“A beautifully written and well-researched cultural criticism as well as an honest memoir” (Los Angeles Review of Books) from the author of the popular New York Times essay, “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This,” explores the romantic myths we create and explains how they limit our ability to achieve and sustain intimacy.
What really makes love last? Does love ever work the way we say it does in movies and books and Facebook posts? Or does obsessing over those love stories hurt our real-life relationships? When her parents divorced after a twenty-eight year marriage and her own ten-year relationship ended, those were the questions that Mandy Len Catron wanted to answer.
In a series of candid, vulnerable, and wise essays that takes a closer look at what it means to love someone, be loved, and how we present our love to the world, “Catron melds science and emotion beautifully into a thoughtful and thought-provoking meditation” (Bookpage). She delves back to 1944, when her grandparents met in a coal mining town in Appalachia, to her own dating life as a professor in Vancouver. She uses biologists’ research into dopamine triggers to ask whether the need to love is an innate human drive. She uses literary theory to show why we prefer certain kinds of love stories. She urges us to question the unwritten scripts we follow in relationships and looks into where those scripts come from. And she tells the story of how she decided to test an experiment that she’d read about—where the goal was to create intimacy between strangers using a list of thirty-six questions—and ended up in the surreal situation of having millions of people following her brand-new relationship.
“Perfect fodder for the romantic and the cynic in all of us” (Booklist), How to Fall in Love with Anyone flips the script on love. “Clear-eyed and full of heart, it is mandatory reading for anyone coping with—or curious about—the challenges of contemporary courtship” (The Toronto Star).
How to Fall in Love with Anyone the exploded star the myth of the right person In early 2010, I signed a declaration of marriage to a man I was thinking of leaving.
“It’s official,” Kevin said as he arrived home from work, dropping a folder on the coffee table next to my slippered feet. “We are now married in the eyes of the Canadian government.”
Inside, signed and notarized, was our statutory declaration of common-law union, just one of many documents required for us to formally immigrate to Canada.
“Well,” I said, without looking up, “I guess we should celebrate.”
I didn’t think we should celebrate.
Kevin said nothing and walked into the kitchen.
It was mid-February, and I was teaching four courses, which meant four classes to plan and four sets of papers to grade. I read papers over coffee in the morning and I fell asleep on the couch with a stack in my lap each night.
I was so grateful that Kevin had taken over the work of our permanent-residency application, carefully printing our names and all our previous addresses in tiny boxes. I knew I should thank him—I wanted to thank him—but instead I stared blankly at his name and signature next to mine. I ran my fingers over the raised seal. We could file taxes together, and if one of us were on life support, the other could decide how long the plug stayed in its outlet. After nine years together, having these legal options made sense. But the irony of this moment was obvious to us both: The documentation confirming our legal union had finally arrived after weeks of indecision about whether we should stay together or split up.
I remember thinking that what my dad said was true: It’s the little things that keep a couple together. Today we are together, I thought, to avoid another mound of paperwork, another two-year wait.
• • •
If pressed, I could not have told you what was wrong with our relationship. We’d always argued, but this was different. It was quiet and sustained, as if our relationship had fallen ill. The illness seemed contagious.
When I woke up coughing in the middle of the night, I thought of the doctor who’d said the respiratory system was the first thing to erode under long-term stress. I’d been skeptical, but maybe she was right.
Kevin stirred as the bed shook with each rumble of my chest. He rolled against me and stretched a leg across my thighs, wrapped an arm under my chin. “This better?” he murmured, and I realized that, in his sleepy state, he was trying to hold my coughs in with the weight of his body. I inhaled slowly and relaxed my diaphragm. It was better.
Even after a day of sharp-edged silence, he could soothe the effects of the common cold. In the bookstore the week before, I’d sat on the floor with a copy of the psychologist John Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, in which he claimed that long-term partners become physiologically interdependent, regulating each other’s immunity and heart rate. But in a relationship where individual needs aren’t met, partners feel low-level chronic physical and emotional stress, weakening the immune system.1 I wondered which was happening to us.
