Soul mates are doomed

Research shows that couples who think they were made for each other fare worse long-term

Published July 25, 2014 2:36PM (EDT)

wedding rings and roses   (Photographer: Serghei Platonov)
wedding rings and roses (Photographer: Serghei Platonov)

The concept of soul mates is so romantic. Think of Plato's description of the original humans, with their four arms, four legs and single heads of two faces, which sounds maybe a little unsettling but becomes so sweet once the mortal puzzle pieces get separated in half and have to find one another to become whole again. Why wouldn't anyone want to be with someone who was made for them in heaven?

Well, because taking that view of a relationship could ultimately contribute to the couple's demise, according to a new study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 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.

So does that mean there isn't room for soul mates? Not necessarily. The researchers urged couples -- married ones, in particular -- to reflect on the vows they made to one another in times of hardship, and to remember that all relationships are journeys. Even if the people in them are made for each other.

By Jenny Kutner

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