When Psychology Today invited me to begin blogging about romantic relationships, I chose to title my page “Assembly Required.” Why? Because both science and personal experience have taught me that great relationships are formed, not found.
Also, “assembly required” reminds me of modular furniture. If you have ever tried to assemble a piece of furniture with a significant other, you know it can feel like a make-or-break relationship experience. Although I respect relationship education courses and the scholars who create them, sometimes I think we should just ask couples to buy and assemble a dresser. It will tell you almost everything you need to know about whether to commit to someone.
Understanding the downside of a soulmate search
Relationship scientist Raymond Knee coined the terms “destiny beliefs” and “growth beliefs” to describe an individual’s general approach to seeking and maintaining romantic relationships. People with destiny beliefs assume there is one person out there who they are meant to be with (a soulmate). They believe once they find the right person, the relationship will be relatively smooth and easy. In contrast, people with growth beliefs go into relationships assuming they will need to get to know each other and grow together through shared experiences. Their relationships aren’t “meant to be” but rather are “made to be.”
Whether we have destiny beliefs or growth beliefs predicts how we think, react, and behave in relationships. For example, people with destiny beliefs tend to be more rigid in thinking about their partners. If relationships are either “destined to be” or not, there is little room to approach problems with flexibility and openness to change. However, people with growth beliefs generally expect that challenges will arise, and their relationship will grow as they address those challenges together.
Contrary to popular media representations of great love, scientists have found that destiny beliefs undermine both happiness and stability in relationships. Growth beliefs are a stronger foundation for love, especially if we want a relationship to last a long time.
People with growth beliefs can fall in love
Falling in love can still be the foundation for building a strong relationship, but it is the beginning—not the end¬—of the story. Studies show that relationship satisfaction tends to decline over time. For all kinds of reasons (biological, social, and psychological), we are ecstatic at the beginning of a relationship in a way that can’t be sustained forever. That means we must intentionally build other positive experiences and feelings into the relationship that will last longer.
The early stage of a relationship often involves a lot of questions and ambiguity. Does my partner like me as much as I like them? Is this going to last, or will I have my heartbroken? Will I learn something about this person that might change how I feel?
The first building blocks of a great relationship include resolving that ambiguity through honest conversations. How are you feeling about me and about this relationship? Where do you see it going? Are we on the same page about what we want the future to look like?
If you cannot resolve these questions, you may not have the tools you need for bigger, more difficult conversations later. However, when there is clarity about how everyone feels in the relationship, you gain positive feelings of security and comfort in the partnership. Those positives are sustainable over the long haul.
Why this isn’t settling
I would never suggest that you force a relationship that doesn’t work or doesn’t feel right. It’s important to seek someone who makes you feel at ease and who you feel like yourself around. Happily married people in my Relationship Histories Study often talked about how their spouses stood out from other partners because they felt like they could truly be themselves, and the other person seemed to feel the same way.
Once you have a partner who gives you that sense of ease and comfort, try not to obsess over whether they fit every characteristic you imagined your partner would have. Are they not as tall as you imagined? Ignore it. Do they come from a different kind of family background? Talk it through. Do they not share all your interests? It’s probably fine.
The more important building blocks of great relationships are the interactions you have. Do you treat each other with kindness and respect? Can you discuss areas of conflict without yelling, calling each other names, getting physical, or shutting down? Do you demonstrate trust in the person and vice versa? Can you assemble a piece of cheap furniture without losing your ever-loving mind? Or at least, can you come back together after losing it and try again? Can you laugh off the fact that there are “extra pieces” and toss them in the garbage?
We all have the power to change our orientation from destiny beliefs to growth beliefs (see Carol Dweck’s Mindset for tips). You may find that building a team-like relationship to face life’s challenges feels very much like the soulmate you have been seeking. The difference is that you formed it rather than found it.
The author, Tyler Jamison, is an Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of New Hampshire.