Modern Love and the Trouble with Soulmates

Boschs Garden 2

by Melissa Brooks

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 gravitated 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.1

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,2 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.3 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.4

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.5

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.6

When Passion Dies

Yet another problem with the belief in soulmates, the one, or the perfect person is that it can precipitate hasty breakups.

We’re all passionate at the beginning of an exciting relationship. As Aziz so eloquently puts it: “This is where you and your partner are just going ape shit for each other. Every smile makes your heart flutter. Every night is more magical than the last.”

There’s a physiological reason we all feel this way when we meet someone we’re excited about: “During this phase your brain gets especially active and starts releasing all kinds of pleasurable, stimulating neurotransmitters. Your brain floods your neural synapses with dopamine, the same neurotransmitter that gets released when you do cocaine.”

But this intense passionate love is just a phase. It’s unsustainable, and inevitably fades over time—within 12-18 months, in fact, according to the scientists Aziz consulted. At this point, your brain stops flooding your neural synapses with dopamine. 7

Yet, many people believe that it should be sustainable, indeed that it is, and are thus all too ready to throw in the towel when the passion begins to wane.

I’m reminded of the trajectory of DJ’s and Steve’s relationship on Full House (I know, I know; it’s an outdated reference, but Full House was kind of my religion growing up and gave me some of my earliest lessons in love). When they first started dating, they were what you might call “hot and heavy,” (which for high schoolers on a family-friendly program meant they made out all the time). But as the seasons went on, DJ and Steve’s passion simmered and they became stable. By the episode “Love on the Rocks,” DJ and Steve had the audacity to watch a movie one night instead of making out. Later, DJ witnesses Kimmy and her boyfriend Duane groping each other, and she thinks that something must be wrong with her and Steve. So she dumps him. The message was clear: You should always want to make out all the time, or your relationship is doomed.

Even though it’s perfectly normal, indeed inevitable, for passion to fade, a lot of people freak out when it does. Like DJ, they may think the love has died, that this person isn’t their soulmate and the relationship isn’t worth their time any more. They’re better off calling it quits and seeking someone new.

I’m not just generalizing. The “passion-fading point,” if you will, is a real danger point in relationships, according to NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, whom Aziz consulted for Modern Romance. DJ’s decision to dump Steve was not merely drama created to bump ratings, but reflective of a common real life response:

You start coming down off of that initial high and you start worrying about whether this is really the right person. A couple weeks ago you were giddy and obsessed. All the new quirks and facts you learned about your love felt like wonderful little surprises, like coming home and finding a chocolate on your pillow. Now you’re like, Okay, I get it. You like sewing historically accurate Civil War uniforms!! … You conclude there’s something wrong with the person or the relationship since it isn’t as exciting as before. So you break up.8

But believing passion is the end all be all of meaningful relationships, you again risk the chance of ever forming a deep connection with anyone—the very thing you profess to want.

Fighting Does Not Equal Love

I also can’t help thinking that believing passion to be the end all be all can lead to some very unhealthy relationships. Not just insulated relationships where you fail to engage with the world around you—forsaking friends and responsibilities to be with your oh-so-perfect companion—but also relationships fraught with tension. If on one end of the spectrum people believe their ideal partner has everything in common with them, on the other end is the belief that someone with whom you constantly fight is the very one who is worth fighting for.

This makes me think of The Notebook. Allie and Noah’s incessant arguments are held up as a testament to their passionate love. “That’s what we do!” Noah boldly declares. He insinuates that because Allie doesn’t fight with her fiancé, who by the way never calls her a pain in the ass, “she’s bored.” So they fling themselves into each other’s arms, assuming they’re meant to be together because they piss each other off and have hot steamy sex because of it.

Even in fucking New Girl, a show leaps and bounds more progressive than The Notebook or Full House, we’re led to believe Jess and Nick are meant for each other because they constantly butt heads and drive each other crazy. One of the things that first drives Jess to Nick is seeing her boyfriend Russel get into a screaming-match with his ex-wife. Jess watches the fight with admiration and longing. She subsequently tries to make Russel fight with her, and when he won’t, decides the relationship, with all its calm and understanding, is not worth her time after all.9

In Six Feet Under, Brenda and Nate had a similarly tumultuous relationship, but unlike the characters portrayed in New Girl, The Notebook, and Full House, Nate realizes that fighting all the time is not just exhausting, but unhealthy.

