Love in the 21st Century

02 April 2012 By: Bjarne Holmes

Love and romance have existed since ancient times. Different back then was that having a relationship based on love and romance was possible, but unlikely. Marriages were bonds between families and conducted mostly for alliances. As recently as two hundred years ago, if you asked a person who the most important in the world to them was, they would most likely have named a best friend or family member rather than a husband or wife.

Our ideas today, however, have shifted toward believing that love should be the basis for marriage and romantic relationships. On the one hand, we live in an amazing historical era where we are free to create and choose partnerships based on the whims of love. On the other hand, freedom always comes at a cost.

The choice of marrying whomever we desire based on the passion of love creates a lot of pressure for perfection. Few want anything other than a 'fairy-tale' life-long romance - but is it attainable?

Perhaps the most harmful relationship myth lingering in today's society is the notion of predestined soulmates. This is the idea that there's 'that special someone' out there to meet. If we look hard enough we'll find him or her, and therefore - worse yet - if we don't find that one person we'll be doomed to a loveless life. You'll be pleased to know that this myth is contradictory to knowledge gleaned from current relationship science.

The truth is there are many compatible mates all around you, usually people you already know, and perhaps some you're already friends with. The mistake many of us make is to focus too much on the initial characteristics of potential mates. It's true that some things do matter - similarity in personality and basic world views seem important, lack of self-esteem or tendency to jealousy are things to be wary of - but what really matters is what happens after you've started a relationship.

'Soulmates' are not people 'out there' to 'find'. Instead, the feeling of being a 'soulmate' with someone is a feeling you develop over time by working on the relationship together, through compromise and getting to understand one another better. The primary predictor of the long-term well-being of a relationship is an ability to resolve disagreements. We all fight sometimes and there's nothing problematic with that; what matters is that partners feel validated and can move on.

We do something in modern relationships we didn't do in the past. Because we are more prone to expect love and life-partnership to go hand-in-hand, we now expect that 'one and only love' to be almost everything to us. Mr/Miss 'Right' needs to be great at their career, smart, attractive, funny, charming, a sexual tiger, a great parent, an amazing friend, etc, etc. In reality, how many of us have actually met these super-humans?

Relationship science tells us that we'll fare better if we do what people did in past centuries: diversify our personal and emotional needs across various people. No one person can be realistically expected to be 'everything' in our lives. Is this lowering your standards? Yes, it is, but in a way that will lead to happiness in the long term. If you can learn to celebrate each individual in your life for what they uniquely contribute to you instead of focusing on what they are lacking, your life will be filled with a lot more love.


Bjarne Holmes was previously Director of the Family and Personal Relationships Laboratory at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. His research focuses on attachment, well-being, relationship attitudes, beliefs and media influence on social identity in young adults. He writes a blog at Psychology Today blog called Love by the Numbers.

The Undateables synopsis

People living with challenging conditions are often considered 'undateable' - this series meets a few and follows their attempts to find love

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