Around the summer of 2003, I fell in love. It wasn’t the first time, of course, there had been many others before—mostly unrequited—and with each, the cynic grew colder inside. But still, I knew the feeling when it happened: the intense longing to be together, hours that flew by in minutes, the layering of future hopes, playing house, wishing an end to the painful and constant parting.
Years later, when I tried capturing that relationship in a short story, the attraction between the characters on the page felt false. Yes—my workshop would say—all the familiar symptoms are there, but what made the two fall in love? What exactly did they see in each other?
Fair questions—after all, we do, in our giddiest or most vulnerable moments, ask each other: I know you said you love me, but can you be more specific as to why?
Some twenty-odd years, my creative writing professor insists, he’s workshopped student manuscripts—and in all that time, writing convincing romance has been among the hardest feats to achieve. He cracks open a peanut shell, crunches the nut in his mouth, and proceeds to distill a fail-proof shortcut: witty banter.
Two people trading jokes, rendered scenically, apparently demonstrates that special connection we all understand to be the beginning of true love.
Helen Fisher is an anthropologist considered as an “expert on romantic love.” She’s the author of two books on the subject (Anatomy of Love and Why We Love). In a TED video, she describes her research findings on the biochemical processes involved with falling in love:
“We found activity in a tiny, little factory near the base of the brain called the ventral tegmental area. We found activity in some cells called the A10 cells, cells that actually make dopamine, a natural stimulant, and spray it to many brain regions. Indeed, this part, the VTA, is part of the brain’s reward system. It’s way below your cognitive thinking process. It’s below your emotions. It’s part of what we call the reptilian core of the brain, associated with wanting, with motivation, with focus and with craving. In fact, the same brain region where we found activity becomes active also when you feel the rush of cocaine.”
Still, the question remains: what causes the brain to react this way in the first place?
Autumn 2013: I fell deeply again. This time, I had a little more guts and made the first move in confessing emotions. The response was lukewarm. But over the course of several days, we became close, shared conversations we wouldn’t want our moms to overhear, and soon found ourselves on the bed staring at each other.
“Why do you love me?”
Because: we get along so well.
Because: you’re cute and sweet.
Because: you speak another language and I find that sexy.
Because: I see a future together.
Because: I want to grow old with you.
None of the answers were satisfying. They were either too constricting or too tautological: I love you because you love me because I love you.
Another TED video. This time with the shocking claim that if two strangers take turns asking each other thirty-six increasingly personal questions, then they stare into each other’s eyes without speaking for four minutes, they will fall in love.
Mandy Len Catron, the originator of these questions, even tried it herself and ended with a partner. How is this possible?
So the story that the media told about the thirty-six questions was that there might be a shortcut to falling in love. There might be a way to somehow mitigate some of the risk involved, and this is a very appealing story, because falling in love feels amazing, but it’s also terrifying. The moment you admit to loving someone, you admit to having a lot to lose, and it’s true that these questions do provide a mechanism for getting to know someone quickly….
The key, she said, is being vulnerable. Above all else, what we really want from love is to be known, to be seen, to be understood. Falling in love, she said, is a choice, just as it is to maintain it.
Why, then, is it so hard to convince readers of two characters falling in love?
If there is something to my creative writing professor’s suggestion that a shared joke instantly creates the illusion of a genuine connection, perhaps we need to look deeper into the nature of jokes. A joke contains a surprise, a reversal, a discovery. Two people have to share enough cultural and intellectual associations in order to enjoy a joke. It cannot be explained. Tastes vary.
We laugh at jokes reflexively. Either we get it or we don’t. We can’t force laughter—or rather, we can, but that’s not the point of telling jokes.
So here we are with a conundrum.
We prize active protagonists in our stories. Yet the idea of falling in love with someone by volition seems unconvincing. Choosing to love someone seems inferior to just being in love; the former feels manipulative, and is the opposite of true love. True love, like a good joke, cannot be explained.
Even our blueprint for a romantic comedy suggests this bias: two unlikely people start out as enemies and end up falling in love. Against all odds, the circumstance proves stronger than the individual will. Which is perhaps the reason why writing about romantic love is so difficult in fiction: we have to first figure out why we fall in love in real life. Is it a choice? An accident? Both? Neither?
On a cold night in September, my heart was broken. It felt, ironically, like the first pangs of love: intense longing, intense pain, all for a single person. Wishing to inoculate myself from future hurt, I turned to the brain and tried to assess things rationally, scientifically. I watched TED videos. I started to write. I made my characters choose to fall in love.
Knock, knock, he says.
Image: Ernst, Max. “The Kiss (Le baiser).” 1927. Oil on canvas. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice.