive world of science? It is a big question armed with nuances and complexities, as can be expected when intersections of identity come into play.

In 1997, psychologist and expert of intimacy Arthur Aron set out to do just that. He carried out a three-part study that was centered around generating interpersonal closeness in a lab setting. Aron wanted to understand the deliberate actions that intimacy entails and thus, unpack the experience of love itself. He proposed that intimacy often manifests through “sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personalistic self-disclosure”.

Through each phase, the study evolved significantly. In the first phase, subjects were given one of two lists of questions that facilitated either self-disclosure or small-talk. Naturally, the study found considerably lower levels of post-interaction closeness from those who engaged in small talk and so, in later phases, only the questions that encouraged vulnerability were included in the study.

These 36 questions were divided into three sets that gradually become more and more probing. The idea is that these questions facilitate self-disclosure and thus, generate interpersonal closeness.

Aron’s Closeness-Generating Procedure
Aron’s Small-Talk Condition

The experiment initially matched participants based on a questionnaire that determined attachment styles and altitudinal issues of importance. Later, self-identification as introverted or extroverted replaced attachment styles as a field of inquiry.

They also incorporated the participant’s expectations of mutual liking with their partner as well as the participant’s understanding of intimacy as the goal into the experiment. Aron and his team manipulated each of these elements as the procedure went on to yield further insights.

The key finding of the study was that of the 58 pairs represented in the follow-up questionnaires, 57% had at least one subsequent conversation, 35% had done something together and 37% had subsequently sat together in class. What’s more: six months later, two participants were married. They invited the entire lab to the ceremony.

The idea is that vulnerability fuels love but of course, that’s not all. A scientific study of love would be remiss not to incorporate intersectionality into the conversation. We must beg the question: how do our different experiences of the world interact when we come together?

Intimacy is not an equal-opportunity experience. The terms of our lives often pre-determine not only the ways we walk through the world but also our experiences of being seen. Discrimination and oppression structure varied experiences of intimacy.

For example, generations of gendered power imbalance still plague our relationships, whether platonic or romantic. Muriel Dimen accurately sums it up in writing, “culture makes women both human and nonhuman, and they know it, and they must swallow and reject what they know in order to go from day to day. Where empowerment is thus unequal, intimacy cannot easily grow”.

Further, ableism plagues intimate relations. As Pamela Block writes, “the artificial binary of ‘function’ and ‘dysfunction’, so central to much of occupational therapy teaching, is rendered doubly problematic in the area of sexuality and intimacy, given the subjective nature of desire so fundamentally shaped by cultural contexts, beliefs, social structures, relations of power and individual preferences”.

The examples are endless. Individuals may present certain elements of intersecting identities depending on who they are with. Intimacy within one group translates differently within others and for many, intimacy is elusive amidst masks adorned for comfort and protection.

Arthur Aron primarily studied participant’s preferences and personality traits and avoided difficult conversations of how intersections of age, class, race, gender, ability and sexuality combine and influence intimacy. I can’t help but wonder what Aron’s study might look if intersectionality was deliberately woven into his exploration.

This Valentines Day, consider trying Arthur Aron’s 36 questions with a partner or friend. As you ask and answer, you may find yourself reflecting on how your intersecting identities influence your experiences of intimacy. As always, there is much to unpack.