I tried to count how many days had passed since I’d felt his body against mine—four, at least. Or five? I thought of a cough I’d had years before—the worst I’d ever had. For a week I woke up gasping in the night, an unscratchable itch in my lungs. At first Kevin would wake up, alarmed by the frantic spasms of my body. Then, growing accustomed to it, he’d roll over and sleepily rub my back. “You have to go to the doctor,” he’d whispered between my coughing fits.
We lived apart then, but spent every night together. Even when I was sick, even when we did nothing but sleep. I’d get home from night class at eleven thirty, drop my books on my bed, and bike down the hill to his house. I’d let myself in, tiptoe up to his room, and crawl under the covers beside him. I’d wake up before dawn, pull on my jeans, and ride to the small coffee shop where I worked on Capitol Hill. It was always worth the inconvenience: a few hours of his body pressed against mine in the dark.
I wondered then, as I still sometimes do, what else I have loved as much as I loved his skin, the way it wrapped up his muscles and bones, the softness between his shoulder blades where I placed my lips each night, as we drifted into sleep. That’s how I fell in love with him in college, when we slept belly to back, my nose tucked against his neck, when the daytime was just a placeholder for the night.
• • •
But now I was twenty-nine and I was thinking about getting married and starting a family. And I didn’t know if I wanted to do those things with this man I’d fallen for in college.
This was a problem I had no idea how to solve.
I understood that it was possible to love someone at twenty and not want to spend your life with him. Unlike Kevin and me, most of our friends had moved on from their college relationships. At twenty, I’d assumed we’d move on, too.
And, thanks to my parents’ divorce a few years earlier, I knew it was possible to spend a lifetime with someone and then just fall out of love.
But it had never occurred to me that you could love someone the way I loved Kevin—that you could want to wake up with him every morning and go to bed with him every night—but not know if you wanted to commit the rest of your life to him.
Kevin didn’t really want kids. He didn’t particularly want to get married, though he wasn’t opposed to long-term commitment. If the conflict had been as simple as that—one of us wanted marriage and family and the other didn’t—we might’ve known what to do. Maybe I didn’t want a child that badly, anyway, I often thought. I just wanted the choice. I wanted to be able to have a conversation about it that didn’t turn into an argument. I felt sure that if we solved our other problems, we could negotiate about marriage and family. But it wasn’t quite clear what our other problems were.
I’d injured my knee, and while Kevin went backcountry skiing with friends, I spent my weekends feeding egg cartons to the woodburning stove in our drafty Vancouver bungalow. I walked the dog in the rain. I graded papers.
I could feel my world narrowing as his widened across the mountains of southwestern British Columbia. The night before a powder day, he was giddy. He could barely sleep. I’d never felt so alienated by someone else’s enthusiasm. It seemed selfish to hope he’d stay home with me, so I said nothing. Instead, I booked a week in Costa Rica with friends. While I was gone, I didn’t call. I didn’t email. I wanted him to feel what I’d felt, to know I was having fun, but to be unable to see the precise contours of my days.
Our relationship had started long-distance, and all I wanted—more than I have wanted anything before or since—was to share my days with him. Now that we had that life, I worried that I’d signed a contract with Love that couldn’t be undone. Despite my alienation, I still felt bound to Kevin by that sense of wanting—and by love. I still wanted his time, his company, his attention, his skin. It would be easier, I often thought, if one of us just stopped loving the other.
• • •
“When you see older couples, do you think of you and Kevin?” my friend Liz prompted one day. We were shopping for her wedding dress on a Sunday afternoon when an elderly couple walked by hand in hand.
“No,” I said honestly. “I don’t think of us when I see eighty-year-olds holding hands.” In fact, I usually assumed those couples were on their second or third marriage. But then I backtracked: “Well, I don’t think Kevin is the one person for me in the whole world. But I feel like he’s mine. I can’t really imagine my life with someone else. You know what I mean?”
