(Editor's note: This article was adapted from Scott Stanley's book, The Power of Commitment: A Guide to Active, Lifelong Love. For the complete text and more advice on forming matches that will go the distance, please consult his book.)
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Meet Jack. He's a 27-year-old college grad doing well in his career. Jack believes you need to be financially secure and established in your career before you marry, but since he's getting to that point he's started to think about settling down.
Jack has issues, though. His parents divorced when he was 7. Both remarried unhappily, his mother once and his father twice. So he's never seen "happily ever after" in any of the marriages that have been closest to him. Still he has the deep desire for the full promise of a great marriage.
Because he's a product of the current culture, he has the desire to find his soul mate if he's ever going to marry. In fact, his insecurities about marriage may have pushed him toward a desire for the fullest expression of something I call soul-mate-ism.
Jack initially didn't believe in the whole soul mate thing, but he's grown to, or rather, the belief has grown on him. The idea is comforting because he wants the most loving and secure relationship possible — something everyone wants — and he feels like he needs the perfect soul mate in order to have that happen.
Jack's not alone.
Belief in a soul mate is pervasive. It is an ancient idea — one I find as attractive as the next person for what it suggests about the deepest desires of the heart — to be naked and unashamed. But is it a wise way to think?
In 2001, the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, headed by social historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and sociologist David Popenoe, commissioned a national survey of 1,003 people ages 20 to 29 years old, 61 percent of whom had never married. In their survey, Popenoe and Whitehead asked these young adults all sorts of questions about their views on marriage and divorce. What they found will likely not surprise you, but the implications of their findings are momentous for marriage:
- An overwhelming majority (94 percent) of never-married singles agree that 'when you marry you want your spouse to be your soul mate, first and foremost."
- Less than half (42 percent) of single young adults believe that it is important to find a spouse who shares your religion. (I include this second finding simply to show that most people's desire for a soul mate has little to do with a desire to have someone share their core beliefs and spiritual practices.)
So what is a soul mate, and why do people assume that this is the greatest thing to be desired and achieved in marriage?
Great Expectation or Dangerous Idea?
I searched the Internet for a definition of soul mate, finding very few clear definitions yet plenty of writings describing what people are thinking about when they use the term. The following are some of the sentiments I found in my search.
- Someone who completes you.
- Someone who accepts you no matter what.
- Someone who has the unique capacity to love you more fully than anyone else on the planet.
- Someone for whom you would not have to make major compromises.
- Someone with whom you have a deep connection that is not based on mere infatuation.
- Someone who is your greatest friend.
- Someone you may not spend the rest of your life with.
- You may, in fact, have several soul mates. There is not just one.
- Soul mates have two minds, hearts and souls that operate as one.
- Someone you quickly know is the one.
As you can see, some people have soul mate concepts that are close to what just about anyone would say is a truly great marriage — and one reasonable to desire and build. Others describe (and probably seek) a level of sublime connection and completion that seems virtually impossible to achieve. In addition, some writers say that there is not just one perfect soul mate for you while others clearly imply that there is — one perfect person who it's all-important for you to find.
One thing is clear. It's very reasonable to search for a mate who will join you in a healthy and happy marriage that will embody and portray lasting love — someone who will touch your soul. It is very reasonable to want a mate to be your best friend, your confidant and someone who shares a deep and meaningful vision with you of your future together. I think it is not unreasonable to want and expect those things.
But not all soul mate beliefs are created equal. The danger is that many people hold to their desire for a soul mate who does not exist, and believe all the most unrealistic and dangerous things that are attached to the term. It's what I call soul-mate-ism:
The belief that you will find in a mate the one unique person on the planet who understands your deepest desires and fears, accepts all of who you are unconditionally and who becomes joined to you, making one complete whole in mind, body and soul. The power of this type of relationship is so great that you will know fully and rapidly when you find "the one." Further, if you have not married "the one," you should move on.
Everyone needs to feel — and be — emotionally safe in marriage — safe in the way you relate to your mate now and safe in the sense that you can count on a future together. The danger lies in expecting an unrealistic level of sublime and safe connection. For example, in order to alleviate his insecurities about attachment, Jack needs a level of acceptance that is not possible. He needs to be fully loved, without threat of disapproval.1
Worse, he thinks there is only one right person who can fulfill his idea of love. That's a bit scary — it implies you had better find just the right one. I actually found a soul mate calculator on the Web that uses population statistics to tell you how many people you'd have to search among to find your soul mate — which means you could make many more mistakes than correct choices, especially if you believe there is only one right choice. What would happen if you made the wrong choice?
Let's see what happens when someone like Jack, who's acting on soul-mate-ism, falls in love.
A Fine Romance
One fine January, Jack attended a Super Bowl party put on by his long-time friend Fred. At the party, Jack met Sandy, and the attraction was immediate. Within two days, Jack was convinced that Sandy was the one — his belief in soul-mate-ism made him think he'd know right away. There were warning signs he should have noticed, but his strong attraction kept him from paying any serious attention to them. He thought it felt right. (Just for your information, I have nothing at all against falling in love and having it feel right.) Sandy thought so too.
