Modern Love and the Trouble with Soulmates

modern romance

Below is an extended excerpt from an article I recently wrote for The Thought Erotic, an online magazine dedicated to fostering education, acceptance and agency around sexuality.

I was once a love-forlorn little girl. I harbored a seething desperation to grow up just so I could find my soulmate. It seemed nothing in life could ever possibly match the ecstasy of falling in love that I witnessed in songs, books, movies. In Disney’s Cinderella, I was captivated when our heroine and the prince first locked eyes and gravitate to one another immediately. Without a word they begin dancing, enchanted with one another and oblivious to the world around them, sharing a harmonious, telepathic duet: “So this is love. So this is what makes life divine. The key to all heaven is mine.”

In my deep yearning for such divinity, I penned a letter to my future husband, expressing my eagerness to meet him, as well as my fervent belief that God had made us for each other. Although I knew not to whom I wrote, I was absolutely sure that I was writing to a specific man (or rather, boy—I was only ten or eleven) whom I was destined to marry.

I guess you could say it was sweet. But for all its sweetness, it seems even more strange. I believed that not merely the universe, but God himself cared deeply about my love life, and one of his top priorities was creating the perfect person for me, as though our union would be the pinnacle of our lives, maybe even of God’s as well. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that I’ve long forsaken the idea of soulmates as not just absurd, but rather narcissistic.

There are a lot of beautiful, wonderful people out there

The real problem with the belief in soulmates—or “the one,” “the love of your life,” “your perfect match,” whatever you want to call it—is that it can preclude you from actually meeting or committing to someone you might otherwise happily share your life with.

Putting aside the fact that I don’t believe in souls, even putting aside the fact that there are millions of things aside from romantic love that can fulfill you, that in fact, romantic love actually cannot fulfill you and the belief that it can precludes the possibility of you actually being fulfilled, I do believe that there are many people in the world with whom you could enjoy a happy, healthy relationship (that’s assuming of course, that you’re putting forth the effort to meet people and entering into every interaction with an open mind).

The rise of online dating has seemed to compound the problems associated with the belief in soulmates. If before we convinced ourselves we could find our soulmate in high school or college, now, that soulmate is lost in a sea of seemingly unlimited prospective dating partners. We go through the masses with a fine tooth comb, failing to acknowledge that quite likely, many or at least several of those people could be good matches for us if we 1) didn’t put pressure on them to be perfect all at once, 2) took the time to really get to know them and 3) didn’t discard people for arbitrary reasons.

In Modern Love, Aziz Ansari talks about how online dating has led many people to be picky to a fault—potentially at the expense of meeting and committing to someone great. While facilitating focus groups about online dating, Aziz noted how quick participants were to pass over women they’d been matched with, regardless of how wonderful the women seemed. Case in point, Derek:

“The first woman he clicked on was very beautiful, with a witty profile page, a good job, and lots of shared interests, including a love of sports. After looking it over for a minute or so, Derek said: ‘Well, she looks okay. I’m just gonna keep looking for a while.’ I asked what was wrong, and he replied, ‘She likes the Red Sox.’ … Derek didn’t go for the next one either, despite the fact that the woman was comparably attractive. For ten or fifteen minutes Derek flipped his way around the site without showing even a hint of enthusiasm for any of the numerous extremely compelling women who were there looking for romance.”

I don’t know if Derek or any of the other people in this focus group believed in soulmates or “the one,” but Derek’s behavior sure does indicate a belief that there exists not just in the world, but in his general locale, the perfect person for him. A woman so perfect that he could afford to pass up a woman to whom he is attracted and with whom he has just about everything in common, except their favorite baseball team. Just think how many people Derek could have met and hit it off with had he not created in his mind a list of unreasonable expectations. His apparent belief in the perfect person could very well prevent him from forming any lasting, meaningful relationships.

Perhaps you, like Derek, have already envisioned your ideal partner in your mind, compiled a slew of physical characteristics, personality traits, and interests the person must possess for you to even consider going on a date with them. Inevitably, everyone will pale in comparison when judged next to this ideal person, because this person does not exist.

There’s a good chance that you might not even know who the best person for you would be. Sure, you know that they should be respectful and honest—a fair requirement for any partner—but beyond that, why should liking David Lynch or Neutral Milk Hotel or Dostoevsky be a prerequisite for commitment (my college requirements)? If you, like Derek seems to, think having everything in common makes someone a perfect match, and you happened to meet someone who fit the bill and went on a date with them, you might discover quite the opposite. Perhaps echoing each other’s opinions into infinity becomes quite boring. Perhaps you never challenge each other, and thus, do nothing to help each other grow. Perhaps you have no chemistry at all. A checklist of ideal characteristics is not a good indicator of whether you will actually be interested in someone, nor whether you will have a successful relationship with them.

Read the full article.

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