Liz smiled with her mouth but frowned with her eyes. She did not know what I meant. How could she? She was planning a wedding to someone she never really argued with. Someone she had no doubts about. The certitude of people like Liz annoyed me. People who knew they would spend their life with someone were like people who knew they were going to heaven. It just seemed so audacious, so irrational. But Liz was not irrational. She was a social psychologist, one of my most accomplished academic friends. This pointed to a more likely problem: me. What if I was the irrational one, clinging to a relationship that was obviously doomed? Maybe I was the only one who couldn’t see it.
Did it really matter if I didn’t think of Kevin when I saw a happy elderly couple? Did it matter how often we argued? As long as he came into the bedroom before work and lay down on top of me, stuffing the covers around me, saying, “Wake up, my little breakfast burrito!” and peppering my forehead with kisses, how could I envision my life with someone else? Even if I couldn’t see us together at eighty, I couldn’t bear the thought of waking up alone tomorrow.
A summer earlier, we’d spent our days on a small Greek island, rock climbing every morning and swimming in the Aegean every afternoon. “Man, it must suck to be everybody else,” Kevin said one night as we took the switchbacks up the hill toward the tiny island studio we’d rented. We took the high road bordered with oleander, the long way home. We agreed that we even felt sorry for the people we were before we arrived, with their busy lives that didn’t include gazing at limestone cliffs in the long after-dinner light of June, saying, “Let’s climb that one tomorrow.” Remembering this trip left me gutted by the thought of a life without him. Even the smell of fresh thyme could sideline me. Or the evening breeze as I biked home from work. I’d recall how it felt to climb on our rented scooter and motor around the island to our favorite dinner spot. It was the sweetened, condensed brand of happiness, I thought, with my arms tight around him after a dinner of mackerel and salty cheese salad.
• • •
I often found myself online, clicking through strangers’ wedding albums. I was looking for something: a gaze; a goofy, helpless grin; a face twisted by joy, half smiling, half crying. It was a look I knew from movies, the way Hugh Grant grins at Julia Roberts in the last scene of Notting Hill. I wanted to know if it existed, that happiness beyond doubt, or if it was just a myth.
Occasionally, I saw a glimpse of it, a look that said, I am making the best decision of my life, on a stranger’s Flickr feed or in an acquaintance’s wedding album. The expression was one of excruciating contentment: a groom reaching for his husband’s hand, a bride catching her mother’s eye. It astounded me, this extreme gratitude in the face of lifetime commitment. How unself-conscious these people seemed, how sure.
I read blogs written by stylish thirtysomethings who seemed to have it together. One—a friend of a friend—had written a short note on the occasion of her wedding anniversary. She and her writer-filmmaker husband had married young and, naturally, had three stylish and self-possessed children. Her reflection on her wedding struck me as particularly genuine: “Was it the happiest day of my life? Probably not. Was it the best decision I ever made? Yes.”
Yes, I wrote in my journal. It just got to me, that “yes.” I want to feel like that.
I don’t think I knew what I was looking for at the time, but I can see it now. It had something to do with finding the right person to love: Was the idea of “the one” real or a myth?
After my parents’ divorce, I’d come to understand that even a marriage between the most well-matched people could fail. This possibility had displaced any hope I’d had about finding the perfect person.
I found photos from a friend’s wedding that spring: Kevin and I standing on the bow of a boat at sunset. In one, he lifts me as my hair flies up. His arms are tight around my chest. In another, my head is thrown back in laughter as he turns toward me with a broad smile. It looks as if our teeth are about to bump. The Strait of Georgia glistens in the background. There in my lopsided grin and the deep crinkles around his eyes is the evidence: We were happy, we loved each other. Weren’t those the expressions I’d been looking for?
