Insight Therapy

Psychologically informed reflections on how we interact.

Looking for a Soul Mate? You Can Do Better.

Research exposes the flaws in our beliefs about true love.

Olga Sapegina/Shutterstock
Ask people about their romantic hopes, what they wish for in love, and many will express a desire to find their soul mate, the one person with whom they can entwine in perfect, everlasting unity—two bodies, one soul. This idea threads history, from the ancient mythmaking of Plato’s Symposium, along the golden palaces of happy-ever-after fairytale heroines, through the restless couplings of Sex and the City, inside the New Age yearnings of a million Internet poets, and underneath the business plans of big Hollywood movie studios churning out rom-com fare.

Everyone is looking for “The One.”

It’s a powerful trope. Yet, examined in the light of day, it makes little sense.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

First, the available evidence regarding how we actually love refutes it—repeatedly. Look around and you’ll see how many of those crowned lovingly as “the one” morph into objects of indifference, even hate, after just a few years of marriage. People marry “the one,” then they divorce “the one," then—quite incomprehensibly, in the terms of their own metaphor—they find another “one” to love. Most people who divorce eventually remarry, as do most of those who lost their “one” early to accident, illness, or violence. Each of us is capable of loving (and being loved by) many more than one "one."

Another problem with the notion of “the one” is that if there’s only one person who truly fits us—who "completes us," to paraphrase that squirm-inducing Tom Cruise line—then most of us should end up alone and love-less. Statistically, the odds of finding our one person among the billions of eligible candidates are vanishingly small.

There’s also something tautological in how we are supposed to know who “the one” is:

Q: Why do you feel alive, free, yourself with him?

A: Because he’s the one!

Q: How do you know he’s the one?

A: Because I feel alive, free, and myself with him.

This is simply a lack of explanation masquerading as explanation—and it has an annoying, patronizing quality. It’s like your therapist saying, “You’re dismissing my advice because you’re in denial. I know you’re in denial because you’re dismissing my advice.” This logic, of course, excludes the possibility that you are dismissing the advice because the advice is bad. You should fire that therapist.

Now, you may say, “Stop being such a Grinch! What’s the big deal? People can choose the narratives and metaphors that please them. We’re talking mere words and images here.” Well, yes and no. People of course are free to choose how they think about love and life, but these choices are not trivial, not like choosing an ice cream flavor: They may carry significant consequences for lives and relationships.

As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, (here and here) metaphors are important, even essential, to the way we describe and understand ourselves and frame the issues with which we tangle in our lives. For example, do you go with the flow or stand your ground? Is life a Forrest Gumpian "box of chocolates"? Is your job “a piece of cake” or "a war zone?" And what of love? Is it “a muscle" growing bigger and stronger the more you use it?

Metaphors matter, and the metaphors we use to represent our intimate relationships can play an important role in shaping our love-related perceptions, emotions and behaviors.

This notion was the basis for a recent study by the researchers Spike Lee of the University of Toronto and Norbert Schwarz of the University of Southern California, who set out to explore the effects of framing on relationship satisfaction. In a series of experiments, participants were exposed to two alternate framing metaphors: a soul mate (“unity”) metaphor and a “relationship as journey” metaphor. They were then asked to recall conflicts and celebrations in their own relationships. Finally, participants were asked about their mood and relationship satisfaction following these recollections. The results revealed that the framing prompt affected participants’ evaluations of their relationships, although only in the conflict condition.

Specifically, participants who were asked to recall relationship conflicts evaluated their relationship satisfaction as lower if they were exposed to the ‘soul mate’ metaphor, compared to those exposed to the ‘journey’ metaphor.

"Thinking about relational conflicts hurts more with the unity than journey frame in mind," the researchers state, concluding, "It may be romantic for lovers to think they were made for each other, but it backfires when conflicts arise and reality pokes the bubble of perfect unity. Instead, thinking about love as a journey, often involving twists and turns but ultimately moving toward a destination, takes away some of the repercussions of relational conflicts.”

The authors further propose that these framing effects may help explain why the number and frequency of relationship conflicts are not good predictors of relationship quality and satisfaction. People who frame their relationships as a journey may accept conflict as natural and inevitable rather than a sign of trouble and failure and may thus remain unperturbed by it.

So, has science doused the metaphor of the "soul mate"?

Well, not so quickly.

First, lacking longitudinal and observational components, the study could not determine whether the statistical effects persist over time and affect the relationship in any meaningful way into the future. Statistically significant effects are not always meaningful in life. If an intervention program reduces the number of facial tics from an average of 100 tics per minute to 90 per minute in a group of patients, the finding could very well be statistically significant (i.e.—unlikely to have happened by chance), yet it may not amount to a meaningful improvement in the actual lives of those patients.

Second, 'social priming' effects such as those studied here have proven notoriously difficult to replicate, and the whole notion that subtle priming is an important influence on how we move in the world has not been sufficiently supported empirically.

In addition, the two relationship metaphors included in the study are but two frames out of a rather vast ocean of possible—and perhaps common—ones, about which we have no data; it is difficult to assess the meaning of the comparison between these frames in the absence of context. For example, we my choose to look at our relationships not as “a journey” but as a “bridge building” project, or as a “creative art work,” or a war—"us against the world.” One (or more) of these metaphors may prove vastly more effective (or hindering) than the “journey” and “soul mate” metaphors, thus rendering the current results rather irrelevant.

Moreover, the study examined its two metaphors as separate, opposing frames. However, it is quite likely that people in their actual love lives may combine these (and other) metaphors as they seek to understand themselves and their relationships. It is not illogical or unlikely for lovers to say, “My soul mate and I are on a journey.” These metaphors are not mutually exclusive, and studying them as such may amount to a distortion of the very thing lab experiments are supposed to reveal—the way our actual lives are lived.

Finally, establishing that the soul mate metaphor is less useful for handling conflict than others does not necessarily negate its value. It may prove valuable for other, perhaps more important, uses such as firing up the lovers’ passions. And even if the metaphor is good for nothing of the sort, it may still be worthwhile in the lives of its adherents. After all, our loyalties and choices are not always means to an end, and are not measured only by their results, their success in contributing to our efficiency, resiliency, productivity, or longevity. Sometimes we embrace an idea because we like it—efficiency, productivity, and resiliency be damned. Sometimes we embrace an idea and its opposite at the same time, consistency be damned. And sometimes we cling to a cherished notion and facts be damned, too. Our desire for factual knowledge is often matched, and eclipsed, by the desire to embrace the fanciful wish, float inside implausible dreams, or be immersed in a dazzling fiction.

And fewer fictions are more dazzling than that of the soul mate.


Photograph by Kelly Keeton. No changes made. License. 

Noam Shpancer, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Otterbein College and a practicing clinical psychologist in Columbus, Ohio.


Subscribe to Insight Therapy

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.