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Do you believe in soul mates? Do you hold the idea that there is one person (or just a few), who is uniquely compatible with you? Do you feel that the right relationship should "just work out", with both of you loving each other easily as you are?
If so, you are definitely not alone. In fact, according to a January 2011 Marist poll, 73% of Americans believe that they are destined to find their one, true, soul mate. The percentage is a bit higher for men (74%) than women (71%). The notion is also higher among younger individuals, with 79% of those under 45 believing in soul mates (as opposed to 69% of those over 45).
Clearly, the belief in soul mates is pervasive. The majority of people hold tight to the idea of romantic destiny. The question remains, however, whether the belief ends up working out. Do people who look for a soul mate find them? Do soul mates live "happily ever after" more often?
Fortunately, research has the answer...
Research by Knee (1998) evaluated the impact of a belief in "romantic destiny" (i.e. soul mates) on the quality of actual relationships. More particularly, he compared relationships of people who believed in soul-mates (e.g. a belief that people are meant for each other or not), with those of people who believed in "relationship growth" (e.g. a belief that relationships are developed with work over time). Results of his evaluation indicated that:
People who believe in romantic destiny (soul mates) primarily look for positive emotional reactions and initial compatibility with a partner. They believe people either "click" and are meant to be, or they don't and should move on. As a result, those beliefs tend drive soul mate searchers to be intensely passionate and satisfied with partners at first, particularly while things are compatible. However, when problems inevitably arise, believers in soul mates often don't cope well and leave the relationship instead. In other words, a belief that soul mates should be ideally compatible motivates individuals to just give up when a relationship isn't perfect. They simply look elsewhere for their "true" match. As a result, their relationships tend to be intense but short, often with a higher number of quick romances and one-night stands.
People who believe in romantic growth (cultivation) primarily look for someone who will work and grow with them, resolving conflicts as they arise. They believe that relationships can evolve with hard work and compromise, even in difficult situations. As a result, they tend to be less passionate and satisfied with partners at first. A romantic growth individual doesn't have the same intense, euphoric response to partner connections. However, when problems arise, they are motivated to solve them and stay committed to their partner. As a result, their relationships tend to be longer and more satisfying over time. Rather than rejecting a partner for minor disagreements, they work together, evolve, and grow a satisfying relationship.
Subsequent research supports these differences. Particularly, those who believe in soul mates tend to be less committed to a partner, particularly when there are relationship difficulties (Knee, Patrick, Vietor, & Neighbors, 2004). Also, soul mate believers are often more anxious in relationships and less likely to forgive romantic partners (Finkel, Burnette, & Scissors,2007). Overall, when the going gets tough with a partner, or requires work, soul mates tend to quit and look for the next "perfect" match.
Given the research, if an individual wants intensely-passionate, short-term flings, then belief in soul mates will serve them well. Finding those initial commonalities and connections will feel like magic. It will be an excellent emotional high, at least while the illusion of perfection lasts.
In all relationships, however, disagreement, conflict, and incompatibility will arise. Ultimately, no one is perfect - or a perfect fit for a partner. It takes work, growth, and change to keep a relationship going and satisfying over time. When that happens, soul mate believers often become upset, disillusioned, and uncommitted.
Therefore, if an individual finds they are repeatedly falling in love with the "perfect" partner, only to be disappointed and dumping them soon after, their belief in soul mates may be to blame. It may cause them to give up when things are not perfect (but may be still good or great). It may motivate them to not compromise, work, or change, when others don't love them completely for being exactly as they are. Ultimately, it may continually drive them to believe that life would be more satisfying with someone else and endlessly look for a more compatible partner, rather than working to fit with, and be satisfied by, a very good one.
In the end, it is a bit of a cruel joke. A belief in soul mates may prevent individuals from finding the very relationships they think they are destined to have!
Overall, the message is clear, looking for perfect compatibility and a soul mate kills motivation to work at successful relationships with good partners. In the long run, adopting a belief in romantic growth and cultivation is much more rewarding, especially for those interested in long-term relationships. However, compared to soul mates, a belief in growth does take more work, effort, and a desire to change. So, to truly have a satisfying relationship, an individual must not only give up the search for a "perfect" partner, but also be willing to admit they are not always "perfect just as they are" as well. Only then can two people work together, grow, evolve, and meet each other's needs in the long run.
Until next time...happy dating and relating!
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© 2012 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.