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Go on enough awkward first dates, and you can likely recite the routine getting-to-know-you Q & A from memory. You and a potential romantic interest take turns asking the same old tired questions of "Where do you live?," "Where are you from?," and "What kind of work do you do?." After responding with the obligatory answers, followed by an uncomfortable silence, and then a few more meaningless questions that sound more like a script than an actual conversation, the date ends. You didn't learn anything really interesting or unexpected about the other person, much less whether they'd actually make a good match for you.
There may be a better way to spark a connection that could lead to two strangers falling in love—and it all it takes is 36 questions.
Thank psychologist Arthur Aron for this potential shortcut to romance. As part of his scientific research into relationships in 1997, Dr. Aron and his team conducted a study that explored whether two strangers could accelerate closeness and intimacy by asking a series of questions that become increasingly more personal and revealing. Basically, the goal is to fast-track your date past Awkward Alley straight into Lasting Love Lane.
It's been 25 years since the study was first published, and the 36 questions have become more than just a tool to help individuals fall in love. In fact, they can help long-term couples—who think they already know everything about each other—discover new facets of their partner and fall in love again, says Tracy K. Ross, LCSW, a couples and family therapist in NYC, who employs the technique with clients.
"When people fall in love... it's this magical time. And then over [the years], things happen, life happens, domesticity, familiarity happens, and you lose that spark," says Ross. "How can you get that [magic] back when you share a life with someone? One of the ways is to really be curious about each other." Ross says the 36 questions are a "great way to facilitate that journey" because they help "people hear each other differently and be curious about each other," renewing intimacy and connection.
Meet the experts:
Tracy K. Ross, LCSW, is a couples and family therapist in NYC with more than 25 years of experience working with couples at all relationship phases, including pre-marriage and post-divorce. She has advanced training in Emotionally Focused Therapy, Gottman Method, EMDR, and Relational Sex Therapy.
Dr. Kate Balestrieri, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and certified sex therapist in Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago. She is also the founder of Modern Intimacy, a platform that connects clinicians trained in sex therapy with people seeking therapy for sexual issues and provides a safe, inclusive space offering education about sexual health and well-being topics.
What are the 36 questions, exactly?
Divided into three sections, the questions move from lighthearted ice-breakers to deeper queries that foster self-disclosure and vulnerability. For example, the first question you and your date ask of each other is: "Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?" (Cue the first-day-of-school vibes!) Fast forward to question 24, which poses "How do you feel about your mother?"
Finally, #36 is both a question and a listening/feeling exercise: "Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen."
The key is that "the questions build on each other and get progressively more intense, personal, revealing, vulnerable," says Ross. "So I think it's a way to see, can we still do this together? Can you still show up for me in that way? And can I reveal myself to you and be vulnerable with you?"
How does the 36 questions method build intimacy?
Asking 36 questions was just part of Aron's study; the couples finished with four minutes of sustained eye contact. "When you add in the eye contact, it really does create a level of the resonance that can create more of an intentional and expedited level of intimacy," says Dr. Kate Balestrieri, PhD, clinical psychologist, certified sex therapist, and founder of Modern Intimacy.
Still, there's no guarantee bringing a set of 36 questions to your first date will catapult you and your partner to everlasting love. Rather, Balestrieri considers the questions a way to lead into a deeper conversation that creates the opportunity for love to develop. "Having this conversation, you get to get a better sense of where do you feel defensive or guarded or unsure about some aspect of yourself and where does your partner," she explains. "That can also tell you things about your compatibility and whether or not you're a good fit beyond the initial spark of luster limerence that might exist initially."
If you want to figure out if a second date is worth your time or deepen intimacy in your existing relationship, give these 36 questions a try:
1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?
3. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
4. What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?
7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
11. Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
14. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
16. What do you value most in a friendship?
18. What is your most terrible memory?
19. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
20. What does friendship mean to you?
21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?
22. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
25. Make three true "we" statements each. For instance, "We are both in this room feeling ..."
26. Complete this sentence: "I wish I had someone with whom I could share ..."
27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
28. Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
31. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
33. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
34. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
36. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.
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