• • •
On one of my Google binges, I made the mistake of reading Lori Gottlieb’s infamous article in the Atlantic, “Marry Him! The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.”2
Gottlieb presented me with two conflicting ideas. One, which I wanted to agree with, was that there was no perfect person. If this was true, staying with someone I genuinely loved seemed wise. The other idea was that if a woman my age (almost thirty) wanted to have kids (which I sort of thought I did), she’d better find someone to do it with. Soon.
As spring turned to summer, I began to feel that nothing was knowable, especially my own feelings. Sure, we had our problems, but they were pretty small compared to Jane and Mr. Rochester’s. On sunny Saturdays, when we went rock climbing and then for gelato, my constant uncertainty seemed ridiculous. Our life was good. We were good together. Other days we’d argue over dinner (the salmon filet was too small, the rice took too long to cook, we should’ve gotten takeout, you should’ve said that earlier) and I would feel resolved about moving on.
I often thought of my parents. “We just don’t love each other anymore,” my mom had said. “Not like we used to.” Maybe time inevitably corrodes, and love always requires settling, I thought. Perhaps if they’d had the chance, even Romeo and Juliet or Dido and Aeneas would’ve eaten a late dinner in stony silence. If I went through the trouble of moving out and moving on, would I eventually find myself at another table, across from another man, both of us wanting a little bit more? Did all long-term love eventually lead to a series of inadequate salmon dinners?
When I finally expressed my uncertainty about Kevin to my dad, he said, in his usual fatherly way, “Well, honey, I’m sure you’ll make the right choice.”
“But what is a ‘right choice’?” I asked, exasperated. I hated this way of talking about love, but I caught myself doing it, too. The right choice, the right person, the right kind of love, the one. Was it moral rightness or narrative rightness—a good person or a good story? As far as I could tell, rightness and wrongness were only ever apparent in retrospect. Relationships aren’t quizzes you can pass or fail, but we insist on talking about them as if they are.
• • •
When it comes to love, moral rightness seemed simple: Choose Mr. Darcy instead of Mr. Wickham. But Jane Austen said nothing about the guys I was into—people who were intelligent and creative and fun, who disliked authority but really cared about the environment. Who qualified as a good person was just never that clear to me. Not only that, but it seemed like there was no guarantee that a good person would make a good partner.
From a narrative perspective, making the right choice is any outcome that gets you closer to a happy ending: marriage to the right person. I thought of those Choose Your Own Adventure books I loved as a kid. “You and YOU ALONE are in charge of what happens in this story,” they warned at the start. But this wasn’t quite true. You could make choices, but there were only ever two options: If you want to seek a husband who wants a family, turn to page 21; If you are content with a common-law marriage and a very sweet dog, go to page 18. Which ending would be happier?
There is a strange logic to the idea of a soul mate. To believe that such a person exists is to believe that destiny is a real and active force in our lives. But it also means believing that there are wrong people, and wrong choices. Accepting both rightness and choice requires simultaneous investment in the forces of fate and free will.
In a letter to his brothers, the Romantic poet (and notable hopeless romantic) John Keats argued that the greatest artists were capable of inhabiting paradox. He called this “negative capability,” defining it as “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” In college, I’d loved this idea. My students liked it, too. But maybe this central tenet of Romanticism—preferring beauty to logic, choosing a good story that relies on a paradox over a dull story that better reflects how the world really works—exemplifies how most of us see the world at twenty-two, the same age Keats was when he wrote that letter. By twenty-nine, I was less taken with Romanticism.
Talking about “rightness” seemed like a way of obscuring more subtle questions—not “Is there someone better for me out there?” but “Why is it so hard to be kind to the person I love?” It seemed like a way of ignoring the fact that we make bad choices all the time, that every life contains a healthy dose of disappointment, and that, even with our best efforts, outcomes can never be fully controlled.
