- Soulmate thinking ultimately makes the quest to “find the One” a more elusive goal, not an easier one. Tweet This
- Soulmate thinking diverts attention away from the fundamental truth of loving and lasting marriage: that oneness is made, not found. Tweet This
- Only-one marriages are true partnerships in which spouses are devoted to creating a shared life together that is larger than the emotional payoff of the marriage. Tweet This
Even though many leading relationship experts have expressed concerns about the potential negative effects of the “soulmate model of marriage,” a recent poll shows that an astonishing number of Americans continue to believe in the idea that they have a “one-and-only soulmate” waiting for them somewhere out there. A 2021 YouGov poll of nearly 15,000 U.S. adults found that 60% of respondents believe in the idea of soulmates, with women being slightly more likely to endorse the notion of a soulmate (64%) compared to men (55%). To be fair, these numbers do appear to indicate that soulmate thinking may be diminishing compared to previous survey results, but these findings also confirm that the quest to find one’s soulmate continues to play a significant role in how many people approach dating and marriage.
While I am also concerned about the risks soulmate thinking poses for healthy relationship formation, especially among young adults, I also believe that the root desire to be connected to “the One” in a special and enduring marriage is a healthy aspiration. In fact, the evidence is quite clear that humans are designed with a unique capacity for deep attachment in long-term relationships, and each of us has the capacity to come to regard another person as more special than anyone else. The problem with the soulmate model of marriage is that it provides a deeply flawed conception of how to achieve this aspiration. Despite promising an easy path to lasting love, soulmate thinking ultimately makes the quest to “find the One” a more elusive goal, not an easier one. This is because soulmate beliefs are often deeply paradoxical in nature and tend to place relationship success outside of one’s agency.
At their core, soulmate beliefs provide a backwards depiction of the sequencing of healthy relationship development. They suggest that someone exists as your “one-and-only” before you have even met; therefore, relationship success is primarily about simply finding that person. Soulmate thinking diverts attention away from the fundamental truth of loving and lasting marriage—that oneness is made, not found. Someone becomes “your One” because of your commitment, not before. This type of “Only-One Marriage” happens over time as two people devotedly choose each other, prioritize their relationship, and live with complete fidelity to one another.
Knowing the difference between finding a soulmate marriage versus creating an only-one marriage can make all the difference in how people pursue love—and ultimately whether or not they are likely to attain it.
There is no doubt that, in time, spouses can become uniquely suited for each other—but this kind of one-of-a-kind connection grows out of adapting to each other, caring for one another’s needs, and developing a shared history of experiences. This process is not one of finding your one-and-only out there in the world; rather, it’s about making someone the only-one of your heart—and keeping him or her there as you navigate the ups and downs of life together. Knowing the difference between finding a soulmate marriage versus creating an only-one marriage can make all the difference in how people pursue love—and ultimately whether or not they are likely to attain it.
Why the Soulmate Myth Endures
Not too long ago, Dr. Brad Wilcox, Director of the National Marriage Project, predicted that the soulmate model of marriage will eventually die off in our culture because of a renewed emphasis on pragmatic partnership in marriage due to the global pandemic and recent economic downturns. While time will tell if current economic and social conditions will further change the meaning and practice of marriage in our society, there are also ways that these modern struggles may reinforce soulmate thinking in the years to come. Specifically, soulmate thinking may function as an emotional survival strategy for young people facing an eroded dating culture with increased loneliness and declining marriage rates. In a recent BBC interview, Professor Bradley Onishi pointed out that believing in a soulmate allows someone to construct a coherent and hopeful narrative within the unpredictable landscape of modern dating. He said,
the soulmate myth is really good at taking all the bad first dates, the breakups, the dashed hopes, and disappointments and putting them into a story that says ‘someday all of this will fall into place’…the soulmate myth promises that amidst the dizzying and often confusing landscape of dating apps there is one match out there that will make sense of it all. It promises an anchor to modern life that many find appealing.
While soulmate thinking may temporarily soothe the disappointments of dating for some young people, these modern realities reenforce why it is so important for us to educate the rising generation about the true foundations of enduring marriage—and to provide them with better cultural portrayals of how real-life marriages succeed, while confronting these modern struggles, not in spite of them. We need to help young people understand that the type of enduring love they yearn for happens when couples shift their focus from trying to find emotional gratification in a relationship to creating meaningfulness and belonging in marriage.
The model of soulmate marriage fails because it promises the fruits of fulfillment, connection, and intimacy, without providing the roots needed to make those fruits possible. An only-one marriage flips the equation in the proper direction and encourages young people to focus on the true roots of enduring marriage, such as shared values, equal partnership, devotion to each other, healthy communication, and personal virtues that paradoxically make the fruits of a special-love marriage much more likely to achieve.
The Risks of Soulmate Thinking
I have frequently had people ask, “Does believing in a soulmate really cause any harm?” On the surface, soulmate thinking may appear harmless, but there is evidence throughout the relationship sciences that soulmate beliefs create real troubles for both dating individuals and married couples.
