Whether it’s a financial meltdown, a bad prognosis, or finding yourself in the middle of a war, life has plenty of crises it can throw at you. But if movies, books, and plays are any indication, there is also potential for these rough patches in life to be fertile ground for love to blossom. In Oh My Sweet Land, our host is not at war, but finds herself immersed in the struggle of refugees from her war torn homeland. She falls in love with Ashraf, a Syrian exile who is desperately trying to reconnect with the loved ones he was forced to leave behind. How do these seemingly contradictory experiences: fear or danger and love exist at the same time? Is there evidence in real life to support this often-dramatized situation?
Perhaps surprisingly, there has been some research into this phenomenon. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, men walking across two different bridges, one fear inducing and one not, were asked by an interviewer to fill out a questionnaire. The questionnaire was a psychology test known as the Thematic Apperception Test in which participants are shown a series of pictures that are open to interpretation and asked to create a story around them through questions like: “what led to this moment” or “what are the people thinking and feeling”. Participants who traveled across the fear inducing bridge tended to have more sexual or romantic language and were more likely to attempt additional contact with the interviewer, suggesting that the struggle with danger formed a more romantically charged relationship or at least a stronger impulse to connect with someone.
But it is difficult to gather detailed scientific data around this abstract and complicated connection. There are some basic concepts and a few examples that may help to understand the formation of these kinds of relationships. Soldiers who fall in love while at war often reference the hope their relationship with the other person provides. Nayyef Hrebid, a soldier who fell in love with his partner while on tour in Iraq told the BBC “[He] felt like something beautiful had happened in this very bad place” when they met. People close to you when you are feeling most vulnerable and exposed have a unique perspective on your struggles, which helps create empathy and build intimacy. Such seems to be the case with Tarek and Hadil who fell in love while at a refugee camp in Greece and were profiled by This American Life. Neither of them intended to fall in love or believed it was the ideal moment, but a shared crisis and incredibly uncomfortable conditions brought them together. Like Tarek and Hadil, if both people are affected by the crisis, there tends to be strong shared values that result from the situation or that brought both parties into the crisis to begin with. Conquering a profound struggle or frightening experience frequently brings people closer together.
While it wouldn’t be appropriate to conclude that these difficult circumstances cause love, and it is certainly not advisable as a path to find your soul mate, there can be a positive connection between strife and deeper relationships.
For Further Reading
Dutton, D. G., & Aron, A. P. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30(4), 510-517.
https://allaboutwarmovies.com/2011/09/09/war-romances-a-very-long-list/ (A list of movies that center on falling in love while at war)