The fantasy that “someday my prince will come” guides many of us into seeking ideal partners, or “soulmates.” If only you could find that perfect match—physically, emotionally, and sexually—you'd be assured of a life that will be happy ever after, right?
People who believe in soulmates may be setting themselves up for a lifetime of heartache and failed relationships, according to research by Aurora University psychologist Renae Franiuk, who studies people’s beliefs about their intimate partnerships, called “implicit theories of 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 lie 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, in the background of our social interactions.
If you operate according to the "soulmate theory" of relationships, you constantly evaluate 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 realizing it, you perform constant comparisons between the person you’re actually with and that one-true-love model in your mind. It’s not just that this ideal person is the ideal person for anyone; he or she is the ideal person for you.
Clearly, people don’t always end up in a relationship with their idealized image of a partner. Those who do, however, tend to be ready to give their partner a “pass” when it comes to relationship violations like betrayal. Those who don’t feel that their partner is soulmate material will be far less tolerant and more likely to move on when a relationship goes south, hoping that the next person will better fit the soulmate shoes. It's not only how deeply soulmate believers adhere to the theory, but also how closely they see their current partner fitting the criteria, that determines how they behave in the relationship.
The opposite of the soulmate theory 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 in a relationship. Such effort can help them overcome challenges, allowing them to grow together as a couple as they make their way through adversity.
These two theories are not two different ends of the continuum: People can believe in soulmates yet also 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 their ties.
Franiuk and her collaborators have found that the implicit theories of relationships have value in understanding various aspects of relationships. In one investigation on undergraduate couples dating less than 2 months (Burnette & Franiuk, 2010), partners who believed in the soulmate theory were more likely to forgive a partner they saw as having soulmate potential—partners who more closely fit their ideal. Work-it-out types are less affected by the discrepancy between the real and ideal partner than by other characteristics.
In a study of relationship violence among older married couples (Franiuk et al., 2012), soulmate believers were less likely to be hurt by partners early in relationships, perhaps because their partners were on their best behavior. As time goes on, however, the soulmate believers were at higher risk of being victimized by partners, while clinging to the idea that the partner is their one true love.
In general, based on Franiuk’s earliest study (2002), people who believe in the 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 each partner perceives each other than on how satisfied they are with the way resolve conflicts.
These two relationship theories are highly stable over time, Franiuk believes. Once a soulmate theorist, always a soulmate theorist. The question is whether, over the course of a relationship, the sheen wears off a little as a partner’s true qualities come to the surface.
Are you a die-hard soulmate theorist? Time to find out: Franiuk and colleagues (2002) very kindly provided the items on both scales of their 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. (Franiuk is careful to say that neither theory is “better.")
Answer each item on a 1-7 scale (disagree to agree), and then add up your total score:
Soulmate Theory Questions
- Success in a romantic relationship is based mostly on whether the people are “right” for each other.
- There is a person out there who is perfect (or close to perfect) for me.
- It is extremely important that my spouse and I be passionately in love with each other after we are married.
- I couldn’t marry someone unless I was passionately in love with him or her.
- There is such a thing as “Mr. Right” (or “Ms. Right").
- I expect my future husband or wife to be the most amazing person I have ever met.
- In marriage, effort is more important than compatibility.
- If people would just put in the effort, most marriages would work.
- I could be happily married to most people, if they were reasonable.
- The reason most marriages fail is that people don’t put in the effort.
The average scores on each scale were slanted slightly about 3.5, as you would expect if participants were split right down the middle. The items with the highest scores were Soulmate questions 2, 3, and 4 and Work-it-Out questions 2 and 4 (which are quite similar). Therefore, if you scored high on those items, you were a great deal like the samples in these studies. This is only half the total scale, but your answers should give you a sense of where you stand on this relationship beliefs scale.
Of course, it’s not only you, but your partner, whose relationship theory will contribute to the long-range success of any 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 beliefs and that of your partner (or potential partner). Finding your soulmate may be a matter of luck. Making a relationship work is definitely a matter of effort, but well worth it in the long run.
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Copyright © Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
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