We’re always having a hard time. There’s all this pain and anger and struggle here. I used to think it was passion but you know what, it’s just drama … I see that there can be peace between a man and a woman and that’s what I want.10

There can be peace between a man and a woman, or between any two people romantically involved, and there can still be lots of love. Which brings me to my final point …

A Case For Companionate Love

I’m not saying fuck passion. It’s important. It’s how relationships begin. And I’m not saying passion has to die altogether. I’m just saying the intensity of passion that comes at the beginning of relationships—when you think of little else beside the other person and have little interest in doing anything else other than being with them—it’s overrated. It’s great while it lasts, but it not only can’t last, it shouldn’t last.

As Aziz says, you’d get nothing the fuck done—whether you’re staring at each other all googly-eyed or ready to throw down.

If we could all have lifelong passionate love, the world would collapse. We’d stay in our apartments lovingly staring at our partners while the streets filled with large animals and homeless children eating out of the garbage.

You might say the fading of passionate love is necessary to society’s ability to function. When intense passion starts to fade, it allows you to refocus on your other passions and interests—your family, your friends, creating art, building robots, solving the world’s problems.

And if you stick with the relationship, you can develop a new kind of love, what Aziz calls companionate love.

“There is still passion, but it’s balanced with trust, stability, and an understanding of each other’s flaws. If passionate love is the coke of love, companionate love is like having a glass of wine or smoking a few hits of some mild weed.”

This more temperate companionate love can be equally if not more rewarding than passionate love, as you and your partner go out into the world and experience all kinds of new things together, because you’re no longer myopically focused on how beautiful the other person’s nose is. I can’t come up with a better concluding line than this:

“With luck, if you allow yourself to invest more in the other person, you will find a beautiful life companion.”11


 End Notes

1. Lest you think I’m a cynic, let me state for the record that I’ve long enjoyed dating in the very traditional sense of the word, and I’ve never been shy to dive headfirst into relationships. In fact I’m currently in one, and have been for the last four and a half years.

2. Like soulmates, the idea of souls also strikes me as narcissistic. With 8.7 million species on the planet, ~100 billion planets in the Milky Way, and another ~one hundred billion galaxies in the universe, we really think we’re so damn special that we alone will transcend corporeal existence to live forever? Although to be fair, I think this belief stems largely from anxiety about mortality and death rather than from narcissism per se.

3. For the sake of a coherent argument, this sets aside the problems inherent to online dating in its current form—that it whittles down complicated people into a composite of their likes and dislikes and a strategically shot profile picture. It encourages us to treat people as commodities, sorting through one another like tomatoes at a grocery store, trying to find the brightest, shiniest one.

4. In the Kindle edition, location 1092-1103.

5. Maybe that’s okay, because neither lifelong relationships nor monogamy should be a requirement for a person’s happiness. According to Aziz’s interviews with evolutionary psychologists and biological anthropologists, we’re not even wired to be monogamous. “Our cave-dwelling ancestors, compelled to spread their genetic material, had many sexual partners simultaneously, and after thousands of years of promiscuity, human brains are still wired to mate with multiple people. The current norms of faithfulness and sexual exclusivity are actually relatively new” (Kindle edition, location 2838). Granted, many if not most people (at least in the US) do still want a lasting monogamous relationship, and that’s perfectly okay. Anyone who chooses to forgo a monogamous lifestyle should be upfront about that with anyone else they wish to romantically pursue.

6. See Seinfeld, “The Invitations,” season 7, episode 2, where Jerry thinks he meets his soulmate. “This woman is different. She’s incredible. She’s just like me. She talks like me. She acts like me … Now I know what I’ve been looking for all these years—myself! I’ve been waiting for me to come along!” But in the end he realizes, “I can’t be with someone like me. I hate myself!”

7. In the Kindle edition, this and the previous two quotes can be found at locations 2714 and 2726.

8. In the Kindle edition, location 2749-2761.

9. New Girl, “Tomatoes,” season 1, episode 22.

10. Six Feet Under, “Ecotone,” season five, episode 9. For the record, I have a lot of problems with how Nate handled his relationship with Brenda.

11. In the Kindle edition, the three quotes in this section are from locations 2738 and 2761.


Melissa Brooks on sex in filmMelissa Brooks is Assistant Editor at The Thought Erotic and an MFA student in fiction at the University of San Francisco. Her stories and essays have appeared in Gravel, The Molotov Cocktail, Ginosko, Driftless Review and Vannevar.

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