The biggest thing that makes our relationship work is our willingness to make it work: to choose to be kind to each other, to show appreciation for the other’s small and large acts of kindness, to find moments of connection and romance in the mundane routine of our lives.
I don’t suppose it is possible to write a review of Mandy Len Catron’s debut memoir, How to Fall in Love with Anyone, without also reviewing one’s own romantic history and relationship choices. Both a cohesive story and a collection of stand-alone essays, How to Fall in Love with Anyone interrogates cultural myths about love and love stories, attempting – at least at first – to develop some kind of replicable process for falling, and staying, in love. The project began when Catron ended the relationship in which she spent most of her 20s and ended with her falling in love again.
In 2015, Catron became well-known as the author of a wildly popular Modern Love essay, “To Fall In Love With Anyone, Do This.” The essay detailed how, a few years after leaving her longest relationship, Catron went on an unusual first date. She and her now-partner replicated a study designed by Arthur Aron to create feelings of romantic love in a laboratory (two of the study’s original participants later married), in which they asked each other a prescribed series of increasingly intimate questions, getting to know each other better over the course of one evening than many couples accomplish in several months of dating. Although they did not fall in love that night, Catron writes that the trust they established during that conversation proved fertile soil in which love could later take root.
The context of this essay informs all that comes before it in the book, though the experiment doesn’t actually happen until near the end of the memoir. The bulk of How to Fall in Love with Anyone details Catron’s warring feelings of dissatisfaction in her nine-year relationship versus her fear of starting over, and traces the stories of her parents’ and grandparents’ marriages in hopes of identifying the distinguishing difference between a love that lasts and one that ends.
It’s a fascinating book to read on the brink of your fifth wedding anniversary, as I happen to be. After five years of marriage and almost eight of “going steady,” as my partner called it when we first started dating exclusively, the early high of infatuation has mostly worn off (although I still get a glimmer of it when I smell the cologne he wore on our first date). The challenge at this point is to determine whether that early passion has transitioned into a strong enough foundation for the rest of our lives together.
The scaffolding we’ve built up around our relationship – a child, a car, a house – certainly provides some inducement to stay together, and in Catron’s book she questions the external forces that shape our relationships and make togetherness appealing. She discusses, for instance, her grandmother’s marriage as a teenager to a man more than twice her age. In the story as her grandmother tells it, they simply fell in love and built a life together, but there was certainly some additional appeal in a marriage that provided the safety and stability her childhood in rural poverty never offered. Catron points out that we are constantly telling the story of our relationships, to ourselves and others; she interrogates whether we become attached to another person because it makes a satisfying narrative, rather than because their company brings us real joy.
My partner Charlie and I met when he was on a date with one of my closest friends. It’s tempting and easy to romanticize our intense and immediate attraction to each other as a sign of greater forces at work, of soul mates and destiny – especially when we work backward through how many coincidences had to align for Charlie to meet my friend in the first place, how extremely easy it would have been for our paths to never cross. As Catron points out, these coincidences are present in every relationship, major or minor, throughout our lives. They have the significance with which we imbue them. I’ve been told my parents also first met when my mother was on a date with someone else, a parallel with my own marriage I find compelling – and yet they are no longer married, so a good origin story doesn’t necessarily guarantee lasting happiness.
The danger, I think, in embracing the romantic narrative of two people being meant to be, is that is absolves us of responsibility. If the universe is constantly working behind the scenes to bring us together with our soulmates, then the success or failure of any relationship is entirely out of our hands. If it falls apart, then it wasn’t meant to be.
Catron’s book and my own experience offers a different interpretation. In examining why her first and longest adult relationship came to an end, Catron muses that she initially saw her role in love as being to find the right person, and after that the rest would take care of itself. In retrospect, she realizes that “[her] job was not to choose a good person to love, but to be good to the person [she’d] chosen.”
At the five-year mark of the marriage I hope and intend to be in for the rest of my life, that rings true for me. My partner and I may or may not have been brought together by the guiding hand of the universe (as an atheist, I lean toward “may not,” but as a sappy romantic dork I lean “may”), but neither fate nor convenience can explain why we’re still – joyfully – together. As Catron posits, the biggest thing that makes our relationship work is our willingness to make it work: to choose to be kind to each other, to show appreciation for the other’s small and large acts of kindness, to find moments of connection and romance in the mundane routine of our lives.
When I was a college student with no car, I used to play a game with myself where I’d look at my fellow passengers on the bus and describe them in my head as though I loved them. I’d imagine how I would talk about each person if they were my sister, my grandfather, my best friend. It was startling how easy it became, how almost automatic, to regard strangers with affection for their idiosyncrasies, to find beautiful details of each unique human during the daily chore of riding the bus. I still sometimes deliberately call up that frame of mind. It’s surprisingly relevant in the context of a long-term relationship or marriage – to look at the person who has seen you at your worst, who has more opportunity to frustrate you than anyone else in your life, and actively choose to see them with total adoration. Not to gloss over their faults, but to decide to cherish them. Catron, at the end of her book, writes about her newfound love saying “I love you” when she is upset, “because I love you even when you are annoyed and I want you to know.”
Catron acknowledges that in investigating the role of romantic narrative in our love lives, those stories that are historically excluded from that narrative (queer families, non-monogamy, etc.) get pushed to the margins. While she does make some effort to talk about less traditional love stories, like that of a couple raised in the Christian purity movement who ultimately chose to have an open marriage, the focus of the book is still on monogamous heterosexuality with a few detours. It would have been wonderful to read a version of this book that didn’t take that as its starting and ending point, where the entire exploration was conducted in those margins.
Nonetheless, I am grateful to have read this honest, vulnerable, open-hearted book – a kind book, perhaps the first it’s ever occurred to me to describe that way. It’s refreshing to read about love as a verb, as something we can choose to do, even something we can practice doing and get better at. I see myself and Charlie reflected in the concluding sentences of Catron’s original essay: “Love didn’t happen to us. We’re in love because we each made the choice to be.” How to Fall in Love with Anyone is a book that should be read by everyone.
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme who does not have an indoor voice. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, a really cute baby, and two very spoiled cats. She is the author of Ask A Queer Chick (Plume, 2016).