Mandy Len Catron on offbeat love stories, and the one secret to relationships that last
The Vancouver author, who penned a famed New York Times column, shares her favourite tales of love.
By Jennifer Van Evra
When Vancouver author and UBC English and writing instructor Mandy Len Catron sat down with her date and a list of 36 questions, little did she know that small action would change her life — and in more ways than one.
The questions were by psychologist Arthur Aron, who developed the list to test a theory that it was possible to accelerate, or even create, romantic love.
Before they went through the questions, which become increasingly personal, Catron wasn't even sure that she and her acquaintance were on a date. Now they've been in relationship for three years.
What's more, Catron — who was already hosting a blog about relationships and authoring a book about love — submitted her story to the New York Times' famed Modern Love, a column that explores different facets of romantic relationships.
It was titled "If You Want to Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This" and it became one of the newspaper's most popular articles of all time, reaching eight million views in the first month alone.
Next week, Catron is releasing How to Fall in Love With Anyone, a book of personal essays about our romantic myths about love, and what it really means to love and be loved. She also has a new Modern Love column out this weekend.
So we asked her: What are some of her favourite love stories in the world of fiction, TV and movies? Here are her picks — some of them popular classics, and some discoveries.
The Way He Looks
"It's this Brazilian movie I just came across on Netflix, and I loved it. It's so beautiful. It's basically a teenage love story, but it takes its subjects seriously, and it treats teenagers like fully developed humans, which is so rare. And it doesn't treat their sexuality like a punch line; it's very thoughtful about it. The protagonist is this guy Leo who is blind and he has two intimate relationships. One is with his best friend who walks him home from school every day, and they're both a bit abused by the popular kids. Then a new kid comes, and both Leo and his best friend have a crush on the new guy — and it's the complicated nature of this friendship/romance from there. I love that it doesn't try to exoticize or fetishize his blindness, and it doesn't treat it as an integral plot point. It's just one of his many characteristics. Movies about teenagers tend to follow a pretty predictable plotline: they culminate at the prom and something goes wrong. They're very heteronormative, and there are lots of clichés. This isn't any of those things. That's what I liked about it."
"This Spike Jonze movie really surprised me. When I found out that there was a narrative about a man who falls in love with his operating system, I thought, 'This is going to be satire.' I thought it would be social criticism. But it really isn't that at all. Jonze creates this world where a relationship with a disembodied AI seems perfectly normal. There is no lesson about why we should love humans instead of operating systems, and I really liked that. I felt like the movie really forces the viewers to rethink their assumptions about what counts as 'real love.' Definitely worth checking out."
Master of None
"The other thing that I really love lately is Aziz Ansari's TV show Master of None. Ansari wrote Modern Romance with Eric Klinenberg, who is a sociologist, a few years ago, and it's a combination of humour and advice and research — and they used Ansari's comedy shows to do focus groups about dating. So what's cool is you can see that all this research has informed the narrative of the show. It's not only thoughtful, but he's clearly aiming to create a narrative that matches real contemporary experiences of dating, and it's one of the first and only things I've seen that I thought 'Yes, this is exactly what dating felt like for me.'
"In the second season, there's an episode where it's just a series of Tinder dates, and he goes from drinks to dinner, to after-dinner drinks — but it cuts between different dates. And what I love about it is that it's boring at times, and it's awkward, and there are moments where there's this real recognition that dating often feels like real work — and that creating intimacy or finding intimacy with someone is not a matter of fate so much as it's a matter of chance and luck and timing. One of the things that researchers have found is that online dating is the hardest for black women and Asian men, because real-world prejudices seep in — and he and the character talk about that in the show. So it just felt honest, like he wasn't trying to make it feel magical. And I thought, 'Why don't more people do this?'"
"This is an awesome web series that I just found a couple of weeks ago. It's a series of eight episodes, they're all pretty short, and it's about this young woman in her 20s and divorced, and she decides she wants to explore her sexuality by having sexual relationships with couples. So each episode is about a different couple, and sometimes it goes well and sometimes it goes very badly. Sometimes it's about a couple she intends to have sex with but it doesn't always happen. But the show is so great because it explores consent in a really thoughtful way, and it doesn't treat bringing another sexual partner into a relationship as scandalous or something that ruins a relationship.
