Searching for your soulmate is a terrible idea

The notion is implausible and research suggests that believing in it is bad for your relationships. It’s much healthier to think of love as a journey.

One of my favourite lines of comedy ever came from an ages old episode of Have I Got News for You. Ian Hislop was asked that about news that Greg Dyke had been taking advice on being BBC Director General from John Burt. He replied that was “like being taught to ski by Eddie the Eagle.” The same might equally be said of receiving relationship advice from me but here goes….

The very entertaining What If? series by XKCD author Randall Munroe once pondered the question: “What if everyone actually had only one soul mate, a random person somewhere in the world?” The world Munroe constructs in response is faintly nightmarish. Even making generous assumptions about how many people you meet and that you only need to set eyes on each other to recognise that you are indeed soulmates, he still puts the prospect of doing so at 1 in 10,000.

He then goes onto to imagine how society would be rearranged to make meeting your soulmate less unlikely.

The upshot of all this is that far from having found ‘the one’, virtually everyone in a relationship is making it work with someone who is an imperfect match. And thinking otherwise is not only daft but appears to be actively corrosive of the relationships we do have:

Researchers observed that while there are myriad ways people talk about love, two common ways of framing relationships — the “other half/soul mate” approach and the “our love is a journey, look how far we’ve come” approach — both contribute hugely to the way people view conflict in their relationships, but in nearly opposite ways. For people with a we’re-on-a-journey view of their partners, everyday relationship struggles are just surmountable hurdles along the way. But for “soul mates,” conflicts are more difficult to deal with — after all, if two people are truly “made for each other,” why would they face any conflict in the first place?

“Our findings corroborate prior research showing that people who implicitly think of relationships as perfect unity between soul mates have worse relationships than people who implicitly think of relationships as a journey of growing and working things out,” said Spike W.S. Lee, a social psychology professor at the University of Toronto and one of the study’s co-authors. “Apparently, different ways of talking and thinking about love relationship lead to different ways of evaluating it.”

Lee and his colleague, Norbert Schwarz, evaluated how couples’ views on relationships contributed to their overall success coping with conflict by having a group of participants (all in long-term relationships) complete a quiz replete with phrases about unity and journeys. Participants were then asked to recall instances of struggle with their partners and instances of celebration; unsurprisingly, people felt more satisfied with their relationships when they recalled the good times, and less satisfied when they recalled the bad times. But the latter was only true for people who thought relationships centered on heavenly unity, not rewarding journeys.



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