Can you engineer romance?


Photo: Getty

New York-based Jessica Walsh and Timothy Goodman were friends with opposite relationship problems: she got involved in relationships too quickly. He was commitment-phobic, playing the field. They agreed to date each other for 40 days -- the length of time thought to be required to effect a real change in habit -- to see if they could overcome their respective romantic challenges. It sounds like a movie, and it will be: Warner Brothers has optioned the rights to the blog that Walsh and Goodman (both designers) ran to chart their experiment. But if the producers stick to the script, it won’t be a classic romantic comedy: on the 40th day of the experiment, Walsh and Goodman agreed to break up.


At the outset of the experiment, Walsh and Goodman postulated that behaving as if they were in a relationship might cause something real to blossom. To do so, they set themselves rules of behavior that would simulate something like love, including seeing each other three times a week and visiting a relationship therapist. They went on a weekend getaway, had sex, and also had fights. 

Going through the motions of love has already been proven by researchers (real researchers, not just people who’ve donned some white coat pulled from the costume store on a reality television program) that going through the motions of love with someone can cause you to have feelings of love. In 2012, a team at the University of Hertfordshire in England got people on speed dates to behave as if they were already in love: staring in each other’s arms, exchanging soft arm touches, that sort of thing. It worked: those who did so were more inclined to express interest in each other than speed daters who adhered to the conventional behaviors of telling dull anecdotes about their childhood and staring at the three-minutes timer.

For this reason, it didn’t surprise me that something like love did blossom between Walsh and Goodman. But reading about Goodman’s history with women, it didn’t surprise me that it didn’t work out: it seems clear that he just doesn’t want to be in a relationship. “ I think everybody reaches a peak in their life when things line up: confidence, age, success, and an ease about the opposite sex,” he says in his introduction to the project. “I am not anti-relationship, I just don’t think I’ve met the right person.”

Many of us learn the folly and impossibility of trying to change a person we love pretty early on in our dating experience. But beloved romantic narratives of winning the hearts of those who resist love or being loved are harder to slough off: placing the onus on ‘the right person’ rather than on one’s interest or willingness to love and be loved seems reasonable if we go on believing that will has no place in our love lives. It’s clear that Goodman is simply never interested in being in a relationship: not at the beginning of the project. Not at the end when he claims that he loves Walsh but still doesn’t want to be in a relationship with her.

There’s an old episode of This American Life that has stayed with me for half a decade because of a moment when a speaker remarks of his long distance relationship: “no one ever asks ‘how did you two stay together?’ Everyone always asks ‘how did you two meet?’” We’re fascinated with beginnings: the meet-cute, the set-up, the relationship-constructed-for-digital-media-friendly-experiment. We like hearing about the endings, in the spirit of schadenfreude. But the relationships that last remain something of a black box. That’s because those stories are more likely to be experiences that are gruelling or depressing; they’re about making compromises that we might scoff at outside a relationship and leap to embrace if we’re inside it. They’re not sexy. Lasting relationships are about will as much as they’re about love, or maybe it’s better to say that they’re about the will to love. Without it, we’d be lucky if any relationship lasts as long as 40 days.