Singles are often told to “get out there,” but this advice changes when you actually take it. Then you’re told to relax and let love come naturally. This advice is frequently followed by someone else’s magical “how we met” story.
You know the kind. They involve missed flights, traffic snafus, hilarious hijinks (“how did our dogs’ leashes get so tangled up?!”) and uncanny coincidences (“we both went to the same pre-kindergarten—in Singapore!”). Their plot twists rival the cheesiest Hollywood rom-com. And they always lead to the same conclusion: These two souls were meant to be together.
Stories like this are meant to cheer singles up, but I found that they frequently had the opposite effect. If the heavens were constantly guiding lovers together with fender benders and misbehaving dogs, then why didn’t my name ever make their cosmic to-do list? The mystical tales suggested that we are all puzzle pieces, bouncing around, waiting to collide with that one perfect fit.
I’m a big believer in finding a good match, and that certain things, like mutual attraction and a shared sense of humor, can’t be forced. But in that search for a partner, new research suggests we shouldn’t get too mesmerized by this idea of “the one.”
Researchers at the University of Toronto conducted several studies in which participants were primed to see relationships as either the unification of two halves or as an ongoing journey. In the first experiment, participants read phrases that celebrated couples as a unified whole (“we are one,” “my better half,” “made for each other”) or as fellow travelers (“we’ve walked together,” “a long trail,” “look how far we’ve come”). In the second experiment, participants were asked to either complete a puzzle in which they made separate pieces into a whole or mapped out a trip to an exotic locale.
After the experiments, participants were asked to recall a conflict they had with their partner. The researchers found that those primed in the unity mindset expressed more dissatisfaction with their relationships than those who were encouraged to think of long roads and winding paths.
“It may be romantic for lovers to think they were made for each other, but it backfires when conflicts arise and reality pokes the bubble of perfect unity. Instead, thinking about love as a journey, often involving twists and turns but ultimately moving toward a destination, takes away some of the repercussions of relational conflicts,” said study authors Spike W.S. Lee and Norbert Schwartz in an article published in the Journal of Experiment Social Psychology.
Lee added: “Our findings corroborate prior research showing that people who implicitly think of relationships as perfect unity between soulmates have worse relationships than people who implicitly think of relationships as a journey of growing and working things out.”
So the next time you’re subject to a couple’s magical origin story, take heart. What your friends are characterizing as Fate is probably just good luck. And while luck does matter, it can also change very quickly.
If relationships work best when we treat them like journeys, then I think the same can be said for the search for relationships.
Trying to find that perfect “one” who completes you is difficult—mostly because you have no control over when or where this solitary soul might be. So I’d like to suggest a more interesting and less stressful approach: treat your search for a partner like an interesting adventure. As with all true adventures, there will be difficult times and boring times. You will make costly mistakes and sometimes trek for miles in the wrong direction. But in some ways the wrong turns are the point—they are the difference between an adventure and a vacation. You don’t tell stories about sipping pina coladas on the beach.
Instead of trying to make your life work out just right, try relaxing into the search for love and being curious about this long, strange trip. It won’t necessarily make the heavens align for you, but you’ll probably have a lot more fun.