Dear Dr. Warren,
Do you think everyone has a “soul mate” out there somewhere, that individual who can complement you and fulfill you like no one else? Is there just one person who is ideally suited for me?
Surprisingly, many singles hold to the notion–either consciously or subconsciously–that there is one perfect, preordained partner. They were made for each other, the thinking goes, and they must simply locate this person or forever feel incomplete. This thinking is fueled by many Hollywood love stories in which a man and woman are united after a series of near misses and obstacles. At long last, they gaze deeply into each other’s eyes and embrace, usually amidst the swell of violins playing in the background or fireworks exploding overhead. And they know without a doubt that they–the two of them and only the two of them–were meant to be together.
Frankly, I think this idea is more fantasy than reality, more storybook whimsy than real-world wisdom. I don’t believe that you could only be completely and blissfully happy with one person to the exclusion of all others. Before you call me unromantic and cold-hearted, let me hasten to say this should come as great news to singles looking for a partner. After all, I hear dozens of singles every week complain about how hard it is to find a suitable partner. And if there is just one individual waiting for you out there in the wide world, the search for each other could take a very long time. If, however, there is not a “one and only” partner, a whole range of possibilities opens up. How did I come to conclude that the soul mate scenario is a fallacy?
During my 35 years as a psychologist, I have counseled dozens of men and women who were convinced they’d married “the wrong person,” but then went on to create a top-notch relationship. Of course, I’ve also counseled many engaged or newlywed couples who were absolutely positive they had found their soul mate only to file for divorce a few months or years later. What’s more, I’ve worked with hundreds of people whom I knew could have been happily married to any number of people.
Perhaps most importantly, an extensive research study completed by eHarmony.com revealed why some relationships succeed and others don’t. This study examined five thousand married persons and especially two hundred couples who had “highly successful” marriages. We found that there are 29 characteristics–including religious values, ambition, energy level–that determine a couple’s “compatibility quotient.” That is, the more two partners match on these critical qualities, the better their chances of staying happily married. If a man and woman match on a preponderance of the characteristics, it’s highly likely that they will have a terrific marriage.
One, Five, or Five Hundred Possible Partners? A few months ago, I was talking with a couple of my staff members, Audrey and Mike, who are both in their late twenties. I posed the question, “How many people in the world do you think you could be happily married to?” Audrey thought for a moment and then replied, “Five. I think there are about five men out there who match exceptionally well with me.” I couldn’t resist giving her a good-natured jab. “There are approximately 40 million single men in the U.S., and you could be happily married to just five of them? Wow, you are particular!” She gave me a punch in the shoulder, and I turned to Mike. “Well, then, how about you, Mike? How many people could you be happily married to?” “Fifty,” he said immediately. “I bet I could marry any one of fifty different women and be extremely happy.” They both looked at me and I said, “I think you’re both selling yourselves short. I suppose there are 500–probably more–women with whom I could be extremely happily married.” “That many, Neil?” Audrey said. “Seems like you aren’t particular enough.”
I reminded them of the study we conducted. “Out of all the women in the world, there must be at least 500 with whom I would match on all 29 items. And there are probably thousands more I’d match with on, say, 26 or 27 items and still be quite satisfied.” As I told my associates, I believe soul mates are made, not born. You start with the ingredients for a highly-compatible, successful relationship, and then you work to develop closeness and intimacy. Does this mean you lower your standards when it comes to finding a partner? Absolutely not! It simply means you “expand your field of vision.”