I learned to ask questions when I was 20. My parents would tell you I’ve been asking questions long before then, since I was barely a year old. I have never accepted first, second, or third answers. I was the kind of kid who had to touch the hot stove before I understood what hot meant. (There are words for this, none of them too complimentary.)
What I learned at 20 was to ask questions not to gain for myself answers, but to indicate interest in someone other than myself. It is through this approach to questioning and conversation that I learned to be a friend.
A recent New York Times column instructed readers, "To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This," based on a study by a psychologist specializing in relationship research. Arthur Aron lab-tested strangers using a list of 36 questions and four minutes of staring into one another's eyes. The result: a wedding six months later. The author of the article tried Aron’s experiment herself, and sure enough, claims she “found” love.
Writer Mandy Len Catron closed the article, part of the NYT’s Modern Love series, with these words: "Love didn’t happen to us. We’re in love because we each made the choice to be." She and her friend sat across from one another for several hours, asking Aron's original questions and finding one another.
C.S. Lewis famously said, "Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: 'What! You too? I thought I was the only one!'" The problem is too few of us will remove the mask.
In modern romance we are quick to give answers to the questions we expect to be asked. For the man, can he support a family? For the woman, does she want to have children? What are his future plans? What are hers? For the Christian, what is our theology? Or maybe more simple, do we even go to church? Or more simplistic still, are we physically attracted to one another? These are the expected questions, the ones of most import in modern courtship. The means to the end— which is marriage for most of us.
Whether on an online dating site or during first-date conversation or during the difficult where-do-we-go-from here crossroads in a relationship, the purpose of our asking and answering is clear. We want to know if this person aligns with what we are looking for, if her or she holds promise as a potential spouse.
Of course, all of dating involves getting to know each other, but those efforts often occur within the framework of "Would I want to marry this person?" Their answers, behaviors, and decisions get weighed against our hopes and expectations for marriage. Dating becomes a long, scrutinous job interview.
Singles have good reasons for such an approach. They want to avoid “wasting time” with a person who isn’t right for them as well as the pain of yet another failed romance. They want to know the important answers quickly, before things get too serious.
But by always considering the other person as a candidate for marriage, we base our hopes on a one-dimensional idea of who they are, missing the prism of the whole. We make marriage the ultimate goal and skip the opportunity for personal and ecclesiological sanctification.
There’s a benefit to putting aside our gauges of the qualifications for a spouse to simply get to know someone. Researcher Aron recommends questions as seemingly granular and inconsequential as, “Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?” and as personal as, “Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?”
Regardless of what we ask, we have the opportunity to listen to their responses and understand another person as more than just a potential husband or wife. In getting to know someone, we are given a glimpse, however slight, of the image-bearing nature of an individual.
We ask what they fear and what they worship, how they view their family members and what baggage they may carry with them. They cease becoming our means to an end, and become instead a whole person part of a whole spectrum of people. They become someone with hopes and dreams independent of us, someone with fears and talents unaffected by ours. They become our friend.
The New York Times also recently reported on the growing significance of friendship and companionship between husband and wife, saying:
Marriage has undergone a drastic shift in the last half century. In the past, as the Nobel-winning economist Gary Becker described, marriage was utilitarian: Women looked for a husband to make money and men looked for a woman to manage the household. But in recent decades… spouses have taken on roles as companions and confidants.
Friendship forces us to see another person as more than what they can offer for us. Friendship grows not by asking questions to gain answers for self, but by saying to one another by virtue of the questions, "I see you and I want to see more of you."
We don't seek the answers to protect ourselves or build an arsenal of weapons for future use against one another, but to curate a museum of memorabilia to delight and reflect upon—to be able to say, "Remember when?" and "Look how far we've come!" and "Your hopes and dreams have come true!" This friendship as a foundation for marriage can only be, I imagine, a more rich and tender and long-lasting type than any checklist man or woman might deliver.
Friends, let's be good question askers and better friends. Let's toss out the masks and the interview questions we so often bring to potential relationships, and let's mine the depths of every person we encounter, bringing to the surface treasures we never expected to find.