We all know the story of Romeo and Juliet. Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall madly in love. Boy and girl realize they can never really be together, so both take their own lives. A tragedy, but a beautiful and romantic one—a story of true love, what it really means to find someone who is perfect for you.
Or is it? An important detail that’s often glossed over is the fact that all of this happens in the space of a single week. Within that week, both Romeo and Juliet become so convinced that they are meant to be that they would rather die than be without each other. Call me a cynic, but this always struck me as a little ridiculous.
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It’s often acknowledged that the notion of “soulmates” is pretty impractical—what are your chances of actually finding the one person in the world who is “made for you”? We also admit that constantly looking for the perfect person might not be the best strategy for long-term happiness. We may know that looking for the perfect partner isn’t realistic, but we also don’t want to settle. So what should we do?
What Romeo and Juliet got wrong
I actually don’t think the problem with the “perfect match” ideal is that it sets impossibly high standards. I think we should set high standards for our relationships, and we shouldn’t settle for less than those standards. But we should also be prepared to work to achieve those standards.
The problem with the “perfect match” ideal is that it fosters the attitude that having a successful relationship is simply a matter of finding the right person. If the key to happily ever after is finding your perfect mate, once you’ve found him or her, you can relax with a cup of tea. If things start to go wrong after that—if your Romeo stops showing up at your balcony in the middle of the night with romantic poems, and just spends all day on the couch eating nachos—well, then, you probably weren’t so right for each other after all.
Why it hurts to think we were made for each other
A study recently conducted at the University of Toronto, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, supports the idea that this “meant to be” attitude can be harmful to relationships. The researchers looked at two different ways of framing relationships: the unity framing and the journey framing. The unity framing means thinking of your partner as your “other half,” as “made for you.” The journey framing means thinking of a relationship as a journey: “look how far we’ve come,” and focusing on the things you’ve been through together and how you’ve grown. The study results suggest that couples who think of their relationship as a journey rather than a unity are much better at dealing with conflicts in their relationship.
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This makes sense—after all, if you and your partner are “made for each other,” then you shouldn’t really be having any conflicts, right? Under the unity framing, any argument is evidence that your partner might not be as perfect for you as you thought. Under the journey framing, on the other hand, conflicts are simply bumps in the road—challenges to be overcome. Being able to effectively handle difficulties might actually make journey-minded couples feel better about their relationship, strengthening their belief that they can deal with future conflicts. Whereas for unity-minded couples, conflicts are damaging, because they tarnish their image of perfect unity.
Mindsets matter in relationships
Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford, makes a similar point about different attitudes towards relationships in her book Mindset. Dweck studies how mindsets affect success in all areas of life, and distinguishes between having a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. People who have a fixed mindset believe that their qualities are mostly established and immutable, whereas people who have a growth mindset truly believe that they can change and improve.
The idea that people can have either a fixed or a growth mindset towards relationships seems similar to the unity versus journey framing—in the fixed mindset, a relationship is either good or bad, meant to be or not meant to be, whereas in a growth mindset good relationships are the result of hard work and improvement. One of the main findings of Dweck’s research is that people who have a growth mindset generally find it much easier to overcome challenges and are ultimately more successful.
Compatibility matters, but it’s not the be-all, end-all
All this isn’t to suggest you shouldn’t try to find someone well-suited to you, or that compatibility isn’t really important to a relationship’s success. It’s incredibly important—but it may not be enough. No matter how compatible you and your partner are, you will hit some stumbling blocks at some point. Believing that you are “made for each other” may well make these hurdles much more difficult to overcome.
Of course, abandoning the idea that you and your partner are “meant to be” might feel less romantic. But unromantic or not, this mindset might actually make your relationship more likely to succeed, as it opens you up to challenge and growth.
I suggest we stop expecting to find “The One” and instead listen to the wise words of comedian Tim Minchin:
“Love is nothing to do with destined perfection, the connection is strengthened, the affection simply grows over time.”
I think this is a much healthier attitude than Shakespeare’s notion of “star-crossed lovers.”
Photo: Dennis Grombkowski/Getty