The Impossible Math of Gay Soulmates

There’s an episode of This American Life called “Somewhere Out There” that has stuck with me since it aired in 2009, particularly the opening segment. In it, a Harvard physicist takes a scientific look at the notion of soul mates — more specifically, the idea that there is just one person out there for each of us. Explaining that the idea came about after a too strong pot of coffee (girl, been there!) the physicist, David Kestenbaum, based his study on something called the Drake Equation which examines the number of planets in the universe and interprets how many of these could potentially hold intelligent life. Because he was single at the time, he wanted to apply that equation to his life and replaced intelligent life with girlfriends.

Of course, nothing here is exact — we’re dealing with rough numbers, estimations and general deduction — but for statistics’ sake, Kestenbaum started with the raw number of people living in his city of Boston; about 600,000. He figured he could cut that down to 300,000 given the 50/50 male-to-female ratio and then he set up some basics. He was 30 at the time, so he made his age range ±10, which brought him down to 35% of 300,000. One hundred and five thousand straight women still had the chance to become Mrs. Kestenbaum, but 75% of them blew it by not being a college graduate. Argh! Kidding, excluding people based on college is terrible — bullet dodged! Those “basics” left him with 25,000 people, down from 600,000. He estimated half of these to be single. Now he had to deal with the real issue: how many of these would he find attractive? He guessed, in my opinion, a high percentage: one out of five. Even with that generous assumption, his number was cut to 2,500.

Without factoring any personal details — sense of humor, interests, goals, religion, etc — this straight male in a major city was left with a relatively low number of potential suitors considering his last and most damning factor: the chance of both parties being at the right place at the right time.

So what would my numbers look like as a gay woman?


At the time of its airing, I was single and living in Portland, Oregon. Like Boston, Portland at the time had a population of about 600,000, and for the purposes of this experiment I assumed similar demographics even though I know y’all are going to say, “Excuse me, Portland in not Boston,” but I need y’all to give this to me. I cut the population in half for women to 300,000. The statistics on my next cut are mixed — there was a recall on the “one out of ten” gay statistic; Gallup’s latest estimates in 2012 dip LGBT numbers to 3.8%, and city-specific statistics can toggle that national average significantly. But a 2012 report puts Portland at 6% LGBT, so for my population cut I assumed it was as gay as it ever was. Eighteen thousand. I used his +10 age range but not his -10 age range because at the time I was 23, so based on his age ranges totaling 35%, I halved that and was left with 17.5% of 18,000 — 3,150. I don’t hold any value in diplomas, but self education is important, and I assumed the same of 75% of gay women. Around 2,400. I cut that in half for those who were single and I had 1,200. I used his one out of five attraction scale and was down to 240. That’s before I got into anything personal. Half that for emotionally available people. Half that for a sense of humor. Half that for something Kestenbaum left out — their feelings toward you. Half that for everything else.

Fifteen.

Now imagine that I’d been realistic with the estimations. Still, 15 is nothing to scoff at! Fifteen people in the entire world that might be right for you, hidden by the constraints of space and time. It’s a genuinely disheartening number on its own! Except there’s a part of us that already knew that. It is – I suspect – why we U-haul, why we dig in, why we nest. Or rather why we resign, why we break ranks, why we untether. Or worse, why we settle. When the answer to the question, “What are the chances?” is a very small number, any of those choices seem like the most logical choice. Maybe the reason your friend/the older self-professed queen at the bar/your co-worker/that girl Claire won’t stop talking about finding someone is because they have 25 times more Keurig flavor options than the whole of their supposed dating pool. Be kinder to each other — we’re scientifically improbable.

Except the reality of it is showing a different picture. According to a 2012 census the number of reported gay couples grew by as much as 80% since 2000, and it’s only getting queerer. The internet, a cultural shift, federal recognition – whatever’s responsible, we’re defying the odds. How do you reconcile that discrepancy if not to invalidate the idea of a predetermined outcome completely?


When I sat down to do the math on this I thought I was just curious to find out a tangible number to a hypothetical theory. I’m just a crazy cool girl that likes to have fun! But when I dug down a bit, I realized the reason I was so interested in investigating the idea of soulmates was because for me the idea of “the one” has always felt mythical. Like the story of Persephone, the Greek goddess responsible for creating the four seasons after slipping down a crack into the underworld, it feels like tidy, accessible symbolism.

