Having a life partner who fulfils all your needs sounds like a nice idea in theory, but does it work in practice?
The concept of soulmates dates back to Ancient Greece. In The Symposium, Plato quoted the poet Aristophanes’ story of how all humans were once corporeally united with their ‘other half’, but in a jealous rage Zeus split them apart, leading us to scour the earth in a desperate search for our lost soulmates: “And when one of them meets with his other half,” Aristophanes wrote, “the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy”.
It’s a myth from many centuries ago, but the kind of thing that circulated on Tumblr back in the day. Aristophanes aside, Gen Z have also grown up with fairytales, love songs and Disney stories which continue to perpetuate the idea of The One and promote a monogamous – and heteronormative – idea of love. Through our culture, it’s been drilled into our young, impressionable brains that there’s one person out there who can fulfil our every emotional, intellectual, sexual and spiritual need.
Given how heteronormative monogamy dominates our culture, it’s somewhat surprising that young people are now questioning how realistic it is to believe that there’s one person we’re destined to be with forever and we must haul ourselves through the jungle of serial monogamy until we find them. But there’s evidence that suggests that Gen Z are increasingly sceptical of traditional relationship models: in 2020, LELO’s Sex Census found that 38 per cent of Gen Z felt that a polyamorous relationship would “tick all their intimacy boxes”. In 2021, the Office for National Statistics revealed that marriage rates between heterosexual men and women had dropped to the lowest on record, suggesting that young people are rejecting tradition.
Jack*, 22, is sceptical of the concept of soulmates. “I’m not stressed about finding any one, particular person,” he tells Dazed. He explains that he believes the impenetrable housing market also means that Gen Z are under less obligation to stay with one partner for life: “It’s so difficult to buy a house nowadays, so you’re not really committed to any single place. It’s not really necessary [to commit] like it was for our parents,” he says. “We’re moving away from a traditional approach to things.”
Jack is right to point to the impact that the current economic and social conditions are having on Gen Z: a study led by economists Roy Baumeister and Juan Pablo Mendoza found that in countries with equal economic opportunity and high gender equality, there’s better sex. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that Gen Z are having less sex here on Plague Island, where we’re grappling with stagnant wages, dreadful job prospects, the mishandling of the pandemic, a cost of living crisis, a mental health crisis, and systemic misogyny. “Gen Z is inheriting an arguably even more uncertain world as the problems that plagued millennials (like climate change) become more acute and new ones (like the pandemic) arise,” writes Jessica Klein for the BBC. “This might necessitate fostering individual stability as a number one priority for Gen Z even more so than their slightly older counterparts.”
Basically: it’s hard to get hard when there’s just so much to be anxious about. Plus, financial instability and insecurity means it’s increasingly difficult for Gen Z to plan ahead or ’settle down’. It’s tricky enough to navigate so much uncertainty as an individual before you’ve even factored a whole other person into the mix. Young people have to be pragmatic.
“It’s so difficult to buy a house nowadays, so you’re not really committed to any single place. It’s not really necessary [to commit] like it was for our parents” – Jack, 22
This collective shift away from the idea of The One isn’t just happening passively – instead, it’s an active decision to adapt how we view relationships, which requires introspection and a considerable amount of unlearning. “For me, the unlearning process is about unlearning how we define a happy and successful relationship,” says 23-year-old Katherine, who identifies as non-monogamous. “So many couples are monogamous and they don’t cheat on each other, but they’re not happy. They feel boxed in or they even build up hatred for their partner for so long, but we consider it an OK relationship because neither of them have been disloyal. I just don’t think monogamy should be the measurement by which we define a successful relationship.”
Non-monogamy is an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of alternative relationship models. Some non-monogamous people prefer to be in ‘open relationships’, where they’ll have a primary partner but are still free to date or have sex with other people. Others identify as ‘relationship anarchists’, where the people involved reject all norms and decide on their own rules and boundaries, independent of societal expectations.
“There’s this idea that non-monogamy is consistent and people are always having multiple partners, and that they might have boyfriend number one and boyfriend number two, or they're all in a group relationship together, and it’s really hippy and they're all quite alternative,” Katherine says. “I'm not disregarding that sort of non-monogamy, but that’s not always the case. There are plenty of reasons why a pretty average couple might decide to go through a period of non-monogamy: for example, if one of them hasn't explored their sexuality properly or if they're in a long-distance relationship. I don't like the idea that non-monogamy is only for weird people.”
Katherine adds that she acknowledges monogamy works for some people, but she stresses that we would all do well to be open-minded when it comes to considering alternative relationship models. “For some people, it might make sense to have The One, and The One is their romantic partner, their sexual partner, they’re friends, and they’re the person they raise children with forever,” she says. “I think there should be a wider acceptance that alternative relationship dynamics do exist and are just as rewarding and fulfilling as having one partner in the traditional way.”
“I don't like the idea that non-monogamy is only for weird people” – Katherine, 23
Founding Partner of therapy service Self Space, Chance Marshall, explains that subscribing to the belief that there’s only one person out there for each of us can also be damaging. “It can be harmful due to the weight of the expectation that we take into the relationship. We really expect our partners to meet all our needs,” he says.
He continues: “Often in relationships, we don’t seek out what is good for us, we seek out what is familiar. If historically our experience has been one where our needs haven’t been met, maybe by our parents or caregivers, we can often find ourselves in a pattern of repeating these kinds of dynamics. It can be even more compounded when it’s with The One. Because we want to believe that the other person is The One, part of our psyche begins to underplay and minimise the reality of the more difficult parts of the relationship.”
In extreme cases, this belief in The One can also result in people feeling trapped in abusive relationships. Those who believe in ‘twin flames’ spirituality contend that you should stop at nothing to be with your twin flame – i.e. your soulmate. Most recently, Cecilie Fjellhøy, victim of the ‘Tinder Swindler’ scammer, expressed in the Netflix documentary that her exposure to Disney films such as Beauty and The Beast arguably blinded her to Simon Leviev's red flags. “It just sticks with you, the feeling of a prince coming to save you,” she said. “I think that even though you know it’s not real, it’s still with you a bit. I think everyone has that little bit of hope deep down inside that it will be as magical as they were portraying it to be.” And who can blame her?
So, how can we continue to reframe relationships in a way that’s healthy and realistic? “I think fostering healthy relationships and connections starts with yielding to an acceptance that it’s not needy and it’s not a weakness to need others. We’re hardwired for connection, we need each other. Love is not really a need we can outgrow,” Marshall explains, adding that diversifying the group of people who can meet your needs will take the pressure off your relationship. “One person really can’t give us it all.”
This shift towards looking at relationships in a more pragmatic light doesn’t mean all young people are heteropessimists or stone-hearted robots who have no concept of romance. There’s still plenty of room for the kind of all-consuming, head-over-heels, whirlwind love within this new framework that Gen Z have constructed. “There's this idea that non-monogamous people don't have romance. I'm still a massive romantic: I still fall in love with people the minute I meet them and imagine our future together,” Katherine says. “I just also imagine a future where they can go on holiday and sleep with someone else and use protection, and they can come back and be honest with me and we can talk and laugh about it, and for me to do the same.”
*Name has been changed