In the wake of the news that author Nicholas Sparks was getting divorced, one commentator at Elite Daily wrote, “For all [his] fans or hopeless romantics, this news is probably especially heartbreaking. If Sparks, of all people, can’t find his soul mate, can any of us?”
The answer is probably not. And that’s actually a good thing. Indeed, it seems as if more and more journalists and pundits are beginning to recognize that there is no such thing as a soulmate. Or if there is, it’s not what people should be looking for in a marriage. A piece in The Atlantic last year about a marriage class offered at Northwestern University was titled “The First Lesson of Marriage 101: There are No Soulmates.”
It’s a message we may finally be taking to heart. See, for instance, this article posted late last month on the parenting website Babble:
Looking deep into my eyes, some time after our seventh wedding anniversary, my husband took my hands into his — calloused and rough from years of sandpapering and woodworking — and whispered solemnly: “You are not my soul mate.”
The author notes that her husband is not her soulmate, either. Instead, she writes:
Theoretically, my husband could have married many different women, just as I could have chosen many different men. We were in the right place at the right time when we met each other, which could be construed as an orchestrated meeting of fate and passion, or it could have been just two students passing each other in the hallway. The happenstances of our beginnings are not as important as the choices that we have made to keep choosing each other, day in and day out.
Or take this blog post by Matt Walsh, now shared over a hundred thousand times:
The Marriage of Destiny is a facade, but the good news is that Real Marriage is something so much more loving, joyful, and true. I didn’t marry The One, I married this one, and the two of us became one. We’ve got it all backwards, you see. I didn’t marry my wife because she’s The One, she’s The One because I married her. Until we were married, she was one, I was one, and we were both one of many. I didn’t marry The One, I married this one, and the two of us became one.
This is among the more eloquent answers I’ve seen to the claim that we each need to find the one person out there who we are destined by fate to be with. In fact, there are probably many people that each of us might be compatible with. No matter whom we choose, we will not fit together like pieces of a puzzle. Years of work will hopefully make our edges less sharp, though.
In other words, marriage is a lot more like the way we think of friendship. We find someone with whom we have some shared interests. Often friends are people who come from similar backgrounds, or have a similar outlook on life or similar interests. But mostly they are people that we enjoy spending time with and talking to. That’s apparently what we should be looking for in a spouse as well.
While research has long shown that marriage on average makes people happier, healthier, and wealthier, marriage to a person you consider your best friend is even better. According to a recent working paper put out by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the “well-being effects of marriage are about twice as large for those whose spouse is also their best friend.”
And just as we might consider choosing spouses more like the way we choose friends, we might consider treating our spouses more like the way we treat our friends. We might compliment them more, yell a little bit less, and try to do things with them that are more fun and less typically romantic. (There are studies suggesting that spouses who try out new sports or hobbies together can improve their relationships.)
More and more of the literature on marriage suggests that we also have the power to improve it—whether marital problems are due to spouses’ personalities or outside factors. In fact, according to a 2002 report from the Institute for American Values, one longitudinal survey showed that two-thirds of adults who at one point described their marriages as unhappy, but who did not divorce or separate from their spouses, described their marriages as happy five years later.
A recent Modern Love column in the New York Times described a study showing that asking someone a battery of 36 questions and listening completely to the answers over the course of an evening can make two people fall in love. The piece was hugely popular—who wouldn’t want to know that secret? The author, Mandy Len Catron, tried the experiment with a friend and the two are now in love, she writes.
Catron concludes: “I’ve begun to think love is a more pliable thing than we make it out to be. … Love didn’t happen to us. We’re in love because we each made the choice to be.”