Soulmates as we’ve come to know them rely heavily on the kind of destiny that doesn’t just leave you inexplicably at the doorstep, it sees you through to the end of the story/movie/book. That kind of destiny by its very nature removes choice from the equation, and to dismiss the very real choices we make on a daily basis required to be better for each other assumes relationships are without sacrifice or that they’re innately seamless. Even beyond the complexities of relationships, the idea of soulmates as these star-crossed beings coming (and staying) together implies that we either stay the same our entire lives or that we grow in the exact same way and at the exact same rate as another person. Except we know neither of those things to be true. Do I think in some instances we meet, love, and pair in ways beyond our comprehension? Certainly. But not because I think we’re fated to do so.

[Carrie Bradshaw voice] Anyway, isn’t it more impressive that we choose rather than find each other? That we continue to say yes? Maybe the reason the original numbers don’t add up is because they’re approaching human connection in ways that can’t and shouldn’t be quantified. Or maybe the math seems impossible because we’re solving for one.


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Writer by way of GA/PDX/MPLS/NASHVILLE. Let's keep it clean out there!

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59 Comments

  1. The is the best thing I’ve ever read about soulmates and I agree with your conclusions completely. I find the idea of soulmates fun in stories, but in real life, I think it diminishes the very hard and rewarding work of love. (Or, as you put it: “That kind of destiny by its very nature removes choice from the equation, and to dismiss the very real choices we make on a daily basis required to be better for each other assumes relationships are without sacrifice or that they’re innately seamless.”) Thank you for writing this. I’m sure it made you feel very vulnerable; I honor your courage!

  2. The math IS bonkers! No one talks about what it’s like to move through a world in which like 98% of the population is romantically irrelevant, but you’d think it’d result in some interesting differences and findings (or even questions — what if the math around same-sex coupling is in some way related to our superior quality of parenting?).

    “Everything happens for a reason” is pure nonsense, but I do like the idea of a little bit of chance mixed with a lot of choice for the ideal soulmate equation, or that being swept away is something you do together because you want to and you’re willing and it’s exhilarating. (But I’m a desperately hopeless romantic sap, so there’s that.) Either way, AWZM POST.

  3. I’ve actually believed in the soulmate thing most of my life, and I think that’s why I’ve never been in a relationship. I’m too scared that, while I’m dating one person, my soulmate will be getting married to someone else and I’ll lose my chance! I’m working through it now, but thanks for this article, it really helped!

  4. Y’all, everyone needs to read “The Ethical Slut” and discussions of polyamory. Whether or not you’re interested in ever dating more than one person or having more than one partner, poly theory has a lot to offer. Anyone who has questions -PM me! 🙂

    And let’s keep hanging out together and deconstructing compulsory monogamy, the concepts of the soulmate, & the idea that the length or permanence of a relationship has anything to do with its success! Those bogus ideas are all related, they’re all socially constructed, and they all harm us.

    • Just to throw my own personal experience/ voice into the mix: I’ve dated people with whom I knew upfront that it would be a temporary thing, and knew upfront we were *definitely* not “soulmates” — and I’ve gotten so much out of those relationships! I’ve learned so much about people who are radically different from me, and in reflecting on those differences, I have a much greater knowledge of myself, as well.

      Whether or not you’re poly, consider doing that – try dating just to date! Be upfront with the person, obvs, but if you’re both down, it can be great fun and also usually gets you closer to figuring out who you do want for a life partner (and how to find them).

        • Yeah that’s kind of the beauty of it! I get to have all these feelings, and feel what they feel like, and try out different ways of reacting to them and expressing them, and in ways that are really focused on the present and what I’m getting out of this very moment. I get to appreciate this human for who they are, not what I hope they will be to me.

          And yes, is it hard when there’s lots of feelings and then those relationships then have to transition into something different (personally I don’t use the word breakup unless it’s actually hardcore/ hurtful/ really cutting ties). You miss what you had; you have to readjust your thoughts and learn to corral your heart in new healthy directions.

          But these are all skills that I think are super super useful, not just for romantic relationships but for life in general. Certainly if you are looking for a forever partner, dating and working hard to engage with people how they really are, rather than in relation to some future picket fence — these thing builds you an emotional toolkit that you’ll be glad you have when you do find the person you want to be with forever.