Here are a few of the key risks of soulmate thinking:
Unrealistic Expectations: One of the greatest risks of soulmate thinking is the way that it shapes young adults toward unrealistic expectations about how healthy relationships come together and what makes them succeed. In particular, soulmate beliefs orient individuals toward what Professor Raymond Knee calls “destiny beliefs” that are based in the core idea that relationships are either meant to be or they are not. Within our culture of expressive individualism, destiny beliefs create what Dr. Bill Doherty refers to as the “consumer culture of marriage.” Thus, people with destiny beliefs are satisfied in their relationships as long as their partner matches their vision of an ideal partner. Destiny beliefs cause people to focus their energy in the relationship on constantly evaluating the person they are with, asking themselves, “Is this the person I am supposed to be with?” or “Can I find a better partner?” and “Is my partner making me happy?” This type of alternative-seeking behavior makes it difficult for people with destiny beliefs to initiate dating opportunities, and it makes any relationships they establish fragile. These individuals tend to disengage, shut down, or distance themselves in response to conflict, and if satisfaction ever drops in the relationship, they will be more likely to end it, rather than work on it.
In contrast, others adopt what Dr. Knee calls “growth beliefs” about relationships that are based on the core idea that relationships develop over time, involve working together as partners, and are strengthened through the process of overcoming problems. Growth beliefs promote a “work-it-out approach” that focuses on addressing problems, using healthy coping strategies, and shared problem solving in response to negative experiences that come-up in the relationship. These individuals ask themselves, “How can I strengthen our relationship?” or “How can I be a better partner or spouse?” and “What can we do together to make this situation better?” A growth orientation to relationships helps couples see compromise and sacrifice in a relationship as growth, rather than a sign that something is amiss. Of course, everyone needs to have healthy boundaries when it comes to mistreatment or abuse, but partners with growth beliefs are more likely to work through difficulties, and to feel stronger about their relationship and grow closer to their partners through facing challenges.
On the surface, soulmate thinking may appear harmless, but there is evidence throughout the relationship sciences that soulmate beliefs create real troubles for both dating individuals and married couples.
Unhealthy Dating Trajectories: Sometimes, soulmate perspectives create a sort of “dating paralysis” among young adults. The crushing quest to find “the one person” they are supposed to be with makes them fearful of making a wrong decision. Even as a promising relationship is developing, soulmate believers are often worrying about whether they are on the right track or not. My experience is that many young adults are not struggling with knowing when a relationship is a bad one, what they struggle with is determining whether a relationship is “good enough.” Soulmate logic assures young people that they “will be sure” when they have found their soulmate, so any indecision or lack of certainty means it’s safer to end the relationship rather than risk not being with your true soulmate. As a result, many young people simply “lock-up” in dating—neither moving ahead nor back. I am seeing this type of dating paralysis more and more in the rising generation. This makes dating very challenging. It leads many people to pass up promising dating opportunities before they have a chance to blossom and mature into their full potential as a couple.
For others, soulmate thinking can also have the opposite effect. They become convinced very quickly that their partner is their soulmate, so they jump into “rushed dating” or a rapid courtship. This can lead to a lack of careful consideration of a partner or relationship. While it is healthy for couples to have a growth orientation toward relationships, partnership marriages are best started on shared values, healthy interaction patterns, and a mutual view of what constitutes a good life. Careful dating that evaluates these aspects of compatibility is needed.
Unresolvable Break-Ups: While I have seen many risks that soulmate thinking poses for ongoing relationships, I am becoming convinced that one of the greatest harms occurs when relationships end. I have counseled dozens of young adults who are unable to successfully cope and move forward in healthy ways after a serious dating relationship has ended due to the belief that their soulmate is walking away from them and there are no other options in the future. For many, a break-up is a sign that their ex-partner was not their soulmate, but for others, they can’t shake their conviction that their one-and-only is slipping away. What do you do when the person you believe to be your “one-and-only” is no longer an option for you? This can lead to serious hopelessness, obsessive clinging, and other unhealthy coping mechanisms. Embracing agency and believing in multiple options becomes the key to successfully resolving break-ups and moving forward with optimism and confidence that a successful relationship is available in one’s future.
Agency and Only-One Marriages
The notion of soulmate marriage has elevated how much our culture today deeply values the fruits of a good marriage, such as love and happiness. But these beliefs have also contributed to how our culture is increasingly disconnecting these fruits from the true roots that make them possible. Only-one marriages are true partnerships in which spouses are devoted to creating a shared life together that is larger than the emotional payoff of the marriage. This view of marriage gives us more than feelings of happiness; it helps make our lives rich and meaningful. So instead of discarding the common desire to be connected to “the One” in a special and enduring marriage, I am suggesting that we will all benefit from helping the rising generation broaden and deepen their thinking about love and what a good marriage is, and, most importantly, how such marriages come to be. Their understandings of a good marriage should include feelings of love and happiness, but we need to make sure that they also emphasize the far richer and more enduring aspects of relationships that paradoxically make the special marriage bond they yearn for even more possible to achieve.
Jason S. Carroll, Ph.D., is the Associate Director of the Wheatley Institute, a Professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, and a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Family Studies.