It's a theme that appears in thousands of movies, books and musicals: Boy meets girl. They fall in love, marry and live happily ever after. Soul mates forever.
Fully two-thirds of Americans believe in the concept of soul mates, where "two people are destined to be together," according to a recent Marist Poll.
But a new study offers an important reality check about unions formed in a whirlwind of passion.
"Soul mate" couples are often happy at first, because they have intense emotional and personal connections, said W. Bradford Wilcox, lead author of the article in the Sept. 1 issue of Social Science Research.
But their unions are at high risk for disenchantment and divorce because it's hard to sustain such intensity in a long-term relationship, he said.
Instead, couples who have the best chance for lasting happiness are those who are strongly attentive and affectionate with each other (like soul-mate couples) but also believe that marriage is lifelong, and that they should be part of larger social and religious networks.
"In a word, the more spouses embrace the married state, and the institutional norms that go with it, the more they enjoy it," wrote Mr. Wilcox, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project.
Most Americans are in love with the "soul mate" idea, however.
In May, for instance, Alex and Donna Voutsinas of Boynton Beach, Fla., put their marriage story on Facebook, and it quickly spread through major news outlets.
The Voutsinases first realized they had a "kismet" story in 2002, when they were preparing a photo presentation for their wedding. Donna found a picture of herself, age 5, standing at Disney World with family members. In the background was a tall man pushing a stroller with a toddler in it.
When Alex looked at the picture, he recognized the "tall man" as his father — and the child in the stroller as himself, at age 3.
The couple confirmed the identities after Alex went through his old family photos and found some with himself and his father at Disney World in the same clothes as the man and child in Donna's photo.
The Voutsinases had long amazed their friends with their story, but it took "the magic of the Internet" and major news media to send it around the world, United Press International reported.
Researchers at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., noticed the Voutsinases' story and decided to poll 1,004 adults on love, marriage and soul mates.
The Voutsinases' story was intriguing as a pop-culture topic, "and we thought it was kind of a neat idea to ask Americans — and married Americans — if they believe in the concept of soul mates," said Mary Azzoli, media director of the Marist College Poll. The poll defined soul mates as "two people who are destined to be together," she added.
The results were highly romantic: Two-thirds of Americans said they believed in the idea of soul mates.
People living in the South, compared with other regions, were most likely to believe in soul mates, and women were more likely than men to believe in soul mates, 69 percent to 63 percent.
The biggest "soul mate" approval came from people ages 18 to 29, with 73 percent believing in soul mates, compared with 62 percent of those 60 and older.
Marist College researchers didn't ask the 530 married respondents whether they married their soul mates, but did query them on "Do you think you married the right person or not?" They got a resounding yes from 95 percent of respondents.
Again, they found significant differences by region and age.
In the South, Midwest and West, between 96 percent and 97 percent of spouses were sure they had married the "right person," but in the Northeast, only 90 percent thought they had married correctly, with a whopping 10 percent answering "no" to the "right person" question.
Age also made a difference. An astonishing 100 percent of spouses ages 18 to 29 said they married the right person, and older spouses (in the 45-59 and 60-and-older age brackets) were also confident they had married correctly, with 97 percent and 96 percent agreeing, respectively.
But those in the 30-44 age bracket were a tad wobbly, with 92 percent saying they had married the right person and 8 percent saying they had not.
For their newly published paper, Mr. Wilcox and colleague Jeffrey Dew examined data on about 1,400 married men and women in the Louisiana Marriage Matters project. Many of these spouses were in the state's hard-to-dissolve covenant marriages.
Mr. Wilcox and Mr. Dew found that couples with "soul mate" orientations about marriage were 150 percent more likely to divorce, compared with those who held more traditional or religious views.
But Mr. Wilcox and Mr. Dew also found that just holding traditional views of marriage — with the breadwinner father and the stay-at-home mother — didn't bring happiness for many modern couples either.
Instead, the happiest marriages were a hybrid of "new" and "old," Mr. Wilcox and Mr. Dew wrote. These couples, they said, combined "a proper appreciation for the expressive dimension of married life" (such as qualities of passionate soul-mate marriage) with elements of tried-and-true marriages, such as "lifelong commitment, lifelong fidelity" and connections to children, community and religion.
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