In 2020, What Does a ‘Soulmate’ Really Mean?
According to relationship experts, searching for your one true love might actually set you up for a lifetime of disappointing relationships.
Look, no one wants to be the Wicked Witch of the West here, but let’s cut to the chase: In a world with 7.7 billion people, do we really think there’s just one true love out there for us? To further complicate the issue comes the even more daunting question, how TF would I find them?
With a pandemic in the mix, the sense of urgency about finding 'The One' only seems to have stirred up another layer of panic for singles of all ages.
Take Jules, a graphic designer based in San Francisco, who says she “remains starry-eyed at 51, despite my own failed marriage and witnessing few successful unions between my friends and family." She adds: "This pandemic has put things in perspective for me pretty quickly about what is important and how fleeting everything really is."
But for those of us out here trying to fall in love, shrugging off realities in search of your 'person' can feel like we’re actually setting ourselves up for a lifetime of letdowns. So, is it time to pull the plug on waiting for your one true love? We investigate.
The dark side of believing in soulmates:
“Even though I don’t believe in soulmates now the way I did when I was 19 — which was that our eyes would lock across a crowded bar and I’d just instinctively know — my stomach still drops when I watch that scene from When Harry Met Sally where Carrie Fisher tells Meg Ryan over lunch that there’s one man out there that she’s supposed to marry, and if she doesn’t find him first, someone else will, and then she’ll have to spend the rest of her life knowing that someone else is married to her husband,” says Shivani, a social media manager in her early 30s living in Austin.
“It activates this instinctive sense of panic and hysteria deep down in my gut, on a cellular level, almost. Like, everyone else has already found theirs! Where’s mine?”
This left-in-the-dust sentiment is hardly unique among soulmate seekers. An all-or-nothing belief system with love, just like nearly anything else in life, is wildly limiting, says NYC-based psychotherapist Matt Lundquist.
“I think what the idea of soulmates has put into the world and reinforced, for single people and for people who are struggling, can be really mean," he says. It can send messaging to people that can make them feel really hopeless and like they missed the boat.”
Is it love or is it lust?
Maybe we’re all making it harder than it really is. “What I hear from couples and from individuals that I work with clinically, is that they don't have a hard time finding somebody to have a really ecstatic, exciting connection with,” says Chicago-based couples therapist and author of You Are Not Crazy: Letters from Your Therapist, David Klow, LMFT. “We tend to conflate that feeling of really exciting joy and love with ‘this is the best person for me.’”
In fact, a recent study from Syracuse University found that falling in love only takes about a fifth of a second, putting it on par with blinking, accompanied by a strong rush of euphoria, similar to a cocaine high.
In other words, if thrilling romantic connections are a dime a dozen, then it’s not the feeling of excitement or instant magnetism that makes a soulmate a soulmate, but rather, explains Klow, “maybe what a real soulmate looks like is someone who you can work through the bad times with effectively.”
The idea that a person could potentially have many soulmates is the philosophy that Marina, a single woman in her mid-30s who identifies as bisexual, subscribes to.
"I’ve had like 10 soulmates,” she says. “And I’ll probably have 10 more! But I always say love isn’t enough, there needs to be actual substance. I believe all of my soulmates came into my life for a specific reason, whether it’s to teach me a lesson or push me to reflect on things or patterns that are no longer serving me.”
What you want in a soulmate may not be what you need.
“One of the things we commonly address in therapy is the discovery that a patient, over time, tended to be drawn repeatedly to individuals who are not available to date or are otherwise not right for them,” explains Lundquist.
These unhealthy patterns of attraction can be really intoxicating, explains Klow, but they’re also “very volatile and not stable, so your attachment with that person isn’t very secure,” — not to mention drama-filled.
“Relationships like this make it harder to be healthy and effective in other areas of life. When we get a taste of something healthy or nourishing in a relationship, it’s not that exciting in comparison, and can keep people out of a very realistic relationship that might be kind of normal or boring in some ways, but is the best thing for them.”
