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Here’s Why You Should Stop Searching for a Soul Mate

Belief in a soul mate can backfire, but here’s the good news

I met my wife, Lori, at an Irish pub in Philadelphia in 1995. I was standing between the bar and the wall minding my own business and this beautiful woman with sparkling eyes and a dynamite smile politely told me that I was in her way. We struck up a conversation and, before we knew it, it was closing time. The two of us have been inseparable ever since. What are the odds of meeting the love of your life one random night at a nondescript bar? Is it fate? Is Lori my soul mate?

It’s a comforting thought to believe that somewhere out there is a special person who was put on Earth just for you. According to a 2011 Marist Poll, nearly 75 percent of Americans believe in soul mates: the notion that someone unique has been custom-built to be your perfect match, destined to be your loving companion until the end of time. The idea of a soul mate is the epitome of romance, drilled into our psyche the moment we hear, “and they both lived happily ever after.” Who doesn’t want to be swept off their feet by a flawless partner? It happens to people all the time in movies, TV shows, and books. Why not you?

Because math. There are more than 7.5 billion people in the world. In his book What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, Randall Munroe crunched the numbers and calculated that we would need to live 10,000 lifetimes to find our soul mate. In other words, if there is only one person right for you in the world, your chance of finding that individual is about the same as finding a working paper towel dispenser in an airport bathroom.

What if we relax the exclusivity component? Drawing from the same equation used to calculate the number of possible civilized planets in our galaxy (52,000, in case you were curious), Joe Hanson of It’s Okay to Be Smart computed that 871 soul mates are waiting for you in New York City alone. Better, but the odds of bumping into one of those 871 soul mates next time you visit the Big Apple, which is home to more than 8.6 million people, are still slim to none. To put that in perspective, imagine you were a master at speed dating and could size-up a potential mate in just one minute. Assuming you can also do without sleep, that means you could survey 1,440 people in 24 hours. It would still take you about 16 years to conduct 8.6 million non-stop one-minute interviews to locate your soul mate.

That might sound a little soul-crushing, but don’t despair. Science is teaching us that belief in a soul mate turns out to be detrimental to our relationships. People banking on a soul mate invest too much time second-guessing their choice instead of working on said relationship. A 2014 study performed by psychologists Spike W. S. Lee of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management and Norbert Schwarz of the University of Southern California shows that couples who believe in soul mates struggle with conflict more than those who view their time together as a journey with opportunity for growth. A 2007 study led by psychologist Eli Finkle at Northwestern University showed that soul mate diehards also experience more relationship anxiety and are less likely to be forgiving after a lover’s quarrel. The belief in a soul mate instills an expectation of perfection in our partner—and, if that is not achieved, believers in soul mates give up too hastily, thinking they must not have found Mr. or Ms. Right.

What all the studies seem to say is that belief in a soul mate is unrealistic, counterproductive, and kind of lazy. The movies make us feel entitled to perfection delivered to our doorstep by fate, but this is not how things work in the real world. If you want to cultivate a satisfying relationship, you need to be a constant gardener.

The good news is that there are many people out there with whom you can make it work, not just one. And it is good work if you can get it. Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger at Harvard Medical School conducted a study showing that one of the most powerful predictors of good health and happiness is being in a satisfying relationship. In his words: “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too.” Be patient and work at it with the same attention and care that you would apply to fulfilling any other dream.

Back to the night when I met Lori—the story leads you to believe that we must be soul mates that fate magically drew together. But we’re not. Had we never met, I know she would have found some other lucky guy and I would be causing another woman’s eyes to roll. I didn’t share the struggles that challenged our relationship. I didn’t share how much patience it takes to put up with one another’s quirks and habits.

Like any relationship, ours is not all roses and rainbows, but we acknowledge and expect that. We try to find the humor in it. A key ingredient to our success is that we both put forth the effort to nurture our constantly evolving relationship. We’ve transcended love and the only word that seems to do this phase justice is “oneness.” But as amazing as that sounds, we know that the same effort applied with other people would likely achieve a similar result.

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