How To Fall In Love: Advice From Mandy Len Catron : Life Kit You might remember Mandy Len Catron from her hit Modern Love essay about going through 36 questions to fall in love. You might have even tried those questions yourself. Catron's book is called How to Fall in Love With Anyone, and Vice's Rachel Wilkerson Miller spoke with her about it.
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What Makes A Good Partner — And How To Cultivate Connection

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What Makes A Good Partner — And How To Cultivate Connection

What Makes A Good Partner — And How To Cultivate Connection

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RACHEL WILKERSON MILLER, HOST:

This is NPR's LIFE KIT, and I'm Rachel Wilkerson Miller. I'm normally over at Vice writing about interpersonal relationships, and today I'm here on LIFE KIT to talk about attraction.

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WILKERSON MILLER: Typically, when we talk about attraction, we think about the butterflies we feel, a crush we're eyeing, a longing, whether someone is our type. But attraction isn't just some automatic feeling out of your control. It's something you can question, cultivate and learn from.

MANDY LEN CATRON: I think we tend to think about romantic love as this thing that happens to us that we don't have a ton of input on or a choice about. And I think the reality is more complicated than that.

WILKERSON MILLER: That's Mandy Len Catron, writer and author of the book "How To Fall In Love With Anyone." She says we have more choice than we think when it comes to romantic relationships.

CATRON: We have these intense feelings, but we also have a lot of say over, you know, who we go on a second date with, how open we are to, you know, connecting with all different kinds of people. And we have some choice over, like, who we want to invest our time and energy in.

WILKERSON MILLER: In this episode of LIFE KIT, we talk to Mandy about what research can tell us about healthy, loving relationships and how to love smarter.

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WILKERSON MILLER: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how people can get clear about what exactly they need in a relationship or what they're looking for in a partner?

CATRON: Yeah, that's a really good question. I mean, I think there are some really, like, basic things that scientists have - psychologists, in particular, have found make really good long-term relationship partners.

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CATRON: The things that matter is someone who's high in agreeability. I mean, this seems maybe obvious - just someone who's, like, easy to get along with. So high agreeability, low neuroticism, which is sort of the inverse of agreeability, right? Like, so someone who is pretty calm, pretty easygoing - that makes a great partner. Moderate openness to experience - so it's nice to have someone who's down with trying new things, but also someone who has, like, a little bit of impulse control. And moderate to high conscientiousness - so having someone who is just, like, kind of responsible and who takes care of themselves and other people.

I mean, these things, when you lay them out like that, they seem obvious. And yet I don't think we're thinking about them very often as we're going about our dating lives. Another way to kind of, like, boil that down is just to say, like, people who are kind and empathetic and generous make good partners.

WILKERSON MILLER: Let's delve into the science a little more. What have researchers found about how to cultivate a healthy, loving relationship?

CATRON: John and Julie Gottman are relationship scientists. They've been studying what makes people commit to each other and stay together for decades. And one of the things that they talk about is this idea of responding to your partner's bids.

So I'll use an example from my relationship. My partner, Mark, is really into cars. I truly know nothing about cars and find them, like, not remotely interesting. And so often, we'll be walking down the street, and he'll be like, what do you think about this car? And I know, because I have read all this research, that I should respond, that I should not simply say, I don't care about that car. And so I come up with something to say. And so responding to bids is just like you're looking for a partner who, when you engage with them, they engage back with you, which is, like, a little thing, but actually, like, hugely important.

There's also research that shows, like, something that makes a big difference in a relationship is someone who celebrates your successes with you. So if something great happens and your partner or the person you're dating is like, let me treat you to dinner, like, that's a great sign. So, like, these are really small things that actually make a huge difference over the long term. So you just want someone who, like, shows up, engages with you and makes a big deal out of things that are important to you.

WILKERSON MILLER: How would you define the difference between attraction and lust, particularly early on in a relationship when there can be, like, a lot of feelings and it's hard to distinguish between them?

CATRON: I think when it comes to attraction and what we're looking for in another person, like, lots of research has demonstrated that we really overvalue looks, which is not surprising. Like, we really heavily weight how good-looking someone is, and we heavily weight, like, their financial stability. When researchers look at what impacts people's relationship satisfaction, you know, looks actually don't matter at all. They don't seem to have a big impact on how happy we are in our relationships or how invested we are.

I think it's very easy for us to think about love in terms of the intensity of the feelings that it inspires in us. You know, I think the reality is that those intense feelings are not meaningless, they are meaningful, that it is a signal that our brain and our bodies are sending to us about this other person, but they're not the only or maybe even the best way to choose a partner.

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WILKERSON MILLER: It can be hard to get out of your head when it comes to who you think you should be attracted to or who you should be dating. Do you have any insight in the ways we choose love when maybe sometimes it's not for the best and how people can tell when something isn't working and maybe they're trying to force something that isn't there?

CATRON: The simplest metric is, like, finding someone who makes you feel better about who you are, who never makes you feel, like, smaller or inadequate or less than, like, a wonderful human being. It's, like, a really simple metric that is pretty reliable across all different kinds of relationships.

