How believing in soulmates can seriously impact your relationships

Renae Franiuk, a psychology professor at Aurora University, says the belief in soulmates can determine a lot about how you enter a relationship, and how long you might stay — even if it gets dangerous.
Do soulmates exist? One psychology researcher says how we answer that question hugely impacts how we approach our relationships. (Nicoleta Ionescu/Shutterstock)

Whether or not soulmates exist may be up for debate, but scientists say that our belief in the idea of true love can itself have a big impact on our relationships.

Renae Franiuk is a psychology professor at Aurora University in Illinois and a pioneer of research into romantic dispositions.

She told Tapestry that whether or not we believe in soulmates strongly shapes how we enter into relationships, how long they last, and how satisfied we're likely to be with them.

In her research, Franiuk studies two types of approaches to relationships. She refers to these models as implicit theories of relationships, because most of us aren't consciously aware of them.

In the first group are people who hold the "soulmate" theory — the idea that relationship satisfaction comes from finding the right person, she said.

On the other end of the continuum are those who hold the 'work-it-out' theory — those who believe that effort is the most important component of a successful and satisfactory relationship.

The soulmate boost

To measure where people fall on these scales, Franiuk developed two questionnaires.

After completing this study with several hundred research participants, Franiuk found that people — both young and old — are more likely to subscribe to the soulmate theory than the work-it-out theory.

"In the United States, western culture, you look at our media. It's a love-at-first-sight media. It's a romanticized notion of falling in love," Franiuk said.

Renae Franiuk studies how our belief in soulmates can predict our behaviour in relationships (Aurora University)
But whether it's preferable to fall on one end of the spectrum or the other is hard to determine, she added.

Soulmate theorists are the happiest of all the combinations but only if they find the right person, Franiuk found.

"When a soulmate theorist believes they're with the right person, they tend to give their partner the benefit of the doubt," she said. "They exaggerate the good qualities of their partner and they downplay the bad qualities."

Meanwhile, if they're unhappy, soulmate theorists are also quick to leave.

"They want to go in search of that right person," Franiuk said.

"It's these cognitive distortions that soulmate theorists are engaging in that keep them in the relationship longer or take them out of the relationship more quickly compared to the growth theorists," she added.

Work-it-out theorists fall somewhere in the middle.

"Their thoughts of their partner don't depend as much on whether or not they think that person is the right person," Franiuk said. "They pay more attention to just what the person does."

"They aren't going to quit the relationship quickly. But they also don't get that boost from believing they're with the right person — whereas soulmate theorists get that boost of happiness from believing they've found their soulmate."

People who believe in soulmates can be both the happiest and most unhappy in relationships, Franiuk found. (Shutterstock)

Relationship violence

But these same distinctions also make soulmates more likely to be the most unhappy ones, Franiuk added.

There's a correlation between soulmate theorists and relationship violence, she found.

"When [violence] starts early, soulmate theorists leave quickly. But when it starts later in the relationship, soulmate theorists are more likely to be in a violent relationship than work-it-out theorists," she told Tapestry.

"When people ask me, 'Is one theory preferable to the other?' it's really difficult," Franiuk added.

"I see benefits to both. I see the soulmate theory doing good things in relationships that we know are important for maintaining healthy and good relationships.

"But then on the flip side, if you're not in a healthy relationship, then if a soulmate theorist thinks they're with the right person, they might downplay those flaws," she said.

Work-it-out theorists might see the abuse more clearly, Franiuk added, because they're less wedded to the idea that there's one right person out there for them.

To hear the full interview, click 'listen' above. You'll also hear CBC's own Michelle Parise creator of Alone: A Love Story take the relationship questionnaires. 


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