By E.G.B.

Inside Merrill Science Center on a cold, rainy, winter night, close to 45 students squeezed into a classroom with too few chairs. They were gathered to hear Catherine Sanderson, an associate professor of psychology, mull over a topic near and dear to a college student’s heart: true love.

It was the second of three meetings of Close Relationships, Sanderson’s non-credit Interterm course. After helping latecomers poach chairs from a nearby classroom, the professor got down to business, asking students what they remembered from the previous session. Some answers: Attractive people get more in life. Similarity breeds attraction.

“Who here,” Sanderson asked next, as she spelled out the differences between loving and liking, “can think of somebody they love but don’t like?”
“Grandma,” a student suggested.

Sanderson described a theory that defines love as one or more of the following: intimacy, passion and commitment. For example, she explained, love might include intimacy and commitment, but not passion. “Like a really old couple,” a student offered. Sanderson countered: More like “two years after you get married. So really old. Like 30.” Cue, from the gallery, a look of panic.

The anxiety mounted as Sanderson asked students to tally their scores on a “love attitudes scale.” For half in the room, the test revealed that in their relationships, intense physical and emotional chemistry are paramount. Less important: earning potential and family background, and being friends first.

Sanderson divulged the well-kept secret that men are more romantic than women—they are more likely to believe in love at first sight and that love conquers all. A female student asked, hopefully, “Does that mean they’ll do more romantic things?” No such luck.

When Sanderson asked students whether they think they’ll someday divorce, three hands moved, hesitantly, into the air. The reality is a national divorce rate of around 50 percent. One woman, noting that most couples in her family have split, asked if divorce is hereditary. Sanderson said that children whose parents have broken up are indeed more likely to divorce.

As the night wore on, Sanderson announced that the next session would deal with conflict, loneliness and jealousy— uplifting topics, to be sure. She also promised, however, to end the final class on a positive note. Perhaps love really does conquer all.

Illustration: Ward Schumaker/