In 1962, Hans J. Morganthau, a key figure in international politics at the time, mused over why people fell in love. Love was really about loneliness, or, more accurately, our compulsion to try to avoid it, he believed, a philosophical and psychological concept that others had in the past put forth. The fundamental problem that all humans faced was being alone in the world, this (rather sad) idea went, meaning that each of us was ultimately making our way through life by ourselves. Falling in love with another person (and often vowing to spend the rest of one’s life with him or her) was thus a logical way to attempt to skirt or at least lessen the depressing nature of this existential predicament. “Through love,” he wrote in Commentary, “man seeks another human being like himself, the Platonic other half of his soul, to form a union which will make him whole.” By having a “soul mate,” in other words, people could make themselves believe that they were not just solitary, isolated individuals.
For the past century, American popular culture, especially Hollywood movies, has embraced and reinforced this romantic notion of the soul mate. Matt Huston of Psychology Today has described the story as such:
"A man spots a woman across a crowded room and knows that they’re meant to be together. He wins her heart, but then he makes a big mistake-or fate pulls them apart-and he is sure he’s lost her forever. Talking with his closest friends, he realizes that she’s still the only one for him. So he tracks her down and publicly declares his love (in song, perhaps), and they end up in each other’s arms with a story to tell their kids."
Not surprisingly, deconstructing such a cinematic narrative of love has made up a key part of therapists’ jobs since the days of Rudolph Valentino. Too many people have taken the standard plot of a Hollywood romantic comedy (seemingly often starring Hugh Grant over the past few decades) or a romance novel seriously, thinking such things happened with some frequency in real life. Psychologists specializing in love have often made it clear that despite the famous line from the movie Jerry McGuire (“You complete me”), it was unlikely that any other person could make another feel whole or “finished.”
The myth of the soul mate is, however, an especially powerful one. 88% of those surveyed in a 2010 Gallup poll believed in the idea of soul mates, claiming that there was a “’one and only’ person whom they are fated to be with forever and who is waiting for them.” While an attractive notion, the general consensus within the psychological community is that soul mates are for the most part an imaginary concept steeped in romantic idealism, with no pairing perfect or “meant to be.”
In fact, researchers have found that having a perceived soul mate is detrimental to enjoying a happy long-term relationship, as there is the expectation that nothing would ever go wrong. Ty Tashiro, author of The Science of Happily Ever After: What Really Matters in the Quest for Enduring Love, is one relationship expert who has argued that having or striving for a soul mate was an obstacle to a healthy and lasting relationship. “The problem with soulmates is that people tend to think that fate is responsible for producing them,” Tashiro told the New York Observer in 2018, explaining that, “the reality is that enduring love is the byproduct of intentional, clear thought and action, as well as a healthy dose of persistence.”
Professionals’ dismissal of the popular belief in soul mates is actually part of something bigger. Couples who approach love as a journey are happier than those who consider it a destination, research has showed, more reason to leave the notion of soul mates to the movies and romance novels. More generally, psychologists are increasingly embracing the proposition that, rather than being at the mercy of the whims of Eros, individuals have to address love as a work in progress that requires real and dedicated effort for it to succeed. Too many people believe that their partner could or should know what they are thinking, for example, leading to communication breakdowns. Couples claiming to be kindred spirits sharing an almost psychic connection are more likely and more simply displaying kind and caring behavior towards each other, whether they are aware of it or not.