Do You Believe in Soulmates? Should You?
Research indicates that how you define soulmates impacts relationship quality.
Posted Jan 04, 2019
"A soulmate is the one person whose love is powerful enough to motivate you to meet your soul, to do the emotional work of self-discovery, of awakening." — Kenny Loggins
Do you believe in soulmates? Should you? What is a soulmate anyway? I have been a couples therapist and relationship educator for over 20 years, and I have always loved the topic of soulmates because it invites diverse perspectives and creates the opportunity to ask, “What do I believe and how did I come to believe it?”
Awareness of your stance on the notion of soulmates is far more than a philosophical exercise. How you relate to the soulmate idea impacts how you think, feel, and act in your intimate relationship. Clarifying the beliefs, values, and perspectives that you bring into your intimate relationships is an essential aspect of relational self-awareness. Let’s journey through four perspectives on soulmates and look at the impact each of these definitions can have on your intimate relationship:
1. Your Soulmate Is Your Perfect Match.
Research by social psychologists Spike W. S. Lee and Norbert Schwartz (2014) indicates that believing your soulmate is your perfect match can set you up for unhealthy patterns. They found that people who use a perfect-match definition of soulmates tend to experience overreactions to conflict and lower relationship satisfaction. It makes sense, right? If I believe that you are my perfect match, when we bump up against inevitable conflict or our “fall from grace,” I am going to feel disappointed and confused. People who subscribe to this perspective tend to use the language of "should" when talking about love: “It shouldn’t feel like this.” “We shouldn’t have this problem.”
2. Your Soulmate Is Your “Bashert.”
“I didn’t marry you because you were perfect. I didn’t even marry you because I loved you. I married you because you gave me a promise. That promise made up for your faults. And the promise I gave you made up for mine. Two imperfect people got married and it was the promise that made the marriage. And when our children were growing up, it wasn’t a house that protected them; and it wasn’t our love that protected them—it was that promise.” — Thornton Wilder
The Yiddish word for soulmate is bashert, and the belief here is that, before birth, God decides who your spouse will be—a “match made in heaven.” The soul is split and inhabits two bodies. Soulmates find each other, and the wedding is the joining, or rejoining, of souls.
According to this belief, your spouse really is your other half (maybe even your better half?), and Tom Cruise’s words to Renée Zellweger in the film Jerry Maguire fit here: “You complete me.” When my students explore this definition, they initially express despair: “What if I live in New York and my bashert lives in New Zealand?” Those who practice from this belief story must also have faith that destiny or divine assistance will lead them to each other’s arms.
Belief in bashert serves as a vessel that buoys a couple during their journey of love. Couples who share a story that their union was created and is supported by a force bigger than them feel a sense of comfort, connection, and meaning.
The Thornton Wilder quote used here doesn’t specifically refer to God, does it? It refers to a promise. I include the quote in this perspective because the energy feels the same to me—two people connect and remain committed to that connection because something bigger than them acts as the container or the vessel. Belief in God. Belief in remaining true to a promise.
Belief acts like an anchor for your values, which then guides your thoughts and actions. If I begin to wonder what a relationship with someone else would be like, if I begin to flirt with others out of curiosity or disengagement, I can reconnect with what I value and what I believe. This first soulmate perspective invites faith and surrender.
3. Your Soulmate Is Your Fellow Traveler.
“People think that they have to find their soulmate to have a good marriage. Anyone you meet already has soulmates: their mother, their father, their lifelong friends. You get married, and after 20 years of loving, bearing, and raising kids, and meeting challenges, you’ll ‘create’ your soulmate.” — Diane Sollee
This quote from the former director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, focuses on love as a journey that two people take together. Moving through space and time together creates the soulmate bond. The research project that highlighted greater relationship dissatisfaction among those who see soulmates as the perfect match also found that those who view soulmates as fellow travelers tended to have more adaptive perspectives on relationships. There’s a joke that fits with this definition. A man approaches his rabbi and asks, “How do I know whether my wife is my soulmate?” The rabbi answers, “You know because you are married to her.”
