The Damaging Myth Of Soul Mates

If you believe in soul mates, you stay with the one you think is yours, no matter how bad it gets, because the alternative is too desolate to contemplate.

When I was 16 years old, I found a battered copy of The Bridge Across Forever at my favorite used bookstore. It was on the New Age shelf, which I normally rolled my eyes at as I breezed past on my way to the manga section. On the back cover, I read:

“If you’ve ever felt alone in a world of strangers, missing someone you’ve never met, you’ll find a message from your love in The Bridge Across Forever.”

A True Love Story, it said. Whoa. I felt the breath leave my lungs in a soft, steady whoosh. I wanted to hug the dog-eared paperback to my body, which at that age was comprised mostly of skin and bones and yearning.

I slid my backpack to the floor and began paging through it. Holy yes. Suddenly, I was a Roberta Flack song. This author had found my letters and read each one out loud. I was missing someone I’d never met. I wasn’t just aching for someone, anyone, to ask me to prom, or even just out for a crappy 29 cent hamburger at the neighborhood greasy spoon. I was lonely for my soul mate.

Over the next decade, I would read that book over and over. When I felt like a friend needed it, I’d solemnly pass on my copy as if I were imparting the secrets of the universe. Then, I’d go out and buy another one for myself. I’d OD on movies like When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless In Seattle, and my perennial favorite, Say Anything. Love was fate and grand romantic gestures and boys with boomboxes outside your window.

I never wanted to casually date. I wanted my other half—my soul mate whose puzzle piece heart fit perfectly with mine.

What a crock.

There are some things I wish I’d known. For example, that the way I’d feel about a guy could be greatly affected by where I was in my menstrual cycle. That telltale zing might simply have been my brain responding to certain assholish behaviors that my ovulating body found biologically desirable on that particular day of the month. Risk-taking and aggression, which are clearly not ideal in a long-term romantic partner, suddenly seemed like traits that demonstrated strength. A surfer who would punch someone out for looking at me wrong? Take me now!

My soulmate fixation meant that I could not admit to having a simple physical response. I was more evolved than that. If I reacted to a man so deeply, we had a spiritual connection. Thus began a string of relationship disasters.

I wish I’d known about the way dopamine would flood my limbic system after a good tumble and the way estrogen, prolactin, and oxytocin would turn me into a relentlessly monogamous pair-bonder. I wish I’d known that the ability to elicit this response in me did not a soul mate make.

I wish my staunch belief in destined love hadn’t blinded me to glaring neon red flags, like the one guy who flipped out on me for using “too many big words,” or the one who cheated, or the one who hit.

If you believe in soul mates, you stay with the one you think is yours, no matter how bad it gets, because the alternative is too desolate to contemplate. And if and when you finally admit you were wrong, you may find yourself suicidally despondent. You may gain 20 pounds and end up dropping out of school for a semester. You may listen to Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U on repeat for a month.

If I’d realized how statistically unlikely soul mates are, I would have found Richard Bach’s Bridge Across Forever unbearably smug.

“Everybody would have only one orientation: toward their soul mate. The odds on running into your soul mate would be incredibly small. The number of strangers we make eye contact with each day can vary from almost none (shut-ins or people in small towns) to many thousands (a police officer in Times Square), but let’s suppose you lock eyes with an average of a few dozen new strangers each day. If 10% of them are close to your age, that would be around 50,000 people in a lifetime. Given that you have 500,000,000 potential soul mates, it means you would find true love only in one lifetime out of 10,000.” — Randall Munroe, excerpt from What If

The truth is, I’m compatible with more than one person. So is my husband. And because we recognize that our happiness is not fated, we work for it. I don’t stay because I’m afraid I’ll never find another mate. I stay because I want this one. We’re not soul mates; we’re something better. We are each other’s choice.

From the moment I heard my first bedtime fairytale, I was primed to find my One True Love. I internalized the myth that I was incomplete, unfinished unless I found the one who would fulfill me. I don’t think childhood me would have found the truth nearly as compelling: True love is understanding that you are already whole.

Nanea Hoffman is the founder and Editor-In-Chief of Sweatpants & Coffee, an online magazine focused on comfort, inspiration, creativity, and fun. She writes, she makes things, and she drinks an inordinate amount of coffee.

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