    • What. No! I have found my soulmate and we’re not monogamous. So your assumption might not be right for everyone. The way I see it, when you find your soulmate, there is something unexplainable that clicks. And it doesn’t even have to last a life time. It is when you look into that person’s eyes for the first time and recognize them immediately. When you just KNOW their essence. When I looked into my partners eyes for the first time I had the entire universe staring back at me. Her life, my life, everything that ever happened led us there and in the matter of seconds everything made sense and fell into place. So much so that the people standing next to us saw the same thing as they watched us getting introduced. And yeah, we both don’t want something monogamous, we want to be free and be ourselves, and that is exactly how it has been for the past couple of years. I’ve known this human for just a while, but her soul has been with me throughout eternity. Sounds corny and I didn’t believe in a soulmate either until I met her. Same for her. She even had dreams about me, very long before she met me. She would draw the woman in those dreams and recently she showed me that decade old drawing and yeah, it was me. So these kind of things happen. They are not a social construct and they are certainly not dangerous.

      • That’s a beautiful story! I love it. I love that it happened to you. In fact a lot of the things you’re saying remind me of my current (I hope lifelong) partner! <3

        So yeah I gotta backpedal: you're right, soulmates are not a totally socially constructed concept. That idea came from real experiences like yours, and it's a beautiful one.

        But I still have to argue that the way Hollywood in particular and our culture in general has taken that concept, universalized it, intertwined it with compulsory monogamy and heteronormativity…. in my mind, that social construction is dangerous. It keeps many people from sticking their neck out there to meet people at all, because they're waiting for "the one". It makes some people think they don't have to put effort into their relationships, because if there's tension, it must just mean the other person's not your soulmate.

        I'm not saying that everyone who hopes for a soulmate is wrong or shouldn't do that – fuck, I hope you find them! I'll introduce you to everyone I know in hopes that one or them is a person with whom you can have that kind of connection! But I just gotta critique our dominant narratives even when they have elements of truth and beauty in them.

  5. And yet, despite these odds, the seemingly impossible often happens.

    Looking back at my meeting my fiancée (who I’m pretty sure is my soulmate at this point), I’m often struck by the low probability, that, out of the ~50,000 people in the local area, and the 30 of them that decided to go to a West Coast Swing dance that particular evening, the only two queer, gender-variant people there happened to meet- despite the fact that we were both closeted/in denial or semi-closeted about those facts (at the time, I still thought I was a straight dude, while she didn’t reveal she was bi until after we’d gotten to know each other, and didn’t begin to question her own gender identity until recently).

    I mean, what are the odds?

  6. The thing that also bothers me with putting math and “the chance to meet sombebody” on things like attraction and love is that people often say I have twice the amount of options because I’m bi. Maybe that seems statistically true, but I feel like I’m attracted to people who are also attracted to me about as often as straight or gay people. Or maybe I just don’t know how lucky I really am, that is also possible.

    I defintely feel meant-to-be with my girlfriend, but like you say, not as some kind of destiny. Just because we match so amazingly well. And we are together because we choose to be (and it’s awesome), not because it’s fate.

    • UGH the “twice the amount of options” comment always pisses me off. I’m attracted to certain qualities in an individual-nerdiness, likes cats, cute hair, etc, you have to factor that in, plus the amount of people who are actually straight/gay/queer/etc who are willing to date you as a bisexual person, which of course we know there’s still a lot of stigma surrounding bisexual people in the straight/queer communities. That makes the numbers even lower for us. Those “twice the amount of options” people need to STFU because they have no idea what they’re talking about.

  7. Once upon a time a midwestern trans woman and a middle eastern princess met on the side of a mountain in southern California. The trans woman had to be talked into this trip by some of her closest friends, and the princess was not one who came from wealth and needed to rely on the kindness of strangers to go on her trip.

    This trip was A-camp 6.0, and the two of us are still going strong close to 9 months later!

  8. This made me incredibly sad, yet ultimately hopeful? I have a notoriously hard time meeting people who are to be my friends, let alone someone I’d actually want to shack up with. I don’t know what my math is, but has always felt like I’m just completely screwed in this department. But it can’t be impossible, right?

  9. This piece was delightful.

    As one half of an international gay couple I occasionally think about how improbable it is we’ve even met. Neither of us had any premeditated plan that landed us in the same place at the same time – and yet here we are, almost a decade later, still together. On top of that there’s culture and traditions and language barriers, immigration departments, marriage laws impacting those immigration things and blah blah blah – the improbability of it all working is just, I don’t know. I guess queers are more magic than statistics.

  10. Hmm, interesting. I feel like the most perpetually single people I know are straight women. The queer girls couple up SO fast. Maybe it’s about seizing the opportunity, when you know there are not that many opportunities out there?