• • •
Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to discover how our neural pathways flood with dopamine when we look at a photo of someone we love. Dopamine itself isn’t love; it doesn’t make us happy. But Fisher and her colleagues believe the presence of dopamine in the parts of the brain associated with reward and motivation—the ventral tegmental area and the caudate nucleus—suggests that love is an innate human drive. I found this immediately reassuring: If the need to love is encrypted in our biology, maybe I was supposed to feel like love was controlling me.
A drive is any fundamental motivator, like sex or thirst. Or, to be biological about it, a brain system “oriented around the planning and pursuit of a specific want or need.”3 Fisher’s research suggests that the mysteries of the heart in fact all reside in the brain, and that romantic love evolved to help direct reproduction—not just in humans but in all mammal species. She also believes the drive for love is separate from the sex drive, though they often work together: While lust inspires us to “seek a range of mating partners,” love “motivates individuals to focus their courtship energy on specific others.” This is evolution’s way of saving our species time and energy.4
I sometimes worried that Kevin was my one great love. Even if I ended things and found someone new, I was afraid any other love would feel diluted somehow. Studying the biological mechanics of love soothed me. The lack of romance in phrases like courtship energy and mammalian mate choice made love predictable and unextraordinary. If I believed love was mundane, I thought, maybe I could take away some of its power.
• • •
When Kevin and I moved to Vancouver, a city where it was relatively common to stay in a long-term serious relationship without getting married, we stopped calling each other “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.” Instead, I introduced him as “my partner, Kevin.” Now, the immigration process had made us spouses. I thought of a spouse as someone who drove a sporty station wagon with a car seat in the back. Someone with a wedding ring and a mutual fund and a belt clip for his cell phone. Kevin was not that kind of spouse. That he never wanted to be a spouse at all had appealed to me at twenty, but now I wondered if a sporty station wagon was so terrible.
Still, I couldn’t tell how much of my desire for a spouse was mine, and how much was what I thought I was supposed to want at my age—I didn’t know what was real and what was scripted.
My spouse and I spent our evenings in the living room, him scanning photographs while I marked papers or wasted time online. Kevin’s mouse click-clicked, and the scanner hummed and buzzed. He’d recently gotten into film photography and spent hours digitally removing specks of dust, adjusting the color and contrast in his latest stack of negatives. When we were getting along, I’d joke that the scanner’s noises were the sound track to my life. “Just think of all the free time you’d have if you got your photos scanned at the lab,” I said. But I suspected he enjoyed the exercise in control. And I loved that about him—that he insisted on shooting film when most people used digital; that he cared about specks of dust, though I wished he cared less about crumbs on the countertop. But isn’t this the problem with falling in love? You can’t find someone who is endearingly annoyed by dust on film but who isn’t annoyingly annoyed by crumbs on counters. You can’t select for meticulous creative output and against dishrag-use tutorials.
I considered all this from my spot on the futon. It was the first piece of furniture we’d ever bought together—for eighty dollars on Craigslist. The fabric was faded, and, like so many other things in our home, covered in dog hair. I found black hairs in the loaves of bread I baked, in the padding of my bras, poking out from under the space bar on my computer. That was life in our tiny house on Ash Street. A good life, even on a quiet Friday night in June, where at least some things, like dog hairs, were certain. And others, like the futon, familiar. When I dared to picture my life without these things, without the scanner’s busy hum and Kevin sporadically turning the monitor my way to ask, “What do you think of this one?” I felt a simmering panic.
• • •
In June, a letter came saying we were official permanent residents of Canada. For months, I’d been telling myself that I wouldn’t make any decisions about our relationship until this letter arrived. That evening the sunlight stretched across the table as we celebrated over pizza and beer and I felt hopeful.
A few days later I woke up to Kevin shouting from the kitchen: “Are we out of granola?”
He knows the answer to this question, I thought. He knows it by opening the cabinet door.
In the summer, Kevin always woke up first, fed the dog, made coffee. I’d linger in bed, half-asleep, until he came to set a hot mug on the windowsill and kiss me goodbye.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled, willing myself to the surface of the day. “I just forgot to get some.”
