What this Wheatley Institute study found about the ‘soulmate trap’

Successful relationships are created through intentional effort, not by discovering the mythical “one,” said lead researcher Jason Carroll

From Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to modern romance books and movies, popular culture has long been saturated with the idea of “soulmates”: the belief that every person is destined for a perfect, one-and-only relationship.

But not only is this idea false, it’s harmful to the growth of promising relationships, said Jason Carroll, director of the family initiative at Brigham Young University’s Wheatley Institute.

“Soulmate thinking” creates “destiny beliefs,” Carroll said: the idea that a relationship is meant to be or isn’t meant to be. So as soon as any struggles rise in the relationship, people with soulmate thinking might assume they are simply not dating the right person — even if the relationship has potential.

Carroll was recently the lead researcher on “The Soulmate Trap: Why Embracing Agency-Based Love Is the Surest Path to Creating a Flourishing Marriage.” He was joined by University of Alberta professor Adam Galovan and Utah State University associate professor David Schramm.

Published by the Wheatley Institute, the study looked at 615 couples and found that “enduring connection in romantic relationships results more from the personal virtues and intentional efforts of the partners than it does from spontaneous love and emotional spark,” said a BYU news release.

“We see evidence of relationship strengths being created, being made, rather than being found,” Carroll said, adding, “Rather than trying to find your ‘one and only,’ our research really points to the importance of creating an ‘only one’ marriage, which really puts commitment and investment and proactive behaviors at the front of it.”

Conversely, soulmate thinking can lead to “dating paralysis,” Carroll said, in which a person doesn’t move forward in any relationship, instead becoming stuck while waiting for the mythical “one.”

With soulmate thinking, “we start to see people like products,” he said, viewing the relationship in terms of “Is this making me happy?” instead of “How can I be a better partner?”

Close up young wife embracing husband; she has closed eyes, man rear view.
A recent Wheatley Institute looked at myth of “soulmates” and found that successful relationships are created through intentional effort. | fizkes -

High-connection vs. low-connection couples

The study compared “high-connection” and “low-connection” couples, looking at relationship factors such as personal virtues (commitment, compassion, other-centeredness), responsible actions (kindness, quality time, relationship maintenance) and relationship outcomes (satisfaction and meaning in life).

Carroll said “marital satisfaction” has been used as a primary outcome variable in marriage research since the 1930s. But he and his team felt that “satisfaction” is difficult to define, so instead of using that model, they created a “relational connectivity” model, which focuses on factors such as the strength of intimacy in the relationship, the quality of the couple’s connection and how much the partners are growing.

“That kind of measurement approach, rather than satisfaction, really helps us distinguish which are the … flourishing marriages,” he said.

The study’s findings include:

  • Spouses in high-connection marriages score nearly three times higher on commitment to their relationship than spouses in low-connection marriages (72% average percentile score vs. 26% average percentile score).
  • Spouses in high-connection marriages have a 60% average percentile score in other-centeredness, compared to 21% for low-connection spouses; and high-connection spouses have a 56% average percentile score in compassion, compared to 18% for low-connection spouses.
  • High-connection marriages score over three times higher on proactive behaviors than low-connection couples, specifically in spending meaningful time together (71% vs. 19%), doing acts of kindness for each other (72% vs. 18%) and forgiving offenses in their marriage (70% vs. 21%).
  • High-connection marriages score nearly twice as high as spouses in low-connection marriages on relationship maintenance behaviors such as addressing problems and finding ways to strengthen their relationship together (53% vs. 30%).
  • Spouses in high-connection marriages score nearly twice as high as spouses in low-connection marriages on their life satisfaction ratings (63% vs. 27%) and the amount of meaning they have in their lives (60% vs. 30%).

Carroll said one of the greatest myths of modern dating culture is that a person will commit to a great relationship when they find it. But in reality, there’s no such thing as a great relationship without commitment, he said.

The high-connection couples, who proactively build their relationships, are evidence of that, he said. “[The study] gives us a good sense that those [high-commitment behaviors] really are the foundations of a loving and lasting marriage.”

Closeup of a man hand’s holding a woman’s hands
A recent Wheatley Institute looked at myth of “soulmates” and found that successful relationships are created through intentional effort. | fizkes -

Creating a lasting relationship

Soulmate thinking may also be contributing to the average age of marriage rising — and to higher rates than ever of people who have never been married. The Pew Research Center reported that, as of 2023, only 29% of young adults ages 25 to 29 are married, compared to 50% in 1993; and as of 2021, a quarter of U.S. 40-year-olds had never been married, up from only 6% in 1980.

Carroll said that for some, “marriage delayed” is becoming “marriage foregone.” And soulmate thinking might be influencing this trend by convincing people that if the relationship is right, they’ll know it with absolute certainty, he said.

A healthier approach is acknowledging that growth and struggle are part of any maturing process, and addressing problems as they arise, he continued.

That’s not to say that truly harmful or abusive behaviors should be ignored, Carroll clarified. But in the face of “garden variety” ups and downs, soulmate thinking can create unrealistic expectations about what a relationship should look like.

Another important aspect of relationships is a healthy dating trajectory, he continued. Commitment shouldn’t happen all at once; rather, it should progress over time from committing to a single date together, to committing to exclusive dating, to committing to marriage. The exact timing can look different for each couple, so the key is being tuned in to when a relationship is ready to progress.

But if someone is constantly thinking about other dating possibilities, “that’s very different than the mindset of realizing … ‘I need to find [someone with] shared values, … And then we’ve got to make this. We’ve got to create this,’” Carroll said, adding, “If you look under the hood of a flourishing marriage … you’ll find those proactive behaviors and those personal virtues.”

Carroll encouraged single adults to pursue dating intentionally and to search for shared values.

He also reminded them that, “Love always favors the bold.”

“There’s the courage part of dating … Don’t get too worried about initial rejection or [people] that don’t reciprocate,” Carroll said. “If you keep making those efforts … they usually tend to get some traction and [there] tend to be some opportunities that will emerge.”

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