science of us

I Don’t Believe in Soul Mates, But I Sort of Had One

Photo: Frédéric Soltan/Corbis via Getty Images

It seems embarrassing to believe in soul mates these days — it’s like admitting I still believe in the Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus — but I still kind of do. Or I did. I even thought I had one. I told him so at one point, and he shook his head and seemed amused.

It was fun to think this, mostly; it was like Dorothy opening the door into Oz in full color. It also brought to mind two people spiraling up into the clouds together, like those spinning ’90s Sky Dancer toys. The childishness of that visual seemed apt, too. Where did I get the idea? Was it even serving me? For the most part, it seemed to set up unrealistic expectations, and it felt relieving to let it go. Ironically, or not, the relationship improved afterward, too. It’s easier to see things when you don’t feel as if you’re playing a role.

Sometimes I wonder what life would look like if we (I) thought of romantic relationships as more like jobs than as spiritual fulfillment (the way we used to, when marriages were essentially thought of as small businesses): Some are good, some are bad, and although you should stick with one you like, there are always more out there. In a relatively secular life, the idea that a particular type of relationship can be touched with magic, via soul-mate-ship, is an acceptable modern way to have faith in something beyond rationality. Maybe the devotion my ancestors felt toward religious faith I’ve now directed entirely toward the concept of “the right guy.” Maybe a parallel concept with work is the idea of “finding your passion,” which seems equally nice in theory but unhelpful in practice.

A recent story in The Conversation investigated where our belief in the idea of “soul mates” comes from. Two-thirds of Americans believe in soul mates, according to a 2017 poll — more than believe in the Biblical God, as Skidmore associate professor of religious studies Bradley Onishi points out. The answer is apparently multi-pronged: Jewish and Christian tradition reinforce the concept of a soul mate, as do some ancient Greeks and early Christian mystics. As Onishi notes, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was one of the first (or perhaps the first) to use the term “soul mate”: In an 1822 letter to a young woman, he wrote, “To be happy in Married Life … you must have a Soul-mate.” (Coleridge himself married years before sending that letter and apparently “grew to detest his wife,” per Wikipedia, and they later separated. He was also a lifelong opiate addict.)

And then there are the Disney-fied fairy-tales in which a man and woman live happily ever after, although as a recent Aeon piece notes, we may be moving away from idealized romantic love there: “Today, Disney no longer expects us to expect a knight in shining armour, but rather to forgive our siblings and make peace with our parents.” (For instance: Frozen, Moana, and Brave.)

Another dark side to believing in soul mates is that it elevates the romantic relationship above all other aspects of life. This seems like a complicated gamble. I’m beginning to suspect that life would be easier if I had lower expectations and was instead pleasantly surprised when things went well-ish. And yet as a belief, it still feels good in my head, like something I can hold in dark times. Something special to grasp.

Maybe the word “soul mate” is like the word “love” itself: a placeholder for something unnameable, irrational. Frustrating. “That dang thing that’s happening to me that I can’t control, no matter how hard I try.” One time some friends and I went away for the weekend. I hadn’t seen one of the women in a long time, and in that time she’d gotten married. At one point I asked her something about married life, and she offhandedly said something that I think about often. “I don’t really know if it’s love,” she said, “but I wouldn’t mind hanging out with him for the rest of my life.”

I Don’t Believe in Soul Mates, But I Sort of Had One