Many students have commented that this perspective takes some of the pressure off. You don’t have to know whether he or she is your soulmate by the second date! What matters is whether this person is a worthy travel companion—someone with whom you can build that “relationship of constancy.” This perspective feels pragmatic, loyal, and without angst. Here, there’s no churning about the existential, the metaphysical, the unknown. There’s no “Are we?” or “Aren’t we?” It’s just you and me, moving through days, months, and years together, continuing to show up because we are an “us.” Lovely.
4. Your Soulmate Wakes You Up.
“People think a soul mate is your perfect fit, and that’s what everyone wants. But a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that is holding you back, the person who brings you to your own attention so you can change your life. A true soul mate is probably the most important person you’ll ever meet, because they tear down your walls and smack you awake. But to live with a soul mate forever? Nah. Too painful. Soul mates, they come into your life just to reveal another layer of yourself to you, and then leave.” — Elizabeth Gilbert
I love the wake-up call of this definition, the invitation to growth. In my experience, people tend to find Gilbert's words unsettling for two reasons. First, woven into the definition is the inevitability of pain. It’s not smooth sailing. You will see parts of yourself you haven’t seen before. You will come face-to-face with your past, your shadow, your hiding places, your tender spots.
Second, according to Gilbert, soulmate relationships are vital and time-limited. No “till death do us part” here! A soulmate relationship creates a crisis and a crucible for transformation, allowing us to experience, in the next relationship, a more conscious love. Do I believe that crisis, transformation, and more-conscious love can happen all with the same partner? Of course. Happy couples have several different marriages within their marriage.
What I also like and value about Gilbert’s perspective is that rather than viewing a relationship that has ended as a failure, she opens the possibility of viewing a relationship that has ended as a completion. The relationship did what it was created to do, and now it is complete.
When the soulmate research mentioned earlier was published, I was asked to be part of a panel with one of the study’s authors. The question for our panel was: “Should you believe in soulmates?” I find the question “Do you believe in X or not?” to be rather strange. The belief is out there already, so really the question should go something like: “Do you embrace a belief in X or not? How does a belief in X serve you or not? Does it enhance or constrain you? Open or close you? Elevate or sadden you?”
My perspective was clear during that interview and remains the same today: I am 100 percent in support of you believing in soulmates as long as your soulmate definition includes the notion that soulmate relationships involve and invite deep, courageous, and sometimes emotionally painful work for each individual and for the couple.
Remember: You have free will—you can see the potential for juicy and valuable lessons inherent in a particular intimate relationship, but you get to choose whether you want to “sign up” for those lessons. Sure, any number of factors may make it difficult to exercise your free will (a particularly fateful first encounter, feelings of loneliness, powerful sexual chemistry, a whole host of “shoulds”), but it always goes back to you and your deepest truth, as you can best see, hear, and feel it in the present moment.
Here’s an example. On date number two, Stephanie finds out that Will spent a brief period of time in jail when he was 19 years old. She is grateful that he is upfront about his history, and she feels his story of how he learned from the experience is rich and authentic (not defensive or full of rationalizations and excuses). She feels compassion for him and sees the learning that would be possible within this relationship, yet, she is just not interested in “signing up” for this learning. She doesn’t need to label him as a bad guy (blaming him for the relationship not working), nor does she need to beat herself up for being closed-minded (shaming herself for how she “should” be). She honors the infinite mysteries inherent in love and chooses another path.
Soulmate beliefs are there for the taking. They are not hard and fast rules. They are deeply personal and dynamic. Use a soulmate belief where and when it amplifies what you value and know to be your deepest truth today. Release the belief when and if it acts like a prison. Bring awareness to what you believe at this moment in time, witnessing whether and how it works for you.
- Write about how you define soulmates. Before reading this article, what did you believe about soulmates? Which of the soulmate descriptions in this lesson resonates with you the most? Why? Which of the soulmate descriptions in this lesson do you find yourself resisting the most? Why?
This article is adapted from my book, Loving Bravely: 20 Lessons of Self-Discovery to Help You Get the Love You Want.
Lee, S. W. S., and N. Schwartz. 2014. “Framing Love: When It Hurts to Think We Were Made for Each Other.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 54: 61–67.