The Love Project

Can We Learn to Love? Robert Epstein, Editor in Chief asks if love can be learnt, not found.

By PT Staff, published January 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

They barely know each other, but the intent is that, through counseling and other methods, they'll soon be deeply in love. They'll be counseled by some of the top relationship experts in the world, including Dr. Howard Markman and Mars/Venus guru Dr. John Gray, and renowned experts on love have signed on as advisors. Epstein will be conducting some serious research along the way and, ultimately, hopes to shed new light on obtaining lasting 'love' in our lives.

Psychology Today will be following this unfolding story—or romance? —online from start to finish, with online diaries, answers to your questions, and more.

A question & answer session with Dr. Robert Epstein on the "Love Project":

What is your love experiment about? Give us some details.

Dr. Robert Epstein: I described the project in detail in the article Editor as Guinea Pig in the December 2002 issue. Briefly, I'm looking for someone who will deliberately create a love relationship with me. We'll sign an agreement pledging (a) not to date anyone else for the duration of the agreement (probably about 6 months), (b) to read extensively about love, (c) to put ourselves through various kinds of love counseling and exercises and perhaps to create exercises of our own, and (d) to keep private daily diaries of our experiences - the goal of all this being for us to fall deeply in love with each other before the end of the contract period. Ultimately, we're hoping we can learn how to package this process so that many others can use it.

Can any two people learn to love each other?

Dr. Epstein: I doubt that. At the very least, you probably need to start out with at least some degree of physical attraction. Sex and love involve common physiological systems, so some degree of "chemistry" is probably helpful early in a relationship. But even though chemistry is important, a successful, long-term relationship cannot be based on chemistry alone. Passion fades fairly rapidly over the first couple of years of a relationship. Long-term relationships are based on psychological and emotional intimacy, not just physical intimacy. Physical attraction isn't everything, and it's a serious mistake to confuse it with love itself.

Is there really love at first sight?

Dr. Epstein: Research suggests that the "love at first sight" phenomenon is almost always "lust at first sight." Relationships based on first impressions almost always end in tatters. The extreme passion one sometimes feels in the beginning of a relationship fades rapidly; it's usually quite weak within 18 months. True psychological and emotional intimacy takes time to develop. Historically, passionate love was seen as a kind of madness, and love and passion weren't considered a legitimate basis for marriage until recent times.

What are some of the most common relationship myths?

Dr. Epstein: In the U.S., the biggest myths are the ones we get from the fairy tales we read our children -- and from Hollywood's various versions of those fairy tales. Myth #1: "The One" is out there for us, if only we can find him or her. Myth #2: Once we find "The One," he or she will never change, and neither will we. Myth #3: Once we find "The One," we'll live Happily Ever After. Myth #4: Love is a magical, mystical thing over which we have no control. It can't be studied; it can't be taught; it can't be learned.

What is your relationship history (marital status, past relationships, children, dating habits)?

Dr. Epstein: Typical 21st century stuff: I have two exes who hate me and four beautiful children whom I adore. I date occasionally when I'm not completely swamped with work. I believe strongly in traditional marriage, but I've not had much luck with it.

How did you come up with the idea of this project?

Dr. Epstein: The idea occurred to me when I was chatting a friend of mine who's an aspiring writer. She mentioned that she had never been in love. Later that night these various elements coalesced in my mind into a strange concept -- that maybe she and I could somehow learn to love each other and write a book about it! The more I read about "learning to love," the less bizarre the idea appeared. Alas, she had a boyfriend.

How are you going about finding a partner?

Dr. Epstein :I asked friends, colleagues, and family members to help out, and I also announced the project in an editorial in Psychology Today. I received hundreds and calls, and I met a total of 15 woman over a nine-month period. Some seemed to be after publicity or money, some were scared away by the media coverage, and others I just didn't like. Then, on Christmas Day of 2002, purely by accident, I met a lovely woman who agreed soon after to try my experiment with me.

What attributes are you looking for in a prospective partner?

Dr. Epstein: Intelligence, vitality, and a passion for the project -- those are essential attributes.

Who do you think can benefit from your personal experiment?