I think when you find yourself in a position where you're unable to offer another person the kindness and generosity that you want to receive in a relationship, then you're no longer serving the relationship. The relationship is no longer serving you. You're not able to be the kind of partner to them that they deserve. That's a good sign, I think, that maybe it's time to move on.

Philosopher bell hooks has this really great book called "All About Love." And in that book, she kind of talks about our tendency to think about love as a powerful feeling instead of, like, a set of actions. So I think one way to think about it is instead of looking for a partner and thinking about, like, what are the qualities that this person has, or, how do I feel when I'm with this person - that a better way to think about it is, like, what are the behaviors that this person has that, like, demonstrate an investment in me and our relationship? And so, you know, hooks says, like, to love is to be loving.

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WILKERSON MILLER: Something I found interesting when I was researching my book is the ways in which too much vulnerability or intimacy too soon can actually cause problems because if one person is really vulnerable, the other person can feel like their boundaries were crossed. And the 36 questions reflect this, too. One of the defining features is that they get increasingly intimate as they go on to sort of ease you into it. Do you have any tips for gradually increasing vulnerability over time in the real world or sort of making sure you're in lockstep with the other person?

CATRON: So in the same way that, like, if we had a friend who came on too strong too quickly, that friendship would feel uncomfortable or it would feel maybe like there was an uneven balance of intimacy, the exact same thing is true in romantic love.

So I think you can reveal something small about yourself that maybe you wouldn't tell a total stranger. That kind of vulnerability - it doesn't have to take the form of, like, confessing your most intimate secrets or dumping out your whole family history or taking a big problem to someone you don't know very well and expecting them to solve it. Like, I think it comes in much smaller ways, which is, like, talking about something that's really important to you or that you're passionate about. Like, that's where you start. Or you start with telling, like, a funny but embarrassing story that you wouldn't necessarily tell a stranger.

And when we do it in a kind of measured way, it invites the other person to do the same, right? It says, like, I'm going to share a little bit of myself with you. You can feel comfortable doing that in return.

WILKERSON MILLER: One of the tropes of reality TV dating shows is people having their walls up who don't want to let love in or, quote, unquote, "open up." And it's typically framed as a problem. And I wanted to ask you, are these walls real, and is having them up a bad thing always?

CATRON: There are a couple of different things that I want to talk about. So one is I think we tend to feel like the best way to be happy and to have a good life is to be in a long-term, committed, monogamous relationship. I don't think a long-term, committed, monogamous relationship is necessarily the best thing for everyone. I don't think it's necessarily what everyone wants. I think we go through different phases in our lives where we want different things from romantic love.

So I think part of the problem with reality television is that it's - these, like, dating shows really reinforce these very normative ideas about love and relationships. And they're, like, very rooted in these sort of, like, heteronormative stereotypes. So we have this idea, for example, that, like, men are afraid to commit. They don't want to be tied down. Lots of people will tell you that this is, like, rooted in some sort of, like, evolutionary biology that has wired women to want commitment and babies and that - it has wired men to want to sleep around as much as possible.

And, you know, the truth is that actually, I think our lives are just more complicated than that, that we live in a culture that makes romantic commitment seem like the best way to live our lives but that also makes it really incredibly difficult. Like, we live in a sort of late capitalist culture that says every hour should be monetized and productive. And, you know, that is not super-compatible with dating. So whenever I encounter these, like, tropes, I tend to resist them because I feel like they speak more to these, like, shared cultural norms that we have than they do to an individual's actual ability to be vulnerable or their ability to invest in another person or their interest in romantic love.

WILKERSON MILLER: So you, I think more than most people, have studied the science and research of attraction and love and compatibility. And I wonder if you have just sort of one thing that you want listeners to take away from all of your years of researching this that you think is the most helpful bit that people should know.

CATRON: You know, I think the most helpful thing is actually really simple, which is, like, when you're looking for a partner, the thing to choose if you're interested in, like, a long-term, satisfying relationship is someone who makes you feel great about who you are. Like, it's such a simple thing, but it matters enormously.

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WILKERSON MILLER: So let's recap. We have a choice in who we invest our time and energy into. When looking for a partner, Mandy recommends seeking out people who make you feel good about yourself, people who don't make you feel small.

Instead of just thinking about the qualities you're looking for in a partner, think about how a person chose an investment in you and your relationship. Date people who respect your interests and who celebrate your wins.

Vulnerability is important, but it's a good idea to ease into it. Talk about something that's important to you, or share a funny story you wouldn't tell a stranger. If you're unable to offer someone the generosity and love you want to receive in a relationship, it might be a sign that it's time to move on.

Lastly, not everyone is going to want to be in a long-term, committed relationship. Romantic love can take many forms, and what you need will look different at different times in your life.

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WILKERSON MILLER: For more episodes of LIFE KIT, go to npr.org/lifekit. We have episodes on all sorts of topics from how to break up to how to clean your house, plus tons of other episodes on personal finance, parenting and health. If you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. Also, we want to hear your tips. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at lifekit@npr.org.

This episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Clare Lombardo and Beck Harlan are our digital editors, and Beth Donovan is our senior editor. I'm Rachel Wilkerson Miller. Thanks for listening.

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