Search for a soul mate or love the one you're with?
By Karen S. Peterson
Some people believe there is one special soul mate somewhere in the universe meant just for them. But others say that's romantic mumbo jumbo. A deep bond develops only after years of working to make a relationship last.
The soul mate theory is the stuff of movies and fairy tales, as well as fodder for researchers who study love for a living. But many marital therapists tend to believe the opposite, pitching their tents in the "work it out" camp.
Now, research to be presented in Atlanta to the American Psychological Society says neither belief is "right" or "wrong" either can lead to a successful relationship. The work-it-out partners "do manage to work hard on their relationships, but not necessarily harder than those who are satisfied soul mates," says Renae Franiuk, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
The two theories are part of a new field that investigates how attitudes and beliefs about relationships formed before couples even begin dating may influence how the romance plays out.
The idea of a soul mate is often credited to the philosopher Plato, who said a perfect human was tragically split apart and we are destined to spend our lives trying to find our missing other. The concept has been gaining steam for the past couple of years, ever since a Gallup poll found most young adults believe in soul mates.
The idea is catching the public's imagination. Increasing numbers of self-help books and Web sites trumpet how to find the mate destiny has reserved for you.
But the idea of soul mates draws stinging reviews from many who monitor the future of marriage. Atlanta psychiatrist Frank Pittman, author of "GROW UP!" says it sounds like "magic."
"It is an irresponsible effort at bypassing the hard work, the negotiation, battles and experiences of being together," he said. "The idea is like cotton candy. It is something that goes down easily without having to chew it."
Franiuk, however, says those who believe in soul mates will fight to make the relationship work. Those who think they have found the right one "will work very hard to stay with him or her," she adds. "They will go out of their way to exaggerate their partner's strengths or downplay their flaws. They will frame a negative as a positive, such as calling a selfish partner 'somebody who will stand up for himself.'"
There is a hitch, however. If a partner decides his or her love is not a soul mate after all, the disillusioned one may bail out early. These lost souls "will exaggerate a (current) partner's flaws and downplay strengths," Franiuk says. "They are very dissatisfied."
Franiuk's research team was formed at the University of Illinois-Urbana. She has spent six years formally studying a total of 1,500 college students, most of them single, and interviewing hundreds more. The majority filled out questionnaires; about 100 were tracked for eight months. Both men and women tend to the romantic view, she finds. Overall, about 50 percent strongly buy into the soul mate theory, while only about 15 percent strongly endorse the work-it-out concept. The rest are neutral.
The practical partners, those who believe in working it out, are smack in the middle on the satisfaction charts, Franiuk says. They are less satisfied than soul mates who believe they have found their one and only, but happier than romantics who think they have linked up with the wrong partner and must move on.
Diane Sollee, founder of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, refuses to pour cold water on those who believe in a destined love. But she cautions looking for a soul mate "is OK if partners realize that finding a mate who feels so right is the first step in a long process. And that (process) will focus on how to make love last and to grow together as life mates," not just soul mates.