On Monday, the Sydney Morning Herald ran an article that can be pretty succinctly summed up by its headline and its author bio. “Less than a month after I met my soulmate, I ended my 14-year marriage,” announced the title. All the way at the end of the (frankly, excruciating) piece was the author bio, which read in part, “Edited extract from When a Soulmate Says No.”
The thousand or so words Amanda Trenfield wrote in between are, unsurprisingly, a pretty wild read. In them, she describes attending a conference with her husband, only to fall in love with another hot attendee with big muscles, Jason. With her spouse sitting next to her (!?), Trenfield recalls how she sipped from Jason’s offered wineglass, found herself “looking at his chest through his slim-fitting white evening shirt,” and, when the chocolate pudding desert was served, he ignored her protestations and “scooped up a generous spoonful and fed me across the table.” Within a month, this run-in with a guy she described as her “soulmate” led to her saying sayonara to her spouse of 14 years, the man with whom she has children.
Judging by her website, which describes When a Soulmate Says No (did we mention the book’s title?) as a “story of excruciating heartbreak which became the catalyst for my mid-life transformation,” it sounds like Trenfield, who’s now a “life coach,” has made peace with the fallout of... all of that. Still, reading the piece left many wondering how helpful it is to even think of love in terms of “soulmates” in the first place. So I asked an expert.
“I think that it’s useful to remember that feeling,” psychotherapist Matt Lundquist told me. “A deep sense of love for somebody is great.” However, “feelings can only get us so far,” he added, and they’re “not a substitute for really being honest about naming [and addressing] problems and limitations in the relationship.” Suffice to say Trenfield probably did not yet feel a deep enough sense of love for Jason, regardless of the quality of his pecs, to deem him her soulmate.
Social scientists have actually taken a look at the effect of the soulmate idea. In the 2014 paper “Framing love: When it hurts to think we were made for each other,” researchers Spike W.S. Lee and Norbert Schwarz examined the effect of thinking about relationships using two different metaphors. Survey participants in long-term relationships were exposed to ideas that positioned love as perfect unity, as with terms like, “we are one,” and “my better half,” or that framed it as a journey, as in phrases “look how far we’ve come,” or “we’ve walked together.” They then asked participants to write about arguments or celebrations they’d had with their partner and to rate their satisfaction with their relationships on a scale from one to 11. (The Spinal Tap approach: I like it.)
No matter which metaphors the people who’d been instructed to remember happy times had been primed with, they tended to say that they were happy with their relationships. Those who’d been instructed to recall arguments, however, rated their relationships more favorably when they’d been exposed to ideas framing romance as a journey than when they’d been shown soulmate language.
“When people think about their relationship in terms of unity—that they were ‘made for one another’ and so on—it makes them vulnerable when a conflict comes up,” Schwarz said in an interview with HuffPost, “because a conflict indicates that maybe you were not ‘made for one another’—you’re fighting, after all.”
An attraction-forward “soulmate” framing of relationships also seems like it could be pretty brittle in the face of say, fit-chested dreamboats who like to force-feed people pudding across the dinner table in front of their husbands. It also doesn’t seem like a great idea in general to imbue romantic connections with a reason-and-reality-defying power: Just take the sometimes-creepy world of “twin flames,” an idea that’s something along the lines of soulmates on steroids.
The “journey” metaphor also seems like it could be prone to its own problems, however—particularly the sunk cost fallacy. “I think there are people who hold onto a relationship believing that it’s just a question of putting in a little bit more work and a little bit more work,” said Lundquist. “And that also can be quite problematic.”
Even for those of us who don’t rearrange our lives over a three-day conference crush, it seems unlikely that there’s any metaphor or framing that could be universally conducive to healthy and happy relationships. “There really isn’t a formula that exists as to whether or not fundamentally this relationship works or fundamentally this relationship doesn’t work,” said Lundquist. “Ultimately, there are people who have who are an imperfect fit, who provoke each other in certain ways, who do the work and grow and are able to manage to have a meaningful, loving, functional relationship. And there are people who can’t do that.”
Anyway, I can’t wait to read the book.