The Fallacy of the Soul Mate (Part I)
Well-educated people do not usually believe in “soul mates.”
Posted Jul 07, 2012
In addition to dating a potential spouse for several years before marriage, well-educated people do not typically believe in the concept of a “soul mate.” In the research that informed my book, Marriage for Equals: The Joint (Ad)Ventures of Well-Educated Couples, the vast majority (81 percent) of the 1,200+ participants in my survey of well-educated women rejected the philosophy of the soul mate, favoring instead the possibility of more than one potentially well-suited partner.
To my mind, the idea of finding one's "soul mate" has about as much basis in truth as the idea that each of us has a doppelganger (an "evil twin") and that if we somehow chance to meet up, a bloody duel will surely ensue, because one of us must die.
The idea of a soul mate comes from the ancient tale of Aristophanes, a comic playwright, and contemporary of Plato. He told a story of some two-headed hermaphroditic giants who were cleaved apart by a jealous Zeus, fated thereafter to seek their other halves forever. If you can look past the unromantic image of two-headed giants lumbering around on four legs, I suppose there is some romantic appeal to the idea of the one-in-a-million quality of one’s supposed soul mate.
The concept of finding a soul mate is riddled with logical errors, however, the biggest of which is the idea that our personalities are fixed and unchanging over the course of life (a close second would be the statistical improbability that teenagers in towns with tiny populations across America seem to keep meeting their soul mates in their very own high schools).
In other words, the soul mate idea implies that we are the way we are (with a number of fixed attributes and personality factors) and that there is one other person who is a perfect match for us due to their collection of complementary attributes and personal qualities. The goal in finding one's soul mate is to identify this person, and the assumption is that once this person has been correctly identified, it will be smooth sailing because the two halves have become reunited. In this way, the soul mate script is fundamentally a happily-ever-after script. This script surely has a place in fairy tales, but not in real life.
In the book Crucial Conversations, author and philosopher May Sarton depicts the character of a wife who has outgrown her husband. This discontented wife says, “One of the things I’ve been wondering… is whether all marriages don’t have the seeds of dissolution in them. Can people be expected to keep on growing at the same rate?"*
How, then, do we reconcile the idea of soul mates or of finding “the One" with the frequently uttered statement, “We've grown apart over the years”? The wide use of this explanation for the dissolution of marriage demonstrates that the soul mate notion overlooks a critical truth—that we are not static but are instead in a continual process of growth and change. Of course, the speed of change depends on a number of factors: on the positive side, things like adaptability and openness to positive influence, and on the negative side, things like weakness of character and areas of unhealthy rigidity.
Life circumstances can sometimes also compel significant changes in personal philosophies and approaches to life. Significant traumas can completely uproot a previously established sense of trust in others and will often change someone’s personality greatly. More than half of the women who responded to my survey (The Lifestyle Poll) (a total of 633 women) reported that they'd experienced an event that has made them a “much less trusting person than they used to be.”
For example, here are three illustrative responses to the open-ended question: “What has been your biggest personal betrayal, and how has this shaped the person you are today?”
I have been repeatedly broken up with by boyfriends I really liked (and thought had long-term potential). This has made me insecure about my worthiness of being loved (i.e., what is wrong with me that this keeps happening?). I think it makes me make the same mistakes over and over out of desperation.
My father left my mother and me and pretty much his entire family over 10 years ago. I'm still not sure the extent of things he was involved in to cause him to do that... to me, it was very much out of character. But it made me believe that you can never really know someone... only what they want you to see. I think I tend to look for negative outcomes in my relationships with men, and I'm not very trusting at all... I don't give a lot of people the benefit of the doubt.
I had a bad relationship with someone who dated/courted me (even though he had a long-distance girlfriend at the time). But in public, he kept our relationship secret. He then unexpectedly cut off all ties with me with no explanation (but I later found he was dating someone else, and their relationship was very public). I wondered whether he was ashamed of me, and I wondered why I let myself be deluded by his charm. Now, I am much more cautious about people. I tend to distrust men's friendliness towards me, and I try to avoid men who are too friendly, too outgoing (basically men who remind me of this person).
In addition to the effects of trauma, the adoption of a new belief system or a withdrawal from previously held beliefs is also associated with sweeping and often permanent changes in personality. Thus, we can never count on the notion of having met our soul mates to keep us together through all the changes that life brings; to do so would be to build our marriages on a foundation of shifting sand.
The next several blogs will further describe how a belief in “soul mates” often sets couples up for failure.
*Sarton, M. (1975). Crucial Conversations. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, p. 112.