Fulfillment at Any Age

How to remain productive and healthy into your later years

Beware the Fantasy of the Soulmate

Holding out for your soulmate? It may not be worth the wait

The fantasy that “someday my prince will come” guides many of us into seeking our ideal partners, or “soulmates.” If only you could find that perfect match for you- physically, emotionally, and sexually- you’ll be guaranteed a life that will be happy ever after, right?  The answer is no, according to research by Aurora University psychologist Renae Franiuk who studies people’s beliefs about their intimate partnerships, called “implicit theories of relationships.” People who believe in soulmates may be setting themselves up for a lifetime of heartache and failed relationships.

Implicit theories of relationships are essentially a crystallization of our beliefs about what happens when two people form an intimate bond.  They’re called “implicit” because they are behind our thoughts and attitudes toward close relationship even if we don’t necessarily put them into words. We tend to hold those theories pretty consistently over time as they lurk, in the background of our social interactions. 

If you operate according to the soulmate theory of relationships, you constantly evaluate your dating partners against the idealized image of the man or woman who will be the one true love of your life. Once you’re in a relationship, even without your knowing it, you perform constant comparisons between the actual person you’re with and that ideal one-true-love model in your mind. It’s not just that the ideal person is the ideal person for anyone; it’s the ideal person for you.

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Clearly, people don’t always end up in a relationship with their idealized image of that perfect partner. Those who do, as you’ll see shortly, tend to be ready to give their partner a “pass” when it comes to certain relationship violations, such as betrayal. Those who don’t feel that their partner is soulmate material will be far less tolerant and probably more likely to move on to the next person if the relationship goes south, hoping that this next person will fit the soulmate shoes.  For soulmate believers, it’s not only that they believe in soulmates, but also how closely they see their partner fitting the soulmate criteria, that determine how they behave in the relationship.

The opposite of the soulmate theory of relationships is the “work-it-out” theory held by people who believe that good relationships depend not so much on the partner's characteristics as on how much effort they are willing to invest in hashing through the inevitable differences that crop up in relationships.  Such effort can help them overcome challenges, allowing them to grow together as a couple as they make their way through adversity.

The two types of implicit theories, soulmate and work-it-out, are not two different ends of the same continuum. People can believe in soulmates yet hold onto the work-it-out theory of relationships. A couple who didn’t start out thinking they were each other’s soulmates may come to feel that they are, as time and challenges force them to adapt to each other.  Similarly, people who feel that they’ve found their soulmate may still find that they need to expend time and effort on protecting and preserving the ties between them. 

Franiuk and her collaborators have found, since developing this idea in 2002, that the implicit theories of relationships have value in understanding various aspects of couple relationships. In one investigation on undergraduate couples dating less than 2 months (Burnette & Franiuk, 2010), partners who believed in soulmate theory were more likely to forgive a partner they saw as having soulmate potential; in other words, partners who fit their idealized image. Work-it-out types are less affected by the discrepancy between the real and ideal partner than about other characteristics of the situation. Soulmate believers, in a study of relationship violence among older married couples (Franiuk et al., 2012) were less likely to be hurt by their partners early in the relationship, perhaps because their partners are on their best behavior. As time goes on, however, the soulmate believers were at higher risk of being victimized by their partners, still clinging to the idea that their partners were their one true love.

In general, based on Franiuk’s earliest study (2002), people who believe in soulmate theory will be happier and have less conflict as long as their partner fits the ideal soulmate image. Work-it-out couples base their happiness less on how they each perceive the partner than on how satisfied they are with the way resolve conflicts.

These two type of relationship theories are, Franiuk believes, highly stable over time. Once a soulmate theorist, always a soulmate theorist, she claims. The question is whether, over the course of a relationship, the sheen wears off a little over the partner or the partner’s true qualities come to the surface.  Franiuk is careful to say that neither theory is “better,” but it would seem that in view of the fact that people’s personalities, interests, and skills- not to mention their appearance- are highly modifiable over the course of a long-term relationship.

As you’ve been reading this article, surely the question must have crossed your mind about whether you’re a die-hard soulmate theorist or not. Franiuk and colleagues (2002) very kindly provided the items on both scales of her Relationship Theories Questionnaire.  Rather than reproduce the entire scale here, I’ve picked out the strongest items from both the Soulmate and Work-it-Out scales. Answer each item on a 1-7 scale (disagree to agree), and then add up your total score:

Soulmate Theory Questions:

  1. Success in a romantic relationship is based mostly on whether the people are “right” for each other.
  2. There is a person out there who is perfect (or close to perfect) for me.
  3. It is extremely important that my spouse and I be passionately in love with each other after we are married.
  4. I couldn’t marry someone unless I was passionately in love with him or her.
  5. There is no such thing as “Mr. Right” or “Ms. Right.” (reverse this one)
  6. I expect my future husband or wife to be the most amazing person I have ever met.

 Work-it-Out Questions:

  1. In marriage, effort is more important than compatibility.
  2. If people would just put in the effort, most marriages would work.
  3. I could be happily married to most people, if they were reasonable.
  4. The reason most marriages fail is that people don’t put in the effort.

The average scores on each scale were slanted slightly about the 3.5 you would expect if participants were split right at the middle point.  The items with the highest scores were Soulmate #’s 2, 3, and 4 and Work-it-Out #’s 2 and 4 (which are quite similar to each other). Therefore, if you scored high on those items, you were a great deal like the samples in these studies.  This is only half of the total scale, but your answers should give you a sense of where you stand on the relationship beliefs scale.

Of course, it’s not only you, but your partner, whose relationship theory will contribute to the long-range success of your relationship.  Although online dating sites haven’t caught on to using this scale as a diagnostic test, you can informally use these criteria to check out your own theory and that of your partner (or potential partner).  Finding your soulmate may be a matter of luck; making that relationship work is definitely a matter of effort, but well worth it in the long run.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright © Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013 

References:

Burnette, J. L., & Franiuk, R. (2010). Individual differences in implicit theories of relationships and partner fit: Predicting forgiveness in developing relationships. Personality and Individual Differences, 48, 144-148. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2009.09.011

Franiuk, R., Cohen, D., & Pomerantz, E. M. (2002). Implicit theories of relationships: Implications for relationship satisfaction and longevity. Personal Relationships, 9, 345-367. doi: 10.1111/1475-6811.09401

Franiuk, R., Shain, E. A., Bieritz, L., & Murray, C. (2012). Relationship theories and relationship violence: Is it beneficial to believe in soulmates? Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29, 820-838. doi: 10.1177/0265407512444374

 

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.

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