​You're Probably Thinking About Soul Mates All Wrong

Did you know that if love is a motivational poster — and obviously it is — then how you imagine that poster is pretty key, whether it's a cat hanging in there or soul mate scrawled in cursive on a scroll of destiny-weathered papyrus? And that if you believe in the latter, you're probably kinda screwed? Because maybe.

In a recent study about how people frame love and the impact it has on their relationships, University of Toronto researchers Spike W.S. Lee and Norbert Schwarz found that when their subjects (73 people, all ages, Ann Arbor, at least six months of going steady) were primed with the idea of love as unity — you're "made for each other" — those then asked to recall conflicts rated their relationship satisfaction lower. Meaning, if you think of love in terms of soul mates, and then you fight with your significant other, you're even more bummed because this was supposed to be effortless. But those who think of love as more of a journey that takes work are in luck.

From a piece in the NYT:

Mr. Lee told Op-Talk his study was built on a large body of previous evidence that people who favor the journey idea have stronger relationships: "When conflicts arise, they are better at dealing with it; they have higher marital satisfaction; they're less likely to divorce. All kinds of good things happen to people who believe in the journey idea."

Over the long haul, any relationship is going to weather a lot. There will be good times, bad times, in-between times, and then, for lots of people, end times. What gets you through it all, except a weird mix of attraction, shared interests, and shared values (except a mortgage, children, guilt, and in-laws)? Is it really the belief that you're with someone who is meant to be, or is it that you've done the crime and the time, so to speak, on the work front?

Lee called journey thinking a framing device that offers a kind of "protective function" for relationships, and that makes sense, because if you only think of your sitch as meant to be, you'd be pretty screwed come your monthly row over bills, and possibly less likely to work through it.

In an unrelated study, a 2011 poll found that 73% of Americans "believe that they are destined to find their one, true, soul mate." If you had to guess which gender believes more in soul mates, you'd probably guess women, if for no other reason than that we're raised on a steady diet of true love's kisses. But men were the ones who believed this slightly more than women, which makes sense because they never want to talk it out. Burn! Younger people slightly more than older folks, too. Almost 80% of people under 45 were into the idea of soul mates, and only 69% of those 45 plus. That part makes sense: The longer you're alive, the more likely you are resigned to the idea that relationships are not magic all the time because a lot of people are extremely irritating to be with every day no matter how great of a kisser they are.

That said, unity is not all bad, apparently. It may even be crucial during the initial pairing off, said Lee, when people need to feel strongly connected to stay together.

In a piece at NY Mag's Science of Us blog, Melissa Dahl notes:

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.

Done that! But how much work is too much, something that has probably plagued every relationship ever at one point or another? It would seem that we need to feel fated with someone at first, then believe that even good relationships take work enough to commit to the process, but then feel enough of the fated magic with that person to keep it going in spite of the work. Delicate balance.

Which is why Dahl notes that being friends is also a good glue to weather the storms and stay anchored in this love-as-boat metaphor:

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."

There's also the possibility that the idea of thinking you've met your soul mate is used more often in retrospect about a good, working relationship: I'm with someone I love and respect and am willing to work through problems with, which makes me feel like I'm with the right person, someone who is made for me.

I have all sorts of theories myself, but at the heart of my idea about love, I'd say both elements of belief are important. It's got to have some magic, and it's gonna take some work. I can't imagine sticking around without a gut feeling that there is still some ineffable quality to the attraction. But nothing is good all the time, and if you're not willing to face that and deal with it, you're not going to date for very long. That said, too much work can totally kill the magic.

If all this is too circular and complicated, maybe find another metaphor. I started typing "Love is a" in Google, going through the alphabet for the first letter of each next word to see what combinations populated, and here are a few examples to get you started:

Love is an action. Love is an addiction. Love is an anchor. Love is a battlefield. Love is a beautiful thing. Love is a choice. Love is a chemical reaction. Love is a cat from hell. Love is a choice not a reaction. Love is a dog from hell. Love is a drug. Love is an emotion. Love is an ever-fixed mark. Love is an excuse to get hurt.

Image by Jim Cooke.