There’s a conversation around new dates that many of us are familiar with: we start seeing someone new and go on a few good or even great dates. We’re thinking about whether this could be something serious, so we begin laying out the situation for our closest friends and loved ones. We explain our impressions so far, the signals this person is giving off, and how we’re interpreting them, and offer everything up for our friends to weigh in on whether this person is a good fit or not. They might question their compatibility, why they’re single, how recently they got out of their last relationship, and their astrological sign — and they might also ask this question: “Do you think they could be the one?”
How do we begin to know how to answer that — or should we answer it at all? Here’s my take.
Unfortunately, you can’t have proof of “the one” — and that’s a good thing
There’s an idea that percolates throughout various parts of our culture — it takes the form of “love at first sight,” the idea that when you meet the right person you’ll “just know,” finding “your soulmate” or that you’re each waiting to meet “the one.”
We tend to believe that once this happens, our love and dating life will become effortless; we may have other problems, but our relationships won’t be one, because there are no challenges once you’ve found “the one.” Maybe we even believe, on some level, that they’ll fall out of thin air without us even having to look for them or go on dates. If you are having conflicts, mismatches, or relationships ending, it’s because they just weren’t with this magic person. “That’s okay, it just means she wasn’t the one!” our friends might say.
If this idea sounds a little like a fairy tale when you lay it all out like this, that’s because it is. While I can’t prove or disprove the idea of “soulmates,” I know that I see a lot of people who are holding out for “the one,” and more often than not, it’s hurting them more than it’s helping. The reality is, we have no way of knowing whether someone is “the one” for us — there isn’t a pH test or tarot reading that will confirm it beyond the possibility of doubt, and there’s no magic set of dating steps to make sure that as long as you do everything correctly, you’ll end up with this person.
Even if there was, I invite you to challenge your beliefs about whether or not that would actually be a good thing. Human connection is complex, ever-changing, and often beyond our ability to articulate or reason logically — it’s not a math problem with a single right answer, or the 1999 hit movie The Matrix. The idea that we’re all looking for “the one” ignores the beautiful depth and range of our relationships, even the ones that “don’t work.”
Furthermore, it can set us up for dangerous manipulation and abuse. Abusive and controlling partners often manipulate their targets into putting up with poor treatment or even violence by reinforcing the idea that you two are soulmates; they may hurt you sometimes, but no one will ever love you like they do, and their life won’t be worth living without you, they claim. Even if this is hard, you have to make it work, because there’s no one else either of you could be with, the logic goes. The early stages of a toxic relationship can often feel euphoric, exactly as if we’ve finally found “the one.”
Even in less extreme scenarios, deciding that we’re looking for “the one” — and hoping that our current relationship is it — can box us in with a zero-sum mentality. If we’re unhappy with our partner or don’t feel our relationship is living up to its potential, it’s harder to consider leaving (or even advocating for necessary change that could put the relationship at risk) because we think “This person is it for me, I can’t afford to lose this, it’s not worth trying.”
What does “the one” mean to you?
So if we aren’t meant to be searching for “the one,” what should we do instead?
Often, when we seek out something in life, we get tunnel vision on the specific concrete goal or circumstance — we decide we want to become a top journalist at the New York Times, for instance. In doing so, we inadvertently set ourselves up for pain when we’re blocked from achieving that exact circumstance, often because of factors that were always going to be out of our control; no one can be good enough to guarantee a specific job offer at a specific paper, for instance.
In a practice that Danielle LaPorte talks about with desire mapping, we can choose to instead refocus on the feeling, or internal state, that we’re looking to fulfill by achieving this goal. Maybe in the above example, you’re really searching to feel accomplished, well-respected, and secure in your field; that’s the internal need the idea of the job is fulfilling.
What does the idea of finding “the one” signify for you, emotionally and psychologically? When you think about the idea of being positive that someone is your soulmate, what’s the “story” you associate with that? Is it the idea of security — is it that you can be sure this person will never leave? Is it perfect compatibility, that you’ll feel instantly “at home” with this person, like you two already speak the same language, with zero turnoffs? Is it that they would see you fully as a person without judgment or shame? Rather than chasing an unattainable ideal, we can cue into these emotional needs and use them to inform the green flags we look for in new dates.
What does an ideal partner look like for you outside of permanence?
For many people, the main attribute they associate with the hypothetical soulmate they want to find is stability. Outside of any particular characteristics or relationship skills, the main plus about this person is that things will magically always work out with them; the relationship lasts forever, and they’ll never leave or drive us away. As we talked about previously, while this is certainly desirable to many of us, it can also make us vulnerable; people can treat us very badly while also reassuring us they’ll never leave, and if someone staying is our main priority, we’ll put up with it.
Part of letting go of the fantasy of meeting “the one,” someone we don’t even have to think about or put work into because everything just falls into place as soon as we meet them, is doing the work of actively deciding what we want in a partner. We have to accept that we likely won’t “just know,” and even if we do, it may very well be the “wrong” person. While it’s healthy to check in with your intuition while dating, it needs to go hand in hand with deciding actively what you’re looking for in a partner, and using your critical thinking skills to assess whether someone matches those characteristics.
It sounds obvious, but a surprising number of us haven’t done it — when we think about what we want, we share vague platitudes, like “someone I’m attracted to,” or “someone who wants a family,” “someone funny.” What specific qualities or relationship skills would someone have to have for you to be able to build the life you want with them, and how can you start to look for them in other people?