Is there such thing as "soulmates"?

Reader's Digest Editors

Is the idea of "the one" killing love dead? We quizzed relationship expert Jessica Maxwell. 

The concept of a soulmate is certainly romantic, but is it realistic? 

It depends on what you mean by “soulmate". I think most people understand that the idea of there being only one person on planet earth who is their perfect match doesn’t make a lot of sense—even just from a geographical point of view.

In relationship psychology, when we ask about soulmates—or what we call “destiny beliefs”—we measure it as a scale: to what extent do you believe that intimate relationships are based on innate compatibility between two people? 

And then there is “growth beliefs,” which is the idea that a relationship is like a garden that needs to be nurtured and worked on. These two things aren’t necessarily opposites, but often people who score higher in destiny beliefs score lower in growth beliefs, and vice versa.  

 

do soulmates exist
Photo by Everton Vila

 

Is a higher belief in destiny good or bad for a relationship? 

It can definitely be limiting. There’s research suggesting that we’re actually not that good at knowing what we like in romantic partners. In one study from 2008, people were asked what they were looking for in a match before a speed-dating event, and it turns out those stated qualities weren’t reflected in who they actually wanted to see again afterwards.

So, for example, a woman who said she was looking for a partner with high earning potential might actually disregard this preference after face-to-face meetings. 

 

"The idea of there being only one person on planet earth who is their perfect match doesn’t make a lot of sense—even just from a geographical point of view"

 

What about once you’re in a relationship? Does an unwavering belief that you’ve found your predetermined other half help or hinder?  

That depends. If a person higher in desti­ny beliefs is confident they are with “the one,” they can be very satisfied and quite resilient. Their faith means they can forgive their partner, downplay personal faults and exaggerate positives.

However, when you start to encounter conflict in the relationship, destiny believers may see that as a sign to cut and run. 

 

do soulmates exist
Photo by Jorge Saavedra

 

So growth believers are better off when the going gets tough?

Yes. A colleague of mine, Spike W.S. Lee at the University of Toronto, has done research comparing a similar distinction—the idea of being made for each other versus the belief that love is a journey.

He found that during difficult times, journey-oriented people are able to view hiccups and the attendant hard work as part of any valuable relationship. 

 

"Our current idea of a singular match has been heavily influenced by media and pop culture"

 

Where does the idea of a soulmate come from?

We see it going back a long way, to Shakespeare, Adam and Eve—and a lot of mythology has this idea of perfect pairings.

At the same time, our current, arguably unrealistic idea of a singular match has been heavily influenced by media and pop culture. If you watch shows like the US reality show, The Bachelor, for instance, you’re more likely to believe in “the one.”

 

soul mates
Photo by Anthony Tran

 

Some of your own research looks at compatibility from a physical chemistry point of view. Do destiny or growth beliefs affect that, too? 

People’s views on the importance of natural chemistry in the bedroom tended to be pretty similar to their feelings about the broader relationship. So if you think sexual satisfaction requires effort and work, you’re more apt to be content with both your sex life and your overall relationship. 

For couples who had recently had a baby—a period that’s challenging for intimacy—those who believed their sex life takes effort sustained their satisfaction during this time, seeing it as just a bump in the road and not a reflection of the quality of their relationship. 

 

Since growth beliefs seem to be a secret for lasting love, is there a way to shift one’s attitude that way?

It’s not a case of changing your mindset so much as changing your behaviour. You can fake it till you make it.

Couples who are growth-oriented make a point of trying new things together and doing things just to meet the other person’s needs. They put in the work, and the results tend to follow.