What Makes a Soulmate?
Psychology can make sense of soulmates.
Posted February 28, 2014 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- The sensation of resonating with another has been described as a right-brain dialogue between the relational unconscious of two people.
- The soulmate experience has to do with analogous emotion, also known as the sharing of subjective experiences.
- Interest, novelty, trust, and ability to navigate challenges are all aspects of soulmate and other long-term relationships.
The term “soulmate” implies a special affinity, understanding, or powerful bond that exists between one person and another. The ineffable experience of being known by and knowing another lends itself to the mythical image of soulmates as two wandering souls finally reuniting.
Why is it that few people resonate with you in this way, while many, who otherwise may be desirable partners, do not? And, from a psychological point of view, what is going on in soulmate relationships?
In a heightened way, soulmates experience communication at non-verbal as well as verbal levels. Nuances of communication occur through facial expression and body language, especially when you are tuned into another person. At an unconscious level, we communicate with others and certainly, this is so with a soulmate.
The sensation of resonating with another has been described as right-brain dialogues between the relational unconscious of two people (Dorpat, 2001). Not all communication is verbal, and, in the context of attachment, right brain-to-right brain auditory prosodic communications—the patterns of tone in your voice—are a vehicle of implicit communication (Schore, 2012). The right hemisphere, as opposed to the more analytic left brain, processes the “music” behind our words, including variations in stress and pitch (Schore, 2012). You experience this when you are highly attuned to another person: when you sense a particular mood from a vocal tone, or “hear” another aspect of a conversation that is otherwise being conveyed in words. In intensely intimate relationships, such broader aspects of communication register both implicitly and explicitly. Although unconsciously we communicate with everyone, in certain relationships our relational unconscious is more tuned-in to the other.
Typically, those who describe interactions with a soulmate note communication based on eye contact. The eyes are used to express, receive, and share experience of every kind of affect. Many people fall in love with those whose eyes they have permitted themselves to look and let themselves be seen (Tomkins, 1962/1991). Through eye contact, people experience mutual awareness of excitement, and, given that the eyes are critical in mutual affect awareness, “there is no greater intimacy than the interocular interaction” (Tomkins, 1962/1991; p. 385).
The soulmate experience has to do with analogous emotion, a concept that has been described as interaffectivity or intersubjectivity--the sharing of subjective experiences (Kelly, 1996; Schore, 2012). The right hemisphere of our brain is dominant for subjective emotional experiences, and the transfer of affect (emotion) between the right brains of a dyad, involving the interaction and affective resonance of two minds and two bodies, is described as “intersubjectivity” (Schore, 2012). At moments of deep contact, intersubjectively shared emotions are deepened in intensity and sustained in time (Whitehead, 2006). One’s capacity for intimacy, determined by sequences of interaffectivity between a child and its caregivers (Stern, 1985), is based primarily on affective resonance or affective contagion (Kelly, 1996). Affective resonance is a mirroring of the emotion of the other, where the emotional expression of another person activates that same emotion in you. Affective contagion is the experience of being “infected” with another’s feelings. Kelly (1996) describes intimacy as “an interaffective process through which the inmost parts of the self are communicated to the other by tangible displays of affect” (p. 73). He notes that the here-and-now interactions between two people interface with the past scripts in the childhood of each individual, and thus, affect is the central force driving intimacy.
Interest and novelty
But can romantic or passionate love that has soulmate status last? Researchers who studied the possibility that romantic love can remain present in a long-term relationship (including intensity, engagement, and sexual interest, but without the obsessional component typical of early stages of romantic relationships) found that romantic love can and does exist in long-term marriages and is associated with well-being, marital satisfaction, and high self-esteem (Acevedo & Aron, 2009).
If we consider the affects that would promote such long-term satisfaction in relationships, they would necessarily include interest and novelty. The echoing of intellectual interests can bind two people together as soulmates. And certainly, novelty that allows growth to take place is a pleasurable sharing between people. Interpersonal novelty, according to Bromberg (2009) “allows the self to grow because it is unanticipated by both persons, it is organized by what takes place between two minds, and it belongs to neither person alone” (p. 89). Mutual excitement and enjoyment of sexual intimacy promote interest and novelty, yet they may also be a result.
Trust and navigating challenges
Knowing and accepting the other are common descriptors of soulmate relationships, yet these are aspects of other committed relationships as well. Trust between two people at the beginning of a relationship enables the kind of sharing that can create a soulmate: “The depth of an intimate relationship is dependent upon the ability and the desire of each person to expose the inmost self to the other, as well as the ability and the desire to discern, interact with, and accept that which is exposed” (Kelly, 1996; p. 74). But perhaps above all else is the capacity to trust the soulmate relationship and maintain its intensity by successfully navigating through the moments when positive feelings are disrupted.
Acevedo, B. & Aron, A. (2009). Does a Long-Term Relationship Kill Romantic Love? Review of General Psychology. 13, 59–65.
Bromberg, P. (2009). Truth, human relatedness, and the analytic process: An interpersonal/relational perspective. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 90.
Dorpat, T.L. (2001). Primary process communication. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 3, 448-463.
Kelly, V. (1996). Affect and the redefinition of intimacy. In D. Nathanson (Ed.) Knowing Feeling. New York: Norton.
Schore, A. (2012). The Science of the Art of Psychotherapy. New York: Norton.
Stern, D. (1985). The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. London: Karnac.
Tomkins, Silvan S. (1962/1991), Affect Imagery Consciousness. New York: Springer
Whitehead, C. (2006). Neo-psychoanalysis: A paradigm for the 21st century. Journal of the Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry, 34, 603-627.