Connecting "Soul Mate" Beliefs and "Starter Marriages"

The Soul Mate Fallacy, Part II

Posted Jul 13, 2012

In last week's blog entry, I argued that soul mates do not exist. The next few blogs will expand more fully on how a belief in "soul mates" often sets people up for undesirable outcomes in their relationships. 

Before launching into the substance of my argument, let me first back up and mention that people conceptualize soul mates in different ways. One reader presented a thoughtful perspective in response to my last post, asserting that "soulmates is just the universe providing an opportunity to work on something that will be greater than the sum of two parts…that will enable both to grow more through that union, than separately. This learning might be in the form of losing the soulmate, or in the form of the suffering that comes from knowing the soulmate and not being able to be together in this lifetime." 

This understanding of the concept of soulmates is a rather transcendental view that emphasizes the role of our most intimate relationships as catalysts for individual and mutual growth. I resonate with aspects of this idea. However, I do not think that when most people think of a soul mate, they embrace the concept in this way. I think for most people, the concept of a "soul mate" comes fully loaded with associated notions of perfect fit, destiny, and a permanent commingling of two lives (and two souls). In other words, when someone espouses a belief in "soul mates," this belief most often carries the hope that destiny will bring them into a permanent union with their one perfect match. To the degree that someone adopts this kind of belief, there is a heightened risk for poor decision—making during the dating phase of a relationship. 

The initial phase of a romantic relationship, what I refer to in my book as the "cocaine rush" phase of love, is reliably associated with obsessive thought, positively biased cognitive filtering, and untested assumptions about each other's character. We are all susceptible to some degree of love blindness when we first meet an exciting new partner. In the early days of relationships, when we have little information about the other person, we are particularly prone to what researchers refer to as obsessive identification.* In other words, we see what we want to see. As researchers from the University of Waterloo put it, "people immersed in the experience of romantic love often appear to bend reality to the will of their hopes and desires."** 

Beliefs in notions like a "perfect match" and "destiny" are particularly insidious when combined with the broadly held belief that explosively positive feelings are the mark of true love. A person who becomes convinced that they have found their soul mate is effectively telling themself, "It does not get better than this."  For this reason, those who believe that they have found the "One" or their "Soul Mate" are likely to be at greater risk for marrying prematurely after a relatively short courtship.  

Of course, someone with a balance of mature personality traits could potentially believe, "Well, since I have met my soul mate, time should not alter our predestined bond. As such, there is no hurry to get married, so we'll take the time to build a strong relationship before we marry." But this isn't what most often happens in practice. In practice, new lovers who are convinced that they have found their soul mate are much more likely to jump into an impetuous marriage, believing that destiny favors the consummation of their supposed one—in—several—trillion bond with each other. 

Related to this, a belief that one has found one’s soul mate is often linked to prematurely foreclosing opportunities to develop relationships with a variety of people — both friendships and dating relationships. In my last blog entry, I made light of the notion that teenagers across America in towns with tiny populations often discover their soul mates in their very own high school. Commonly, this leads to regrettable first marriages between two people in a relatively constricted social pool who gave each other their first taste of the new lover's high. In some cases, the intoxicating tincture of “destiny” provides added justification for an impulsive leap into marriage — "life brought us together, so it must be meant to be."  

Speaking of the intersection of “destiny” beliefs and constricted dating pools, I saw a recent advertisement for a Christian dating site that proclaimed, “Find God's match for you on [website name]!” Does God really need this particular e-match-making company to mediate the unfolding of a cosmic plan to bring people together? It's hard not to roll one's eyes and think, 'well, it's a good thing that God's match for that person also happens to pay subscription fees for that very dating site.’

In fact, it seems to be a trend among many young couples of faith to marry after a relatively short courtship (often while citing the biblical phrase “it’s better to marry than to burn with lust”). As far as I can tell, the thinking is, “Since we share the same core beliefs, and we find each other very attractive, then everything else will work out according to the principle of the Great Love that commands our lives.”  

Many eager couples are especially prone to assume multiple levels of compatibility based on mutual profession of the same belief system. In such cases, profession of the same belief system is treated as a kind of Hasbro Candy Land “gumdrop mountain pass” that allows the couple to skip several steps of a wise courtship process and to marry prematurely.  

Profession of the same belief system should not be viewed in this light. If holding similar beliefs were a true gumdrop pass, the rates of divorce would be lower for Christian couples than for non-—hristian couples, and they are not. It’s not necessarily the case that one or the other person is trying to misrepresent his or her beliefs intentionally but that during the cocaine-rush phase, we filter out evidence of what does not fit, and make a case for how we are destined to play opposite each other in the greatest love story of all time. We miss the things we ought to notice on other levels of fit. In this way, Christian couples may be at greater risk of a variant of the soul mate fallacy, which in this case materializes as the cocaine-rush thought that the other person “must be ‘the One’ whom God designed just for them.”  

Ultimately, the feeling that one has met one's perfect match (or God’s match for oneself) can set couples up for a particularly devastating period of disillusionment once they are married. When similar spiritual beliefs are used to support this feeling, the eventual disillusionment may result in a crisis of faith, a questioning of one's entire belief system. So, instead of rushing into marriage, it seems especially wise for all couples, whether Christian or not, to consider the biblical injunction to count the cost before making the leap into marriage.  

*Beach, S.R. and Tesser, A. (1988). "Love in Marriage: A Cognitive Account." In The Psychology of Love. ed. R. Sternberg and M. Barnes. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, pp. 330-355. 

**Murray, S., Holmes, J.G., & Griffin, D.W. (1996). "The Benefits of Positive Illusions: Idealization and the Construction of Satisfaction in Close Relationships." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1, 79-98, p. 79.