Jack and Sandy are very typical. They are young and in love, and they believe what most of the people around them believe, including that finding someone who shares your faith is less central than finding "the one," whether or not that person shares your faith or your worldview. The irony of most people's notion of a soul mate is that the person doesn't have to share his or her partner's most core philosophical and religious beliefs. So, while not sharing core beliefs should be a substantial warning sign of possible problems to come, it's deemed much less important, as are many other things, such as compatible views on money management and child rearing.
Many partners with different faith backgrounds have developed outstandingly good marriages by any secular definition. But having different faiths is a risk, and for many couples the difference deprives them of one of the more powerful ways to meet deep in the soul.
In the area of faith, Jack's family background was Presbyterian and Sandy's was Baptist. As they spent time together and fell in love, that difference did not signify much to them because neither practiced their faith actively. They just thought about their faith in each other. And within two months they were seeing each other constantly. A few months after that, they decided to marry, and they did, with friends and family looking on.
Jack and Sandy did pretty well together for several years. In fact, they remained close and positive in their sense of a future together. Then they had a child, a girl they named Millie, after Sandy's mother. While Millie brought them great joy and fulfillment, she also brought challenges, as children do in all marriages. Neither Sandy nor Jack had anticipated how their difference in faith would lead to so many conflicts over Millie, including how to baptize her.
But conflicts over Millie were just the beginning. Jack and Sandy also began to have conflicts about work and careers. Sandy became far more conflicted over her career once Millie arrived. She wanted to keep progressing but she also wanted to be home taking care of Millie. It became harder and harder for Sandy to leave Millie at day care each morning. And it wasn't much better on the days (which were nearly as many) when Jack was the one to drop Millie off.
Sandy began to wonder out loud about staying home and being a full-time mom until Millie was in first grade. While she had not thought she would be very affected by her situation, Sandy's mother and grandmother had stayed at home to raise their children, at least in the early years. Now, though it surprised her, she thought she wanted to do that too.
Jack, however, was completely closed to that path. In fact, he felt somewhat betrayed that Sandy was even considering it because he had been sure she was as committed as he had always been to building wealth — being financially secure was important to his total need for security.
So a few years into their marriage, Jack and Sandy found themselves at a crossroads that is not uncommon. Nor is it particularly dangerous or threatening to a marriage. Rather, it's one of those times when married couples have to confront important choices about what they want, where they want to head and the wisest path for them to walk on. But what made the period dangerous for Jack and Sandy was their soul-mate-ism, Jack's in particular. If Jack could feel unsafe and fear rejection or criticism in his relationship with Sandy, on any substantial level, then maybe she really was not his true soul mate.
Maybe I chose the wrong person, he started to think.
Commitment: The Antidote to the Dangers of Soul-Mate-Ism
Soul-mate-ism conveys an expectation of heavenly connection that makes earthbound relationships more difficult. As with any other unrealistic expectation, it can make you more disappointed than is warranted by the normal ups and downs of married life. It's not that I don't believe that we should desire and seek the deepest and most meaningful connections in our marriages. Wanting that level of connection is the main reason I have faith that marriage will not disappear as an institution. It is the place where people are most likely to experience the level of security and safety that will satisfy the longings of their hearts.
However, there is a difference between a recognition of the deepest desires of the heart, in the pristine state of the Garden of Eden, and what is realistic to expect to receive and give when married to another imperfect human being. The desire for perfection is within you, and can motivate you to do greater things in your marriage, but the reality cannot come up to the level of the expectation you may have if you suffer from soul-mate-ism. So, I encourage you to think well about what you expect so that you will not be unhappy with your marriage because of impossible expectations about being perfectly loved by another.
The depth of the desire we all have to be fully and deeply accepted and connected — implied in the words naked and unashamed — is within the context of full commitment. It is deep commitment between two partners for life in marriage that makes it possible to have a profound connection.
While I believe that what you do after you marry is the most crucial factor in being successful in life, I and other marriage researchers also believe that making a wise, careful, unrushed choice up front is the very best way to begin a life with another.
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- Research suggests that people who are insecure about attachments are more prone to make errors in their relationships. Essentially, the neediness is so great that it clouds otherwise good judgment, such as about whom to marry in the first place. These ideas are consistent with, though the point is somewhat different from, the study by Davila and Bradbury that shows how the insecurity leads to different decisions than others might make in the same circumstances (note that I am pointing out how their research shows attachment issues affect relationships but not trying to undermine the importance of marital commitment in terms of pointing to this specific finding). Davila, J., & Bradbury, T. N. (2001). "Attachment insecurity and the distinction between unhappy spouses who do and do not divorce." Journal of Family Psychology, 15, 371–393.