So you think you've finally found that perfect person you've been waiting for? You fit together so well and in so many ways. He or she is your soul mate.
It's an ancient dream, this longing to end the abyss that separates one person from another. Over two thousand years ago, Plato proposed that man and woman were once one. They were split off and have been looking for their literal other half ever since.
And what a powerful urge it is! But it's ultimately not useful. Why not? Here are three reasons:
1. It creates inflated expectations.
If you're "meant for each other," whenever there is conflict, it goes right to the, uh, soul of the relationship. If you set impossibly high standards for a relationship, you're likelier to believe you're failing when the inevitable challenges arise.
This is the conclusion of a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by Norbert Schwarz and the improbably named Spike W.S. Lee ("Yo', Spike, how's tenure working out?"). As written up in The New York Times, the study compared two relationship mindsets — people who view partners as "meant for each other" (as soul mates, in other words), and less romantic sorts who view relationship as a journey between mortals, not a divinely-inspired (or intended) event. Guess what? The people who believe in soul mates don't cope as well when the inevitable adversities arise. The Times article quotes Melissa Dahl, writing in The Science of Us, who states bluntly: "The research suggests that believing in soul mates...will backfire."
2: Soul mates probably aren't real.
Those soulmate feelings are probably there because your beloved is experienced as an amalgam of your main caregivers' strengths and weaknesses. They give you love in the flavor that's familiar to you and they also give you the opportunity to work through the deficits that came about because of how you were loved as a child. Your partner is just right for you, actually, not because they're your soul mate but because the grinding of the gears that inevitably happens in relationships gives you the opportunity to grow beyond what your childhood gave you.
Couples counselor Harville Hendrix, author of the classic Getting the Love You Want, calls this complex combination of loved and less loved (or despised, or hated) attributes the imago. He or she may feel like your soul mate. They're actually your imago.
The unconscious works in strange ways.
#3. A really healthy relationship is a stool that sits on three legs.
You're really together for three reasons:
- to help your partner individually or as a team achieve certain goals (like raising children or succeeding professionally),
- to navigate the social world together (go to parties, go to church), and
- to make a deep emotional and spiritual connection.
The soulmate part is only one-third of that, the "deep emotional and spiritual connection" part. Any relationship where the partners don't from time to time connect deeply and soulfully is by definition a flawed relationship. But so is a relationship where the partners get in each other's way when it comes to achieving goals or having a healthy, happy social life.
At the end of the day, choosing a partner is only partly a matter of the heart. It's also a matter of the head. And the soul mate story? Understandable though it is, it mostly gets in the way.
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