For centuries, how and why people fell in love had served as one of life’s great mysteries. By the year 2000, however, there was growing evidence that love was at its core a biological function, with a powerful cocktail of chemicals triggering the emotion in humans' brains.
Still, not everyone was convinced that love was just a matter of brain chemistry. An editorial written by Robert Epstein in the June 2002 issue of Psychology Today suggested as much, and deservedly received much attention given that Epstein was the magazine’s editor in chief. Epstein sought a woman with whom to “fall deeply in love” over a designated period of time, the quasi-personal ad read, this self-described “experiment” intended to reveal whether two people could intentionally learn to love each other. “This isn’t a publicity stunt,” he made clear, but rather “a serious, albeit small-scale challenge to a vexing myth,” i.e., that each of us is destined to fall in love with just a single individual with whom we should spend the rest of our lives in marital bliss.
Rather than leave matters to fate, in other words, Epstein was taking a scientific approach to finding love, and using himself as the human guinea pig. He and the winner of the contest (hundreds of applications immediately rolled in) would contractually agree to date each other exclusively, go to counseling as part of their tutorial in love, and then together write a book about the experience. Many people who knew him (including the man’s mother) thought that the well-respected scholar with a Ph.D. from Harvard had lost his mind, but Epstein was as serious as can be about the unusual venture.
Epstein’s direct challenging of one of the fundamental beliefs of love—that people “fell” into it—took a fair share of the psychological community by storm. Taking a deliberate and methodical approach to finding true romance went against our basic instinct to let nature take its course in such matters, making the endeavor almost anathema. A panel was soon organized at the Smart Marriages conference in Reno to discuss Epstein’s curious undertaking. “Is this pure heresy, or is it an idea that can revolutionize our current understanding of how love works?” wondered Jan Levine, a psychologist and relationships specialist who would moderate the panel of four experts.
A year after his controversial editorial, Epstein (now West Coast editor of the magazine) was sticking to his guns, still claiming that Americans’ formula for love had proved to be a failure. One didn’t need to look far to realize that the live-happily-ever-after myth made a great fairy tale but was a mistake to practice, he argued, citing the number of unhappy marriages as prime evidence. Levine disagreed: “Love is a spontaneous act that cannot be tampered with,” she declared, convinced that it could not be willed or designed.
However, another member of the panel, John Gray of Men Are from Mars fame, believed Epstein was on to something important, and that he should be commended for his commitment to education in the field. “We have been relying on romantic myths rather than the relationships skills that make marriage work,” the relationship guru stated, seconded by another panelist, the aptly named author Pat Love. Love agreed that Epstein’s idea had merit given the fact that more than 50% of marriages in the world were arranged and, on average, they lasted longer than those of Americans. “Half the world believes that first you marry, then you fall in love,” she said, of the mind that practicality followed by fondness could indeed serve as an effective path to the long-term development of romantic feelings.
So was Epstein’s bold experiment successful? More no than yes, I would say. None of the more than 1,000 responses he received was compelling enough for the experiment to move forward, for one thing, suggesting that finding a partner through a personal ad was probably not the best approach. He did ultimately meet someone but not through his advertorial (it was on an airplane) and, while the woman agreed to be part of the project, the fact that she lived in Venezuela and had children from a previous marriage who did not want to leave the country made it unlikely to succeed. Unfazed, Epstein planned to test his concept with multiple couples and, if the results were positive, develop relationship programs based on “structured” love. Picking a mate based on passion was “like getting drunk and marrying someone in Las Vegas,” he remarked, thinking the time was right for arranged marriages to make a big comeback.