I considered throwing on the dress that lay crumpled on the floor and running to the store. But I was trying to fight this impulse to please him. I pulled the duvet higher instead. I squeezed my eyes tight and imagined a life where, when I forgot to buy something, no one cared. If I ran out of granola while living alone, I thought, I could make eggs. Or oatmeal. I could eat toast and jam or just grab a cranberry muffin from the café down the street. I could stop eating granola altogether and switch to bagels with peanut butter and honey. I could get up early and make pancakes every day if I wanted to.
• • •
I continued researching romantic love—in fields ranging from evolutionary psychology to metaphor theory—and immediately applied whatever I read to my relationship. Sometimes this gave me insight. Often it left me more confused.
I read that in most cases early-stage romantic love—the heart-thumping, fluttering, all-consuming infatuation—doesn’t last long. The details always varied, but each article cited evidence that suggested this kind of love had evolved to last between six months and four years. Helen Fisher called this the “four-year itch,” suggesting that love is an adaptation that helps us focus on one person long enough to conceive and raise a child through toddlerhood. The thinking went that parents who were in love were more likely to cooperate, which meant their offspring were more likely to survive those vulnerable first years.
I liked the idea that the intensity of love had a predetermined tenure. Those couples who stayed together after the four-year mark were still bonded, but they had settled into the pleasantly domestic phase of companionate love. This seemed practical: We couldn’t all stay in passionate love forever, or we’d have a lot of sappy songs but no functional bridges. Companionate love, on the other hand, was characterized by steadiness and teamwork. Companionate love sounded nice.
But this theory didn’t really match my experience. My first couple of years with Kevin, the ones that are meant to be starry-eyed and heady, were disrupted by long stretches on separate continents. Even now, sometimes, as I biked home from night class, I still thrilled at getting there to find him at his desk, kissing his temple, his face, the soft spot just below his earlobe. I craved the feeling of his cheekbone against my lips the same way I longed to scrape the cookie batter from the spatula, crushing sugar crystals between my teeth. It was physical, visceral, not quite erotic but not domestic either. I worried we were like a skipping record, stuck somewhere between the first movement of love and the second.
Sometimes, when we argued and I threatened to end the relationship—which I often did, hoping, I think, to provoke him into either commitment or a breakup—I asked Kevin, wouldn’t he like to start over with someone who never left a dish in the sink? Who always kept yogurt in the fridge and granola in the pantry? But unlike me, he refused to fantasize about a better version of love.
“This is your problem,” he said. “Until you’re sure you actually want to be in this relationship, it’s not going to work.”
“Well, I don’t want to stay together just because it’s too much work to find someone else,” I snapped back.
We discussed the sunk cost fallacy. This economic theory suggests that the more you invest in something, the more difficult it is to abandon, and it could be usefully applied to relationships. It was not a good idea, we agreed, to stay together simply because we had been together so long.
But this was more difficult in practice. Even if we didn’t always like each other that much, even if we forgot our promises to be kind and patient, it felt good to know someone as well as we knew each other. It felt good to be known. The prospect of getting to know someone new—of even finding someone worth knowing—was daunting. The prospect of becoming unknown was paralyzing.
I was almost thirty and I’d never really dated. Kevin and I had become adults together. Who would I become without the gravitational pull of his habits and preferences? Slowly, though, a single impulse began to crystallize: Though we were married according to the Canadian government, I did not want to sign a lease with him in September. The thought of it made me nauseous. I didn’t know where I would live, but I knew that if I had to spend another winter alone while Kevin skied every weekend without me, I’d rather do it in my own apartment.
• • •
In ordinary life, the reasons for leaving someone are not as clear as they are in our stories. There was no ex hidden in our attic, no great betrayal—only a vague but persistent desire for change. The argument was barely an argument, just a disagreement about how we would spend our Saturday. But somehow, over the course of a conversation that resembled a hundred others, I could see that being apart would be just a little bit easier than staying together.
