A widower calls into a radio show and a listener falls in love over the airwaves. The clumsy bookstore owner spills his orange juice on a gorgeous movie star. It’s the meet-cute: one of the best moments of a movie, when a couple is introduced for the very first time, usually in a grand or adorable fashion. And it almost always works out in the end—they live happily ever after.
With the ubiquitous rom-coms, fairytales and an entire reality franchise built on the notion of soul mates (and fantasy suites), it’s no surprise so many of us are searching for our own storybook romance. But no matter how serendipitous your own love story may seem, a recent study cautions against thinking of your partner as your soul mate.
The research, conducted by social psychologists Spike W. S. Lee at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management and Norbert Schwarz at the University of Southern California, found that envisioning a life in which we live in perfect harmony with “The One” can actually have damaging effects on that very relationship.
The study participants—73 people of all ages in long-term relationships—were asked to take a quiz. Some were primed to think of love in the context of soul mates (“we are one,” “my better half”), while others were primed to think of their relationship as a journey (“look how far we’ve come,” “we’ve walked together”). Afterwards, the participants were asked to recall relationship struggles and successes. Finally, they were asked to evaluate their overall relationship satisfaction.
The couples who fancied their significant others as soul mates reported feeling unhappier with their relationships than those who thought of their romances as a journey. “People who implicitly think of relationships as perfect unity between soul mates have worse relationships than people who implicitly think of relationships as a journey of growing and working things out," Lee said in a statement.
Here’s why: When you think of your significant other as your destiny, it can interfere with your ability to deal with conflict. Instead of celebrating the ability to weather life’s ups and downs together, you might wonder why such a perfect match would ever face any conflicts in the first place.
For couples struggling to think of their relationship as a journey, Lee and Schwarz recommend reflecting on the traditional wedding vows, which suggest life will throw us all curveballs to field—together: "I, ____, take you, ____, to be my husband/wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness or in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward 'till death do us part."