    Also, for straight women, the dating pool is more… diverse, in a bad way. On average, queer women seem to have a lot more in common with each other than straight women and men. Hard to find a good man, it seems. This is a rude way to put it, but this is not my first language and I didn’t come up with anything better: The grossest single men are super gross (sorry not sorry). Whereas there are very little gross lesbians, I think.

    So, not just quantity! Also quality!

    • I couldn’t agree more with this! I know quite a few single straight women. They are attractive, smart, independent, solvent. I know very few single men and the ones I can think of either have lots of baggage or are still living with their parents in their 30s

  11. This made me think of the confirmation bias some of us (ahem, me) engage in when we are so sure we have found our person. What were the odds! we say when we think of all the choices that bought us to the precipice of meeting our “one!” What are the odds that her HS friend would be my freshman year roommate in college?
    What are the odds that we would both play a winter sport?
    What are the odds we would meet before school even started when she came looking for that HS friend who had been randomly assigned to share a room with me?

    You can line it all up to look fated, if you are so inclined. I often am, but as you put so nicely, there’s a lot of choosing each other over and over again. Maybe, if you believe in it, fate walks you up to the edge but you have to choose to jump (and keep jumping with that person). Maybe that’s a better kind of fairytale.

  12. “Be kinder to each other — we’re scientifically improbable.”

    ^bumper sticker right there.

    A lot of the discussion here reminds me a little of an essay that was in the NY Times ‘Modern Love’ column last month about the way we conceive the most important relationships in our lives (if you’re interested: http://nyti.ms/1P8wT8c ) and how it almost seems impossible to pick your ‘one’ at the beginning of your life, when maybe you won’t understand who were the most important (or passionate or stable or unstable) relationships in your life until much later when you’re looking back on it.

  13. Okay…let me figure out my own numbers.

    I’m bisexual and attracted to women and nonbinary people. So that cuts men out of the equation. Let’s assume they’re maybe 2/5 of the population, shall we?

    I’m a woman, so that cuts straight women and nonbinary people who only like men out because they wouldn’t be attracted to me. We’re left with maybe six percent of the population.

    But I’m also nonbinary, and I’m not sure how comfortable I’d be dating a lesbian or a nonbinary person who only likes women because of that. I mean, if you’re attracted exclusively to women and then you’re dating me and I’m part dude, then you’re probably fetishizing me based on my genitals.

    I’m arospec, and that cuts down my pool of acceptable sexual partners as well because I need someone who’s going to be completely okay with no romance because I can’t give them that.

    So…

    That leaves multisexual women and nonbinary people who are okay with no romance. That’s probably about 225,000,000 people. In the entire world.

    And out of THEM, I’m obviously not going to be attracted to every single one. They’re not going to be attracted to me. We might not have chemistry. We might not get along.

    They have to be a feminist. And not a radfem, obviously. And they can’t believe in masculine privilege, monosexual privilege, straight-passing privilege, or allosexual privilege.

    That breaks it down to 150,000,000 feminists. And from there, maybe about 120,000,000 non-radfems. And from there, about 100,000,000 people.

    So my dating pool is about 1.43% of the total population. About 1 in 60 people.

    Why.

  14. What a great article!!! Thanks for writing this, truly.

    I used to be *super* prickly, but I think I’ve thawed a little, especially as part of an effort to be open to the the traits in others that speak to me. I want to be turned on faster than I’m turned off, you know? I’m not monogamous, so I’m not driven by the FOMO of the found soulmate theory, although I have fear of missing out about like, everything else, so I can grok it. Recently, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how compatible I am with multiple different people, and communities, when at a different point in my life I felt immeasurably lonely. Found family is everywhere, we’re all unicorns, etc etc.

  15. No offense, but why would the story of a girl kidnapped, held against her will, raped and suffering from Stockholm syndrome be the girl you mention in an article on soul mates?!?
    This story -if you research it is about the patriarchal Greek gods ripping a girl-not woman mind you- from her mother who then wander the world broken hearted searching for her daughter getting no help and being forced to return to work by the very god (wife beater and rapist himself, who took his wife’s crown and the queen of heaven away from her) went and gave the go ahead for that to happen on his command.
    Sorry to be so nick picky, but I have and never will stand for the ignorance most people have from being taught a sub par history class. The “classical “reasoning is a major reason for women’s oppresei0n outside of the Judo-Christian flavor of it that permeates the present day culture along with no awareness of it. I blame the patriarchy and not you by the way.

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