I told him so. And, for once, he agreed.
It was early July, which meant another two months in the bungalow on Ash Street. Neither of us could afford to move out sooner. Because I had never ended a relationship before, I was surprised to see what little bearing it had on our daily routine. It seemed the years of accumulated expectation had obscured a genuine fondness for each other. It felt as if we’d undertaken a new project together, as if, for the first time in months, we were on the same team. And perhaps it was those two months—the space between the decision to move apart and the actual move-out date—that made the decision possible. There was a window in which it might all be undone. We still had each other’s daily company. We didn’t know yet how lonely we would become.
• • •
In Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, Rob (played in the movie by John Cusack) gets dumped by Laura. Confused and distressed, he goes back to each of his exes, hoping to figure out why he can’t make a relationship last. Ultimately, as in countless other books and movies, the heartbroken protagonist finally gets it: He was taking the person he loved for granted. And thanks to this hard-won revelation, he now knows how to be a better partner.
In love stories, people have epiphanies. They don’t know what they’ve got until it’s gone—or at least jeopardized. And then suddenly they do know. And they change. They become more thoughtful and selfless. As an English teacher, I was good at identifying these basic narrative tropes. I was not good, however, at distinguishing between tropes and my own experiences.
After our official breakup, I found myself waiting for Kevin’s epiphany. He would see how much he stood to lose. How much he loved me. And he would become the perfect person for me: Ultra Kevin, Kevin Plus.
When he went to the desert with his parents a few weeks later, Kevin called every night. I longed to be there—with the in-laws who had been so welcoming from the day we met, with Kevin as he sat in a rental car in the hotel parking lot, sipping a beer.
“I miss you,” he said, when we ended each call. I pictured the dusty pavement and dramatic horizons of northern Arizona. Did it look the same to him now as it had on our drive to Vancouver four years earlier?
If I am honest, it feels good to know that he needs me, I wrote in my journal. A part of me wants this to be one of those transformative experiences, where we suddenly learn how to be good to each other. To be loving and kind.
I was not convinced that love ever really worked like that, but that didn’t keep me from wishing it would. With one of us in the desert and the other in the rain forest, it was easy to temper our unkindness and selfishness. But changing our habits seemed nearly impossible. The day he came home, we fought over whose turn it was to buy toilet paper.
Missing each other didn’t make us get along better. Insight did not equal improvement.
• • •
Maybe there aren’t many stories about ambivalent breakups because such stories do little to confirm our assumptions about the power of love. Instead, they render love an ordinary experience. I suspect the magnitude and authority we have attributed to love is what kept scientists away from it for so long: Psychologists didn’t really tackle romantic love until the 1970s and ’80s; biologists joined the conversation in the ’90s. I think many of us want to believe that love cannot be known, that the mysteries of the heart have to remain mysterious.
I couldn’t see then how many years it would be before all this thinking about love and love stories would begin to cohere and I’d feel better equipped to make decisions about love. Just before I moved out, I sat in the living room and wrote, I wish I could fast-forward to the moment when this moment has passed, when I am sure that I’m okay, even though I am not on this couch, and I am no longer living on Ash Street. I imagined it like a movie montage, where I might look back with wistful nostalgia, glad that part of my life had passed, but remembering how sweet it had once been.
Now that I am in this moment, I can see that I did do the right thing—and “right” really is the word for it. I am not just okay, but happier. A better version of love did exist. But I moved out of that house with little assurance. Eventually, I would come to see that I’d been thinking of moral rightness in love the wrong way. My job was not to choose a good person to love, but rather to be good to the person I’d chosen. Extraordinary love was not defined by the intensity with which you wanted someone, but by generosity and kindness and a deep sense of friendship. You had to love someone and like them.
