Longing for the Perfect Love: Is It Healthy?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Bittersweet" by Susan Cain. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why do we long for love or seek out a soulmate? Is longing for love healthy?

In her book Bittersweet, Susan Cain explores the complexities of our desire for love and connection. While some argue that longing for an ideal love is natural and sacred, others warn that seeking a perfect partner can prevent us from finding true happiness.

Read on to learn about the advantages and disadvantages of longing for love, according to Cain.

Longing for the Perfect Love 

In her book Bittersweet, Susan Cain notes that for some of us, longing manifests in our romantic lives. We find ourselves longing for love—for the perfect person who we feel will complete us. According to Cain, some people argue that this longing for love is natural, beautiful, and even sacred. It’s one of our most important desires because we all want to belong and feel understood. 

Where the Soulmate Connection Comes From

Where does the deep feeling of connection and understanding we have with a “soulmate” come from? Some psychologists argue it derives from communicating nonverbally with our partner. Couples with soulmate-level intimacy respond unconsciously to each other’s body language and facial expressions—for instance, someone may unconsciously pick up on sorrow in their partner’s eyes and send a reassuring glance back. 

Additionally, these couples can understand each other’s voice cues, including subtle changes in the stress or pitch of their partner’s voice. As they pick up on mutual nonverbal cues that signal different moods, they begin to share the same emotions, so their subjective experience of the world becomes intertwined. 

Is Seeking a Perfect Partner Healthy?

According to Cain, others suggest that our longing for love and to find a perfect partner prevents us from finding someone who’s imperfect but good for us. Everyone has unique flaws, so we’ll never be entirely compatible with anyone. When dating, if we exclude everyone we’re not perfectly suited to, we’ll end up alone. Additionally, if we hold onto the dream that we’ll someday find our perfect “other half,” we’ll be unable to appreciate the good qualities of our current partner. 

(Shortform note: As the research Cain cites suggests, longing for love to the point that you wait to find a perfect partner can be problematic because it leaves you unable to accept that everyone (including you) has flaws. That’s not the only issue with this mindset, however—searching for a perfect partner also becomes unhealthy when you look for someone who brings you perfect happiness. When you place responsibility for your happiness on a romantic partner, you may resent or blame them when you’re unhappy. This can create a codependent dynamic. When you instead take ownership of your own happiness, you’ll leave yourself open to real, healthy love.)

These people argue that, to improve our relationships, we should spend energy improving ourselves rather than trying to change the other person. No one’s flawless, so we’ll always have room to improve. Additionally, we can’t force other people to become our ideal match, so we can only really change our relationships through our own actions. Finally, we should learn to accept our partner’s flaws, instead of longing for a love that is unattainably perfect. 

(Shortform note: When deciding whether you can accept a partner’s faults, know the difference between true acceptance and tolerance. Acceptance is acknowledging that a certain characteristic is part of who your partner is, and they don’t need to alter it for you to love them. You let go of all the resentment and frustration you have about the characteristic. In contrast, when you merely tolerate something, you hold onto your resentment, and you’re still uncomfortable with the characteristic or behavior. Tolerance doesn’t work long-term, as it leaves you in a state of exhaustion, constantly wishing your partner was different.)

When It’s Okay to Change for Someone (and When It’s Not)

Altering ourselves to improve our relationships may feel wrong at first. We’re frequently told that we should never have to change for another person and that our partner wouldn’t ask us to change if they really loved us. That’s not always true, though—relationships are based on compromise, and as Cain’s research suggests, there’ll always be flaws that both you and your partner must either learn to accept in each other or work to overcome. 

For most people, acceptable things to change include how you communicate with your partner and how you view the world (to an extent). For example, as your relationship progresses, you may communicate more openly with your partner. Your interests might evolve to include more of what your partner enjoys. Likewise, your social habits, health habits, home habits, argumentation style, and ideas about the future might change with a romantic partner. All of this could be natural and necessary to grow in a relationship. 

That being said, there are certain parts of yourself you shouldn’t have to change for someone else. If you feel like you have to change something about your core self or personality—for example, your kind nature or your love of the outdoors—to be with a person, they’re probably not right for you. 
Longing for the Perfect Love: Is It Healthy?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Susan Cain's "Bittersweet" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Bittersweet summary:

  • Why you should embrace a bittersweet disposition in life
  • How sadness has the power to foster creativity and empathy
  • How to accept your own mortality and the impermanence of life

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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