Every stable relationship is built on trust and closeness — or emotional intimacy. In the 1990s, social psychology researcher Arthur Aron conducted an experiment to look further into how to build intimacy. And it turns out, all it takes to build emotional intimacy is 36 questions.
Aron listed down a series of guidelines to help two people build emotional intimacy. The experiment paired university students who didn’t know each other and asked them a series of 36 increasingly personal questions.
Aron, who worked at the Interpersonal Relationships Lab at Stony Brook University in New York, published his results in “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness” in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (1997).
Gradually opening up
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The series of questions required each person to share increasingly in-depth ideas, feelings, thought and impressions.
In the experiment, two people feel a growing sense of connection after making progressively personal disclosures – and hearing similar ones from their partner.
The questions start innocently enough with just small amounts of self-disclosure. It can start with “What would constitute a perfect day for you?” then delves into deeper territory like “What is your most treasured memory?”
As the questions become more intimate, the conversation achieves something that usually takes couples weeks or months.
Spending time without knowing each other
Many couples spend so much time with each other — eventually even marrying —without learning a lot about each other’s feelings. They don’t know how their partners think, what they value, how they approach life, or what gives their lives meaning.
Aron’s last question fits couples who have already built a trusting connection. In it, both parties share a problem with each other and ask each other advice on how to handle the problem. This is a good way to help each other feel valued.
Afterwards, each person asks the other to reflect on how they’re feeling about the problem. This encourages couples to tune into each other’s emotions.
How to build intimacy
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So if you’re on a date with your spouse, asking Aron’s 36 questions might help you build intimacy once again. However, it’s better to space the questions out across a period of time, instead of asking them all in one go.
Most people are more comfortable with gradually getting to know another person. People are also more comfortable increasing trust before they reveal more of their vulnerabilities.
Some elements of emotional intimacy need time to take root and grow. These elements can be shared experiences, loyalty, dependence, and commitment.
Here’s the list of questions, in order.
Build intimacy with 36 questions
1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?
3. Before making a phone call, do you ever rehearse what you’re going to say? Why?
4. What would constitute a perfect day for you?
5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you choose?
7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you’ll die?
8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
11. Take four minutes and tell you partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained one quality or ability, what would it be?
The value of memories and relationships
13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
14. Is there something that you’ve dreamt of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
16. What do you value most in a friendship?
17. What is your most treasured memory?
18. What is your most terrible memory?
19. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
20. What does friendship mean to you?
21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?
22. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
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More questions to help build intimacy
25. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “we are both in this room feeling…”
26. Complete this sentence “I wish I had someone with whom I could share…”
27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
28. Tell your partner what you like about them: be honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
31. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
33. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
34. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
36. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.
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