From an early age – in fact, for as long as I can remember – I questioned, interrogated and informally ‘interviewed’ virtually everyone I met about their relationships. As I got older and started travelling the world, I spoke to even more people from a wider variety of backgrounds, listening to their stories and philosophies.
I must have asked millions of questions and spent years thinking about this before I met a farmer when I was travelling around Argentina 10 years ago. He was 95 and had been married for a whopping 75 years. He didn’t speak very much, but I really valued the advice of a man who’d managed to make a romantic relationship last such a huge amount of time. And then it occurred to me – I should document my investigations. I bought a recording device when I returned to England and started to carry it with me wherever I went.
Over the course of the next 10 years, I approached hundreds of people in airports, shops, markets, cafes, restaurants, bars, hospitals, parks, galleries, libraries, museums, buses, trains, planes and ships. I interviewed a pro American football player on a bus, a model who sat next to me on a plane, the bin man who worked at the local train station, people who were religious, atheist, agnostic, male, female, transgender, homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, single, married, divorced, widowed, with children, without children, pregnant, monogamous, non-monogamous, cheating, cheated on, entirely faithful. I interviewed people in French, Polish, Spanish and English. I travelled over a quarter of a million miles, interviewing people from 8–95 years of age on every continent of the world.
I randomly approached people and ask if I could interview them, explaining that it would take as much time as they wanted (interviews ranged from four minutes to three hours). In most cases I recorded the conversations, although some interviewees preferred not to be recorded. In these instances, I spoke to them whilst manically scribbling, then promptly wrote up my notes before I was unable to decipher my own handwriting (a trick I learnt early on as a lawyer).
I promised to preserve the interviewees’ anonymity and change specifics that might identify them, reassuring them that if they didn’t want to answer a particular question they didn’t have to, and if they wanted to retract anything, they could. I tried to make clear that these interviews weren’t about catching people out or showing them in a bad light – they were about trying to understand love, and to share knowledge and experience with others across the world.
Trust, non-judgement and confidentiality were crucial – without them, I wouldn’t have received people’s honest accounts, particularly with trickier topics like infidelity. Unsurprisingly, studies have found that people are reluctant to confess to cheating – one found that only 30 per cent of people initially admitted to infidelity, but during intensive therapy, a further 30 per cent admitted to it.
Recording, transcribing and editing the interviews gave me the time and space to really digest and reflect on what I was hearing. And the more I thought about it, the more questions I had. So I buried myself in academic textbooks and journals – highlighting, tabbing and writing copious notes. I’m not the only person to have been flummoxed by romantic love, but I may be one of the few with enough curiosity and stamina to really scrutinise it.
Initially, I focused on psychology and philosophy (which I studied at university), but I was soon delving into other subjects because, in order to really understand love, I wanted to attack it from all angles. Finally, my research came to life as I started talking to and questioning the academics whose work I had been devouring.
The research was vital in understanding love because what we think or say isn’t always the truth – and, what’s worse, we may have no idea that what we are thinking or saying may not be true. As humans, we often try to find reasons for our behaviour. If we don’t find someone attractive, we might blame it on their nose when it may actually be down to their pheromones or our attachment style. Academic theory and research (particularly neuroscientific studies or those involving physiological measures, such as heart rate, sweating etc.) were necessary to explore the role of our subconscious, our emotions and our physiology.
Research also engaged my rational self – theories helped me think about things differently, make sense of my behaviour and thought patterns. Attachment theory, for example, helped explain my tendency to break up with people. But logic alone isn’t always enough to create change and understanding. As Tristan in Switzerland said, ‘Learning about attachment theory has been useful for me. The downside is that, while I can talk about things rationally, I won’t necessarily understand them emotionally.’
That’s where the interviews came in. Listening to people’s stories forced me to pay attention by engaging my emotions. I really cared about the people I spoke to, and their stories have often stayed with me. For example, Sue, who I met in Iceland, said, ‘I was held against my will between one and nine, and incredibly bad things happened… During that time, I didn’t know that love existed. When you’re young, you think whatever is, is how it is. Then my captor enticed another child. I was almost completely numb and mute at this point, but meeting this other child and seeing that this might happen to them brought me out of it and into the world… Strangely, from having a connection with somebody else, I realised what was important in life: connections with other people.’
I cannot overstate how much this project has changed me. It’s impacted every relationship I have. I understand people differently, I listen more compassionately and I am infinitely less judgemental. And in terms of romantic love, I’m married – to someone I had previously broken up with. I still have lots to learn (marrying someone is one thing but putting in the hard work to make it last is another), but it really is an extraordinary feat given quite how commitment-phobic I was at the start of this process. Writing this book has made me question, consider, explore and reflect on my own life, and I hope it will help you do the same.
Audio produced by Marie Horner.
Love Factually, The Science of Who, How and Why We Love will be published by Bloomsbury in the US, UK and Australia in January 2019. It will also be available on Audible as an audiobook.