• • •
Not long after we agreed to move apart, I spent the day moping around the house until Kevin asked what was wrong. I was sad, I told him. He said I should stop being so serious and suggested we go play tennis. After an hour or so of rallying, we sat on a bench, chugging water, wiping our foreheads. “I just want us to be happy,” he said softly. Our lives wouldn’t change all that much, he assured me. We’d still have the same friends.
It had not occurred to me that either of us would lose friends. In that moment, I saw how much had gone uncounted: his mother’s sour cream pound cake, his father’s kisses delivered with a firm smack on my cheek, pizza nights and bike repairs and cookie dough and climbing trips and mutual friends.
I burst into hot sobs, my chest expanding and contracting with a force that drew uncomfortable glances from the color-coordinated doubles team on the neighboring court. Kevin seemed to understand as we sat together among the sweating Vancouverites, waiting for the spasms in my lungs to subside.
We walked home and cracked open beers and sat side by side in the hammock on the back porch. Deciding to break up, I thought, was like learning a star had burned out in a distant galaxy, even though you can still see it in the sky: You know something has irrevocably changed, but your senses suggest otherwise. Everything looks normal. Better than normal, even, on a summer afternoon in a hammock.
I would fall in love with a poet, he said, with pasty skin. Or maybe a monosyllabic outdoorsman named Chuck or Bud. We laughed, a little intoxicated by the possibility of laughter in the face of our unknown futures. I tried, but I couldn’t imagine his next girlfriend. She was prettier than me, I felt sure, but not smarter. I refused to allow him that.
When we settled into silence, our eyes followed the dog around the porch as he cracked cherry pits in his teeth. Kevin called him over, digging his fingers into glossy black fur as Roscoe leaned into him. “I feel like I’m losing a lot,” Kevin said quietly. I leaned my head back to watch the sky darken.
For once, I didn’t think about whether we were doing the right thing. I didn’t think about how hard it would be. Or how sad I would feel. I stopped wondering if rightness was something two people just had at the beginning or something they made together, over time. We had found a way forward—a way to be kind to each other—and, right or wrong, it was a relief.
We got up and vacuumed out his car and went for burritos on Commercial Drive. As we sipped cheap sangria, I thought about how, to everyone else in the restaurant, we must look like a normal couple eating a normal dinner: the exploded star, light-years away, still shining.
Originally from Appalachian Virginia, Mandy Len Catron now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her writing has appeared in the TheNew York Times, The Walrus, and The Rumpus as well as literary journals and anthologies. She writes about love and love stories at The Love Story Project (TheLoveStoryProject.ca). She teaches English and creative writing at the University of British Columbia. Her article “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This” was one of the most popular articles published by The New York Times in 2015. How to Fall in Love with Anyone is her first book.
A beautifully written and well-researched cultural criticism as well as an honest memoir. —Los Angeles Review of Books
"Personal musings and reminiscences paired with solid research provide an interesting stroll through an abstract topic." —Kirkus Reviews
"Honest and well-researched, the book will teach readers plenty about love, science, and themselves. Perfect fodder for the romantic and the cynic in all of us." —Booklist
Catron melds science and emotion beautifully into a thoughtful and thought-provoking meditation on the most universal topic. —Bookpage
"In this beautifully poignant book, Mandy Len Catron explores the myths we tell ourselves about attraction, romance, and falling, and staying, in love. Using a combination of thought-provoking research and personal anecdotes, How to Fall in Love with Anyone seeks to find out why some relationships don't last, whether or not social media is hurting our chances of happiness, and whether or not love can survive in our modern world." —Bustle
“It’s hard to imagine a more timely endeavour. Clear-eyed and full of heart, How to Fall in Love With Anyone is mandatory reading for anyone coping with—or curious about—the challenges of contemporary courtship.” —Toronto Star
“In our age of total romantic confusion, Mandy Len Catron is a voice of good sense, warm humor and consoling wisdom. Through the lens of her own relationships, she teaches us—with a deft, convincing intelligence—some of the vital moves in the art of love.” —Alain de Botton, author of How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Course of Love