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The soulmate problem

| Wednesday, January 26, 2022

During a typical Sunday night dinner my sophomore year, one of my good friends announced — unprompted, might I add — that his philosophy regarding relationships is “if it’s not love at first sight, it’s not love.” As our group unpacked the full implications of his outlook on love, each of us started sharing our own approaches and beliefs. Shockingly, at least to me, I discovered I was the only one of my friends who believed that everyone has “their person” they’re supposed to end up with. 

“There are 7.75 billion people on Earth! If you did have a person, odds are you’d never meet them.”

“What about the people who don’t want to fall in love? What about the people who want to, but never do? Do they not have a person?”

“How does this work? Is it biological? Is it spiritual?”

As my friends tried to poke holes in my idealized concept of true love, I resolved to hold strong. A self-pronounced eternal optimist — or at the very least, a girl who tries her best to stay positive — I felt certain that being hopeful couldn’t hurt. Where’s the harm in believing in a little everyday magic? 

Apparently it’s in your happiness. According to a social psychology study carried out in 2014, couples who believe that they’re meant to be together report less relationship satisfaction than those who think of their relationship as “a journey of ups and downs.” By looking for an idealized concept of love, people who want to be soulmates are more likely to be disappointed when they’re faced with reality. 

I haven’t only applied my soulmate theory to love and relationships, though. This line of thinking has affected the way I approach nearly all of my big decisions. 

When choosing a major, I felt an immense pressure to find a course of study that perfectly encapsulated my essence, that told the world exactly the kind of person I was, the sorts of things I was interested in. Believing that there was a major I was perfectly suited for, I refused to settle for less. Sure, I loved my applied mathematics courses, but did they also encapsulate my creative side? As a writer, a natural choice might have been English or PLS, but the class descriptions didn’t inspire me. Waiting for the perfect major to “come to me,” I waited until the end of my sophomore year to declare. 

I experienced the same debilitating fear when deciding where to go to college, the same stress when trying to find friends my freshman year. Is this the campus where I’m meant to live out “the best four years of my life?” Is this girl going to be my future bridesmaid?

And now, as a second semester senior, I feel that same pressure about my job after graduation. As Anne Helen Petersen explains in an essay about millennial burnout, “students internalize the need to find employment that reflects well on their parents … that’s also impressive to their peers … and fulfills what they’ve been told has been the end goal of all of this childhood optimization: doing work that you’re passionate about.” 

Since preschool, we’re asked what we want to be when we grow up. We dress up as chefs and firemen, as surgeons and ballerinas. We fill out essay prompts describing our dream job, create laundry lists of requirements for our dream job that is creative and successful but not about the money, and that does good in the world and allows a perfect work-life balance but also has a great work culture that builds connections between you and your coworkers, and is something you’re “passionate about” and is fun (“It doesn’t even feel like work!”) but still challenges you. We dream of jobs that are perfect, fulfilling extensions of who we are. 

But by placing so much emphasis on the jobs we take on when we grow up rather than the persons we’ll become, we allow our careers to become the crux of our identities. Just as no single major could perfectly encapsulate the nuance of all my interests, no offering at a career fair booth can sum up a whole, complex individual. Thinking of a job, or a major or even a spouse as something fated turns one choice you make into an embodiment of Who We Are. But sometimes a job is just What You Do. And that’s okay.

The real soulmate problem is that by putting pressure on ourselves to constantly find the perfect complement to our personhood, we run the risk of missing out on unexpectedly delightful pairings. Making our decisions by comparing our options to the ideal, we leave little room for people and jobs and activities that grow on us over time, for things that we might end up loving, even if not at first sight.

Julianna Conley is a senior studying sociology and pre-health studies with a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. Though she is forever loyal to Pasquerilla East B-team athletics, Julianna now lives off campus. She can be reached for comment at [email protected] or @JuliannaLConley on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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