Dr. Epstein: A positive result - and I fully expect the result to be positive - might help those who aren't presently in love or who consistently fall in love with the wrong kind of person. It can also help couples trying to keep their love alive. So, it can help both single people and married couples. Frankly, I find the idea of helping single people more exciting because then we'll be busting the love myths and giving them a more structured option for obtaining love and romance in their lives.

How have other people reacted when you've told them about the project?

Dr. Epstein: The reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. Many of the letters I've received haven't been from prospective partners but simply from women saying that they hope very much that this project is successful -- presumably, because they want new tools to help make their own relationships work.

Don't you think you're making love a commodity, a second-best alternative to 'real' passionate love?

Dr. Epstein: Passionate love is already a commodity, sold to us in blockbuster movies from Hollywood. Unfortunately, it's sold to us in a form that is both unrealistic and inaccessible to most people. I'm proposing that we put romantic love on a steadier footing. Research suggests, for one thing, that many people in arranged marriages fall in love over time. A study by Gupta and Singh, for example, shows that love in romantic marriages declines steadily over a ten-year period, but that love in arranged marriages increases over the same period, surpassing that of romantic marriages after about five years. So the experience of people in arranged marriages teaches us that romantic love can be learned. Mental health professionals, struggling to help failing marriages, have developed tools that improve relationships and that can, in some cases, rekindle love. So I'm proposing simply that we package the process of learning to love so that a deep, lasting, romantic love will be available to more people.

"Remember that you don't choose love. Love chooses you" (Kent Nerbur, Letters to My Son) - what do you think of that?

Dr. Epstein: Ridiculous and depressing. I'm much too much of an optimist to leave any form of happiness entirely to chance.

Could you highlight some relationship skills that you might use in the project?

Dr. Epstein: My students and I are in the process of reviewing relevant research studies, and we're also reading a lot about arranged marriages. Sixty percent of the world's marriages are arranged, and in many, people seem to fall in love with each other over time. How does this happen? As yet, we're not sure, but I think we can find out. Also, the divorce rate for arranged marriages is very low, even in countries where it's allowed. We're also in the process of identifying therapists and counselors who claim they can help my partner and me to fall in love. They're going to play an important role in this project.

Do you plan to marry? Have more children? How far will you take this relationship if it is successful?

Dr. Epstein: I'd love to marry again, and I also wouldn't mind having more children. My greatest joys in life have come from my children -- and, though I hate to admit it, I'm reading those troublesome fairy tales -- the ones with all the love myths in them -- to my own daughter these days. Maybe I need to start writing a new breed of children's books!

You said that a couple could learn to love each other over time. But what happens if one doesn't fall in love? When is it time to say goodbye?

Dr. Epstein: There is no simple answer to this question, but the way I've dealt with it in the Love Contract is to have the two parties agree to an overall time limit to the process. When that time period has ended - perhaps three or six or 12 months - the process is over unless both parties agree to continue.

When is the reality show going to be on air?

Dr. Epstein: It's currently "in development." I don't think a production date has been set yet.

Lonely people say that it is very hard to find love. What's the advice for them - keep looking?

Dr. Epstein: Yes, of course, keep looking, but it's also important to find new ways of looking: Join clubs or join a new church or take classes or use the Internet. You need to take an active role in finding a mate. The Love Contract gives you another alternative as well: Look around for someone who is already in your life - a co-worker or a neighbor, for example - and ask him or her to consider spending a few months trying to develop a mutual love with you.

What kind of men do women want and vice versa?

Dr. Epstein: This varies a lot from individual to individual, but the classic answer is: Men want youth and beauty - a partner capable of producing and raising healthy children - and women want security - a partner capable of providing for herself and the children.

Would you agree that despite endless attempts to understand and analyze love, it's simply beyond the reach of scientific understanding?

Dr. Epstein: No, not at all. Recent studies in Mexico, Italy, and England are revealing neurological and chemical correlates of the love state; mental health professionals have developed powerful tools for fostering love; and researchers are getting better at predicting success in relationships. The biggest myth of all about love is that it can't be studied or understood scientifically.