“I almost didn’t go out that night.” A phrase I hear uttered once a week when a Manhattanite dishes how she ignited her current flame, soon followed by, “but then I did and I met him.” Some of the hims have turned into husbands I now know, others into fleeting moments, the collective “somes” and “others” always forming a cohesive great story.
The interesting stories seem like tall tales or screenplay rejections. They begin with the charming, self-deprecating, but self-aware not to be too self-disparaging, beauty that drinks from a glass of varying amounts depending on the night. Usually it’s a tall glass brimming with excitement at the prospect of meeting someone worthy mixed with vitriolic cynicism that this prospect doesn’t exist.
The beauty regales her tale of romance with a scenario that begins with her sitting alone in a tiny downtown apartment downing a stiff drink of ambivalence on the rocks. It’s Saturday night and her Miranda Kerr walking glama-friend announces it’s time to go out— that her fling of the week is pissing her off and in turn she needs to flutter her eyelashes at some dudes and wear a backless dress. Sighing, our heroine feels like there’s no point to another Saturday night escapade. She’s tired of the same nights, same men, and for the love of sequins how many times can she wear that Topshop outfit? Feeling like the sidekick in a recurring Groundhog Night, she begins to say no. But after staring inside her drink a few more minutes for a sign, like a Magic 8 Ball, something inside her agrees.
So on this night, the ladies decide they don’t want the same old nightcap night, they want dim lights, slightly tilted fedoras, and a reason to dazzle those manicured jazz hands—yes yes, they want jazz!
Enter: handsome small jazz club located in a village west of their eastern dominated days. Tonight anything goes—our heroine might choke on a martini olive mid-flirt or accidentally offend a man’s mother. Alas, after a few hours of feeling like the homely sidekick underneath a self-possessed exterior and purposeful eyes, it happens. The reason she went out part. Our heroine spots him from across the room and amid the fog, haze, and all that jazz, his face becomes clear. Destiny. When they cross paths, the playful remarks begin. Clinked shot glasses and smirks painted across two faces cocked to the side spills into hearty laughs. The ha’s congregate at the bar giving way to a percussion of smooth rhythmic melodies, where one laugh finishes, the next will begin.
The question remains, did the stars align into a symmetrical heart and yield this man who shares similar sensibilities—in effect, was this her soul mate? Or, like a female in the Oval Office, are soulmates a creation and conspiracy coined by sleepy screenplay writers?
Psychologists have caught wind of the soul mate stories and have started empirically researching the phenomenon. Soul mates are defined by couples who share the belief that their meeting was fate and that only one person in the world exists whom they are destined to be with. Two psychologists, Wilcox and Dew (2010) decided to put couples to the test to see whether those who endorse soul mate relationships are more fulfilled than those who believe in more practical pairings. Couples who subscribe to a more institutional model place weight on practical parts of marriage like marital permanency, division of household labor, and child raising. To compare differences between the groups, the researchers had couples take the Marriage Matters Survey over the course of six years. Ultimately what these researchers found was that a combination of institutional ideologies coupled with a soul mate mantra lead to more fulfilling unions.
Other researchers have mirrored these findings. Those who believe that once they’ve found their soul mate, little additional work is needed to maintain a healthy relationship, are at risk for disappointment. Couples who completely idealize relationships and believe that love can conquer all, might put little work into a relationship once reality sets in and other factors are needed to foster a strong union. In fact, one longitudinal study known as the PAIR project, examined 168 couples since the early 80’s for several years and provided fascinating insights into predictors of divorce. One important indicator was characterized by the disillusionment model, which suggests that couples who maintain idealized, romanticized, and unrealistic expectations about married life, were more at risk for divorce once things didn’t go exactly as planned. But, research has also found that the appropriate amount of idealization might also enhance relationships if carried out to a realistic degree. Those who appropriately idealize partners understand their faults but tend to view these traits in a more positive light, deeming them as cute and quirky, rather than nonexistent.
Researchers have also found that those who believe in only “one” compatible person are at risk for staying single forever if no one lives up to their perfect poster image. Ultimately what leads to a more fulfilling life is a mixture of both practicality and romanticism. Romantic comedies and soul mates aren’t all a lie—there are people that exist who match us, challenge us, and complement our differences. There are people who we’ll have crazy sexual chemistry with but also share the same values and passions. But rather than believing there's only one or we're done, a more productive stance might be to believe that there are many people who are right for us. And, if we gear our soul mate model towards practicality, we’ll also be ready to work through differences once our him or her shows their faults. So, if you miss that one Saturday night out because you’re too busy catching up on Breaking Bad, don’t sweat it because opportunity is abound every time a door opens.
W. B. Wilcox and J. Dew (2010) Is Love a Flismy Foundation? Soulmate versus institutional models of marriage. Social Science Research, 39(5), 687-699.
Caughlin, J. P., & Huston, T. L. (2006). The affective structure of marriage. In A. L. Vangelelisti & D. Perlman (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of personal relationships (pp. 131-155). New York: Cambridge University Press.