The Surprising Science of Soulmates

How to navigate the line between love and fantasy.

The Surprising Science of SoulmatesIllustrations by Jori Bolton

The soulmate. It’s an ancient Greek ideal that survives to this day as a fixture of Harlequin romance novels and movies starring Rachel McAdams. That predestined better half is out there (hopefully with a charming smile and eyes that sparkle like a glass of Moët & Chandon). Once found, he or she will bring eternal bliss.

The potential benefits of such a vision are understandably appealing. Believing your partner was made just for you reinforces the positive aspects of your relationship and conveniently assigns some of the relationship heavy lifting to fate. Plus, who can deny the allure of “happily ever after”?

But don’t leap into a long-term commitment simply because someone makes your heart beat with unusual gusto. Recent research, co-authored by Spike W.S. Lee, an as­sistant marketing professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, suggests that the idea of a soulmate might be the wrong way to frame a relationship. In fact, it may actually be detrimental to long-term contentment.

For the study, participants had to choose between phrases and images that indicated whether they felt that love was a search for The One or a lifelong, compromise-filled journey. Lee found that the soulmate group had significantly more negative thoughts when they reflected on conflicts in their relationships than the love-is-a-journey group. “People who view themselves as soulmates tend to be less satisfied when they think of the conflicts in their relationships,” he explains. “It’s inevitable. In the soulmate frame, conflicts are bad. People think, Well, maybe we’re not the perfect fit.”

Sue Johnson, an Ottawa-based psychologist, doesn’t believe in the idea of a perfect fit. “Whoever came up with the idea should be boiled in oil,” she jokes. In her 2013 book Love Sense, she takes a scientific approach to explain the benefits of close, long-term relationships. For example, she points to a study that performed fMRI scans on the brains of happily coupled women and notes that even when facing an imminent threat, the subjects barely had a stress reaction as long as they were holding the hands of their loved ones. Women who were unhappily coupled saw a spike in their stress levels, hand holding or not.

But arriving at a strong place of comfort and trust takes effort, not just the “magic” of finding a soulmate. Through com­munication, collaboration and constructive conflict resolution, you can build and sustain happy and fulfilling relationships despite not being custom-built for each other from the outset. Which no one is.

One of the key components is responding to vulnerability. It’s essential to have the courage to discuss your inner fears and hurt feelings and deep longings with a partner. “Freud said we are never so vulnerable as when we are in love,” says Johnson. But opening up can make us feel threatened or afraid or weak, and there’s always the risk the other person won’t respond well, which is why wishful thinking takes hold and often wins out. It’s simply easier (if not lazier).

Gary Direnfeld agrees that strong, lasting bonds don’t just appear mir­aculously. As a social worker and the former host of Slice’s marriage-counselling show, Newlywed Nearly Dead, he has seen the inside of many tortured relationships. He also dismisses the idea of a soulmate as “a very Hollywood notion and not very realistic.”

Instead, you can build the right relationship through trial, error and persistence. The hard part shouldn’t be the exhaustive search for Mr. or Ms. Right (all those hours on Plenty of Fish notwithstanding); it’s the feeling and dealing through everything that comes after that’s harder. It’s more of a slog but, in the end, more rewarding. “I advise people to date a lot, to really get to know each other before cohabiting,” he says. That’s because when a couple first meet, “there is an infatuation stage, and everyone is on their best behaviour.” But it’s important to get past that, to a point where stress becomes a factor and different conflicts arise, to see how you each react, and to start seeing how and if a true partnership can develop.

Because, ultimately, it isn’t the couples who had the most movie-worthy courtships that have long, happy unions. It’s the couples who consistently try to see each other’s viewpoints, responsively listen to each other and maintain a mutual respect that are going to last. And for people who can achieve that, as Johnson puts it, “that’s when the real magic happens.”