“You two are truly meant to be,” I wrote a couple of weeks ago in the guestbook at my best friend’s wedding. Cliché, sure. But I really meant it: She and her now-husband have this downright magical “how we met” story, in which a mysterious man (whom neither of them knew) separately found the two at a bar and introduced them to each other, and then disappeared — forever. To me, it’s always been a story that practically sings made for each other.
The trouble, however, is this: New research suggests that wishing newlyweds well by invoking the idea of “soul mates” may be not be the greatest idea. The very concept seems to make people more dissatisfied with their relationships when asked to recall conflicts, according to the study, led by University of Toronto marketing professor Spike W.S. Lee. Because if you cling too tightly to the idea that your partner must be your other half, it means that the two of you “should have perfect harmony, no conflicts whatsoever,” Lee said. “When reality proves otherwise, as it almost inevitably does, it hurts all the more.”
Lee and colleagues rounded up 73 people of all ages from Ann Arbor, Michigan, all of whom had been in a relationship for at least six months. The participants were asked to take a quiz, ostensibly to gauge whether they’d heard some common expressions before. But one group was given several phrases that alluded to the idea of soul mates: “we are one,” “my better half," “made for each other.” The other saw phrases that brought to mind a journey: “we’ve walked together,” “a long trail," “look how far we’ve come.” After that, the volunteers were told to write down either two memories of good times, or two memories of bad times, that they’d shared with their partner. Finally, they rated how satisfied they were with their relationships.
The results seem to come down in favor of viewing love as a journey. The people who recalled a conflict after being primed to think soul mates said they were unhappier in their relationships, compared to those who’d been primed to think journey.
“This is a really clever study that is very well done,” said Benjamin Le, chair of the department of psychology at Haverford College and co-founder of the site Science of Relationships, who wasn’t involved in the study. He explained that it builds on past work: Researchers who study relationships typically have placed people’s beliefs about romantic relationships on a spectrum that falls somewhere between two categories, “destiny” and “growth.” Those in the destiny camp believe in soul mates, maybe love at first sight and certainly the idea that there is one person out there you were meant to be with, while growth folks believe romance takes effort. And most people are a blend of the two. (If you’re curious about your own beliefs, Le’s site has published a quiz you can take to find out.)
It might not surprise you to learn that the science of romance isn’t incredibly romantic. The research suggests that believing in soul mates — or destiny, or the idea that there is exactly one person who you were absolutely put on this earth to find — can and probably will backfire. “There is research that shows that people who believe in "destiny" put less effort into working through relationship conflict,” Le said. “The idea here is that if we are soul mates, then nothing will go wrong in our relationship, and it will be easy. A conflict makes a destiny-believer question whether the current partner is actually their soul mate, and then they give up on working it out.” People who believe in growth, on the other hand, “see a disagreement as an opportunity for the couple to grow closer as they work it out together.”
It’s not that it’s wrong to believe in the concept of soul mates, and indeed this current study showed that the soul mates group did report (slightly) greater relationship satisfaction after recalling happy times than the journey group. “It’s just that the data suggest the ‘journey’ idea protects people from feeling dissatisfied with their relationship at conflicting times,” Lee, the study author, explained.
But on the other hand, the “we can work it out” attitude can go awry, too. Believing that love is all about work might lead some people to waste time and energy trying to “fix” a doomed relationship, when perhaps they should have long ago moved on. “So it’s too simple to say that soul mate beliefs are bad,” Le said. “It’s contextual.”
So, then, what are we left with? As it turns out, there’s one more relationship cliché that may actually be incredibly healthy: thinking of your partner as your best friend. Valuing the friendship aspect of your union might be the most important thing you can do, suggests a study from Purdue University researchers which was published last year in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
Couples who are, at their core, very good friends are also more likely to be more in love, be more committed to each other, and even have better sex than couples who value their friendship less. All that good stuff keeps growing over time, this research suggests, and these couples are also less likely to split up. “In some ways, this is what I think people mean by ‘soul mate,’ but it’s a bit of a ‘soul-mate-light’ approach,” said Gary Lewandowski, chair of the department of psychology at Monmouth University (and another co-founder of Science of Relationships). “It’s less about magic, or destiny, and more about finding the best person for you.”
For what it’s worth, in the days leading up to her wedding, my best friend’s very sweet fiancé posted this Facebook status: “8 days til I get to marry my best friend.” I think they’ll be just fine.