"So often when we see narratives of non-monogamy in popular culture, there's a moral to the story, a lesson that's like, 'And here's why you should only ever want to have sex with your spouse.' I really appreciate that the show doesn't go there. It's just really smart and funny, and we don't have a lot of shows that treat sexuality as normal and interesting. The show isn't really erotic, but it's thoughtful, and I think that's great."
"This is a Canadian novel by Jane Eaton Hamilton, published by Arsenal Pulp Press, and it's a sort of update to Raymond Carver's short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. It's set over a weekend, it's two couples, and they're both queer. At times it was difficult for me to read because the characters are so vulnerable, and I felt this deep empathy for these people who have made themselves vulnerable to the people they love — in ways that are sometimes rewarding and sometimes really not rewarding. There's no lesson in the book about how to love well; it's just a deep, thoughtful exploration of how hard it is to create and sustain an intimate relationship with another person. One couple is at the beginning of their relationship and another couple is a decade in, and it's just really smart, really nuanced, but realistic. Also the characters are all queer, and one is disabled, so there's this question: How does having a disability impact your romantic life? It does and it doesn't. That's a narrative we never hear, and it's definitely worth hearing about. She's perfectly capable of having an intimate relationship, but it brings its own insecurities."
Next Year, For Sure
"I'm also reading Zoey Leigh Peterson's Next Year, For Sure, which is a story about a long-term relationship, and it's about how a couple decides to open themselves and their relationship up to polyamory. Peterson really thoughtfully explores the details of this — and it's not really about logistics, which I appreciate. But it also acknowledges that logistics are a part of it, and it suggests that it's possible, with time and effort and commitment to someone else's best interests, to shape the kind of relationship that works. I think that idea is so relevant to anyone, whether you want a monogamous relationship or a non-monogamous relationship."
"Another TV show I love is Transparent. The characters' romantic relationships are complicated, and they're evolving. It's certainly not a model of how to love well, because they're incredibly self-absorbed, but they're also deeply affectionate, and they care deeply about one another. They just make some terrible choices about love and relationships, yet they keep trying. One of the things I argue in my book is that we would all benefit from consuming more diverse narratives of love, because it just widens our sense of what love could look like and how it could work, and I think the show does a great job of presenting all different types of relationships.
"There are some that are purely sexual, some that are deep, long-term intimacies that border on romance, some that are monogamous and committed, and some that are open. There's one character who gets a divorce from her husband, then she marries a woman, then that marriage implodes really quickly, and then she and her husband live together and raise their children and see other people outside the home. So it's all these different models and I love that, because there are all kinds of ways to do this, they're all potentially viable, and they really have the willingness to try. I think there's something quite admirable about that."
"Dirty Dancing is kind of a Cinderella story in that it's the persecuted heroine story — and often what happens is the heroine is chosen by someone in a position of power, they ascend through the social classes and it solves all their problems. What I like about Dirty Dancing is it doesn't quite work like that, and the gender roles are kind of reversed. Baby is chosen by Johnny, but Johnny is the one from the lower social class even though he is of the higher social status in the Catskills mountain resort. But also, I think the story really acknowledges that things like social class and money are real barriers and that love doesn't always conquer all. Even though these two characters get together and have this love affair, there are no illusions about whether they're going to stay together after the movie is over. I really like that about it. There are elements of the story that feel a little less fairytale than other kinds of stories like that."
So, given all the research Catron has done in the worlds of both fictional and non-fictional love, how does she answer when people ask her for the secret love? In a word: kindness.
"There's a lot of psychological research, especially by John Gottman, that can be summed up by saying the best way to have a rewarding and also long-lasting and durable romantic relationship is to practice kindness early and often," she says, pointing to behaviours such as responding positively to a partner's good news, or acknowledging their interests, even when they are not shared. "Just doing that has a huge impact on relationship satisfaction."
Catron also writes an evidence-based advice column about relationships for The Rumpus called Mixed Feelings, and she welcomes letters at email@example.com.
Want those 36 questions? You can find them here.
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