In my opinion, one of the most clever and entertaining movies of all time is "Back to the Future." I love the way the movie plays with time and suggests that two people may be destined to be together. After a comically goofy introduction to Lorraine (fortified by a glass of cold milk, the somewhat schizotypal George McFly stammers, "Lorraine, you are my density"), George extends his hand to claim his future wife after a satisfying crack across the jaw of the sexually assaultive bully Biff Tannen.
In real life, however, when we buy into the concept that we are destined to be with one person or another, the inevitable transition from the cocaine-rush phase of a new relationship to the testing phase may be much more threatening to the security of our bond. That is, if we are convinced that we have met "the One soul mate" that we were always destined to meet, whenever we discover that this person is not what we first imagined, our sense of disillusionment with them will be much greater and our hopes for the future of the relationship may be quickly squashed. A belief in destiny is part of a larger set of romantic beliefs* that incorporates such tenets as:
a) Love finds a way to conquer all.
b) For each person there is one and only one romantic match.
c) The beloved will meet one's highest ideals.
d) Love can strike at first sight.
e) We should follow our hearts rather than our minds when choosing a partner.
In fact, as I was discussing the pitfalls of the “soul mate” idea in my book, Marriage, for Equals: The Successful Joint (Ad)Ventures of Well-Educated Couples, I took a quick chocolate break and opened up a “Dove Promise” to read the message, "Always follow your heart – it's never wrong" contributed by a woman named Amanda from Deltona, FL. It’s hard these days to even eat a bon-bon without being bombarded with these kinds of foolish statements.
Since advertising has reached the level of bon-bon bombardment, I’d like to suggest a new product line, called “Dove Truths.” A sample message might be, “Don’t just follow your heart. It might be right, but it’s more likely to lead you down a foolish path.” Such a message would certainly make up for the empty calories, but I suppose it’s not as fun as the sugar-coated fantasies many of us tend to indulge in.
Contrast this model with the alternative philosophy that successful relationships are intentionally and actively created by conquering obstacles and growing together over time (what researchers refer to as the growth model). In response to a previous blog post, one thoughtful reader submitted the following comment:
I believe in soul mates and love at first sight. I have experienced it. After 29 years of marriage, I still believe. No, life wasn't always perfect and we had our share of tough times, but we worked it out, because we were believers in our love.
My take on this is that this marriage has not worked out because these two individuals started out as “soul mates,” but rather because they were fundamentally compatibility in important ways, and both partners possess a number of mature and healthy personality traits. This comment alludes to one such mature trait – the ability to remain committed through turbulent times. If this couples’ belief that they have found a soul mate in each other helps support this type of mature commitment, then more power to them. In my clinical practice, however, I have seen many cases of couples who construct each other to be soul mates until there is a jarring – and relationship undermining – period of disillusionment when they discover how unsuited they feel to each other when the path gets rocky.
In the most recent Psychology Today magazine, Hara Marano pointed out marriage brings together two individuals from different cultures, in the broadest sense of the word. If our beliefs align with the growth model, when we transition from initial fantasies to something more like real life, our expectations are set to give us room to live into the testing phase without facing the troublesome thought, "I thought he/she was my soul mate, but after that fight, I guess I was wrong. I’d better keep looking because I haven't found IT yet."
In fact, this is exactly what researcher Raymond Knee found. As he explains, "Belief in destiny was associated with disengaging from the relationship and restraining oneself from maintenance attempts in response to a negative relationship event, whereas belief in growth was associated with endorsement of relationship-maintenance strategies."** So, in common parlance, people who believed that they had met their soul mates and who then encountered some information that contradicted their illusions of their partners’ total perfection often felt disillusioned, gave up the fight, and started detaching.
Another damaging element of the destiny belief, as Knee points out, is the tendency to make global dispositional inferences for undesirable behavior. That is, if we were to believe that each of us is the way we are, with a number of fixed traits, then when the initial thrill of falling in love subsides, and our new partner behaves like a complete turd one morning, we would tend to conclude that they behaved that way because that is who they really are rather than because other things in their life have been stressing them out lately. We all deserve the benefit of the doubt sometimes, and giving our partners the benefit of the doubt (in a loving, committed relationship) helps sustain the love we create. (However, giving the benefit of the doubt repeatedly during the courtship phase of a relationship can lead to disastrous consequences – more on this in a later blog).
Next week will be the fourth of four posts in this mini-series on the concept of the “soul mate” – thanks for reading and sending some very thoughtful comments!
*Knee, C. R. (1998). “Implicit theories of relationships: Assessment and prediction of romantic relationship initiation, coping, and longevity.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 360-370
** Ibid, p. 365.