Falling into the excitement trap is a dating pattern that Elliott, a Boston-based fundraiser, was all too familiar with before ultimately settling down with his dependable and calm husband last year.
“I’ve had a few relationships where I thought ‘YES! This is the one!’ and the connection was immediate and intense," he says. "But for one reason or another, we just couldn’t make it work; it was too fiery and unpredictable.”
At the end of the day, Klow says that a true soulmate might look like “a secure attachment with somebody who is safe and healthy” — and shelving the junk for good.
You have an impossible checklist.
A true soulmate isn’t the real-life manifestation of the person you invented in your head. Obsessively searching for this non-existent perfect fit while nixing real-life partners who don’t align with your vision of an ideal partner is straight-up self-sabotage. No one wants to be held to an impossible standard of perfection, especially a fictional one.
“Many people find deep and fulfilling love with others that they might never consider because of this mental checklist of physical attributes, personality traits, values, hobbies — the list can go on and on,” says Manhattan psychologist Joseph Cilona, Ph.D., who warns that “the longer the list of requirements, the higher the likelihood of doubt and struggle around feeling certain that someone is indeed a soulmate.”
Reevaluating her soulmate criteria was a reckoning of sorts for Lexie, a middle school drama teacher in her late 30s.
“After dating for over a decade, I appreciate that it’s more complicated than just checking boxes, and actually, all of my serious relationships were with men who I would have never swiped on,” she says. “What I look for now is someone that I find interesting and supports me in all my endeavors. I’d rather just find someone who doesn’t annoy me 80% of the time because that feels like a bigger win.”
Soulmate or not, all relationships are work.
“I think people often use soulmates as a reason to avoid responsibility for themselves,” explains renowned psychologist and author Margaret Paul, Ph.D., who has been counseling couples and individuals for more than 52 years. “Nothing gets us off the hook from taking responsibility. If we want a good relationship, we have to learn to love ourselves. There's just no way around it.”
Rolling the dice on divine intervention is an escapist’s dream, says Jenelle, a single twenty-something riding out the quarantine at her parents’ home in New Jersey.
“I was flipping through my journal from my semester abroad in Argentina and basically the whole notebook was devoted to Alejandro, a guy I hooked up with on and off that semester, including a seven-page list of ‘signs’ that I interpreted as evidence that we were going to be together forever. We haven’t talked since,” she says.
“I get ‘feelings’ all the time and every single one has been wrong, so I don’t trust my brain anymore when it starts down that path,” she continues. “But I do think I’ll know I’ve found my soulmate when I keep my own life going and don’t lose myself in the relationship or adopt his life, like I always do.”
Your soulmate may not be The One.
“I’ve already met my soulmate and we’re not meant to be together,” shares Chantal, a recently married woman in her early 40s living in Baltimore.
“Once I met this person, I knew instantly that he was my soulmate. I felt completed, like my heart was leaving my body to give his heart a hug. And when our relationship ended, not being with him made me feel incomplete. For me, finding my soulmate looked a lot like codependency," she says. "I love my husband, and although he’s not my soulmate, I have the healthy, stable relationship with him that I wanted with my soulmate, but knew was out of reach for us.”
Chantal’s predicament, says Paul, tends to be the rule and not the exception when it comes to matters of the soul.
“It’s been my experience as a couples therapist that soulmates do not make the best relationships. So often people think, ‘This is my soulmate. We’re going to have a great relationship and it’s going to be easy.’ And it’s not. They may have a really deep, old, spiritual connection between them but more often than not, there’s a lot of challenges, a lot of conflict, and overall turmoil that goes on.”
For many of us, believing in a soulmate is the last bit of fantasy that we carry with us for reasons we may not even fully understand. But there’s one piece of relationship magic that is crystal clear: Finding (and keeping) a healthy, loving relationship in 2020 requires many things, but checking off the 'soulmate' box isn't one of them.