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Office Hours With Dr. Jim
by James Houran, Ph.D

In this column, "Dr. Jim" honestly and candidly answers your questions about dating, love and sexuality. He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear – he tells you what you need to hear. Dr. Jim is committed to offering you guidance based on responsible clinical practice and hard data from the latest scientific studies. Send Dr. Jim your questions today for consideration in an upcoming issue.

This Week:
Soul Mates

Is there a such thing as soul mates?


I recently co-authored an academic article(5) in the North American Journal of Psychology about this topic. I appreciate Dr. Lynn McCutcheon, editor of the journal, for allowing me to draw from that paper to answer this question. First, a little background. Most people define a "soul mate" as a romantic partner who's naturally and virtually "perfectly compatible" across a range of relationship expectations, attitudes and behaviors. But, what does it mean to be perfectly compatible? If a couple is too much alike, then one of the partners is unnecessary. If a couple is too different, then there is no common foundation to build a lasting relationship.

Nevertheless, a soul mate view of romance and marriage is particularly strong among young adults – a key age group for online dating. One study(6) found that an astonishing 94% of single men and women, aged 20 to 29, agreed with the statement, "when you marry, you want your spouse to be your soul mate, first and foremost." Furthermore, this same study also found that 88% believed that there was one person "out there" who was specially destined to be their soul mate. Similarly, other researchers(3) have discovered that people tend to be either "soul mate theorists" or "work-it-out theorists" and they hold these respective beliefs are highly stable over time. Soul mate theorists believe that finding the right person is the most important thing for a satisfying relationship. Work-it-out theorists believe that effort is most important thing for building a successful relationship.

So, do these perfect partners exist? No, they don’t. The term "soul mate" is poetic rather than scientific. Moreover, idealized notions of a perfect partner only reinforce unrealistic expectations people have when they search for a mate. The way the relationship world works is much close to the beliefs held by the work-it-out theorists. Unfortunately, I’ve heard some online dating companies essentially sell customers the promise that their service will match you with your soul mate. And, these are companies with educated spokespeople who should know better. These are misleading and disturbing marketing messages, in my professional opinion.

We may feel that we have met our soul mate during the early stages of a relationship when our brain chemistry produces natural highs (read more about this here). Also working in the brain is a little mental misdirection – let's call it sleight-of-mind. This sleight-of-mind is a basically a distorted view of your partner and the relationship. For example, high levels of marital satisfaction often involve positive distortions(1,2). This is a tendency to describe your relationship in unrealistically positive terms. In other words, you tell yourself and others that the relationship is better than it probably is.

This is really nothing new. Psychologists have known about such over-inflated beliefs for many, many years. Essentially, it’s a mindset of perceiving your partner and your partner with the outlook of "the glass is half full" rather than "the glass is half empty." Some other names for this mind set are positive illusions(9) and unrealistic optimism(7). This outlook motivates people to regard their partners as overly positive (or even overly negative) – depending on the story you tell yourself using cues and information you choose to see as well as ignore.

The dynamics of the early stages of a relationship arguably boil down, in large part, to a self-fulfilling prophecy(4,5). We use this mind set in many aspects of our lives, not just our relationships. You see, lasting and fulfilling relationships are not grounded in physical and attraction. There are three ingredients to successful loving relationships(8) – Friendship, Passion and Intimacy, and a conscious Decision to Commit. It takes those three legs to hold up a relationship over a lifetime. So, we have a new definition of a "soul mate," if we take ignore what we’ve been incorrectly taught by Hollywood movies and romance novels. The new definition is this – a soul mate is some one with whom you can establish and grow Friendship, Intimacy and Commitment. It seems to take a level of similarity between a couple’s personal characteristics to do this, as well as an element of dissimilarity in their personal characteristics. A person finds a soul mate when he or she finds some one that complements them – not completes them as Jerry Maguire would have you believe.

It’s absolutely fine to have standards, but don’t let go of opportunities to get to know a person online or off because he or she doesn’t fit your "ideal" of the person you were destined to be with. The fact is… there’s no perfect partner and no perfect relationship. But that's not bad news at all. With the right mind set, this news can be inspirational. In particular, there’s likely to be a multitude of people out there right now that can be a "soul mate" to you, based on how I defined the concept. You are in control of who is and isn’t a potential soul mate. All it takes effort is for you to play the field and get to know others and focus on whether they have the right recipe with you to build and maintain Friendship, Passion and Intimacy, and a conscious Decision to Commit. If there's a spark, then consider that the soul mate part. After you found such a person, it's again up to you to keep them being your soul mate. You see, couples in successful relationships may have started off as starry-eyed "soul mates," but they have remained together because they evolved into being work-it-out theorists!

1 Edmonds, V. H. (1967). Marital conventionalization: definition and measure- ment. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 29, 681-688.

2 Fowers, B. J., & Olson, D. H. (1993). ENRICH marital satisfaction scale: a brief research and clinical tool. Journal of Family Psychology, 7, 176-185.

3 Franiuk, R., Cohen, D., & Pomerantz, E. M. (2002). Implicit theories of relationships: implications for relationship satisfaction and longevity. Personal Relationships, 9, 345-367.

4 Houran, J., & Lange, R. (2004). Redefining delusion based on studies of subjective paranormal ideation. Psychological Reports, 94, 501-513.

5 Houran, J., & Lange, R. (2004). Expectations of finding a ‘soul mate’ with online dating. North American Journal of Psychology, 6, 297-308.

6 Popenoe, D., & Whitehead, B. D. (2001). The state of our unions: the social health of marriage in America, 2001. New Brunswick, N J: National Marriage Project at Rutgers University.

7 Scheier, M. F., & Carver, C. S. (1992). Effects of optimism on psychological and physical well being: theoretical overview and empirical update. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 16, 201-228.

8 Sternberg, R. J. (1986). A triangular theory of love. Psychological Review, 93, 119-135.

9 Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: a social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193-210.


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