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"Soul Mates" and Other Words I'm Afraid Of

As therapists there are words that scare us.

As a psychotherapist there are words that scare me, words that raise red flags, warning signals and other metaphors of danger. If those words are brought up in a psychotherapeutic session I know that my client is in a serious crisis. If you heard them, even if you never took a Psych 101 class, you would know there is a crisis that requires immediate and serious attention and I feel sure that you would even know the standard of care for each and every red flag word. How I respond to red flag words is not so different from how you, as a non-therapist, or any other clinician might—there is a standard of care that these kinds of words inspire. Depending on the word I might need the patient to write a letter promising not to harm themselves. I might need to hospitalize or refer him or her to a psychiatrist for medication. On occasion, if the words involve a threat I might even have to call the police. Another word and I am calling child protective services or aldermen that protect the elderly.

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However there other words, words that are much more subtle and much less obviously dangerous or destructive and yet they are, to the trained and seasoned professional words that tell us a whole lot about the present state of our patient’s psyche. If the aforementioned and yet unuttered words from the last paragraph are red flag words these would be—well, I would say pink but that makes them sound gender related…so, I will call the kind of words I am writing about in this piece as orange colored words.

 

Orange words don’t tell me that my patient is in life threatening danger. No one has ever had to be hospitalized for saying a orange word. However when said, these words make me sit up and pay attention—even though I never had a single professor in grad school or supervisor in my internships warn me about these words. It was sitting with patients for years that I began to learn exactly what these words meant for my patients. For example, “going to my parents for the weekend,” “friends with benefits” or “Facebooked my ex-boyfriend” might sound like benign terms to you but to a therapist these terms are loaded with subtext and therapeutic potential. “Dr. Phil is another one on the orange list. His name might not sound like a phrase that would make a therapist take note—but for this therapist it is a phrase loaded with meaning. It means “I want you to fix my problem fast. I want you to have all my major life issues resolved before it is time for a paid commercial break. I really don’t want to do long term work. What I would like is for you, in this 50-minute session, to tell me exactly how to fix my problem. I want you also to fix everyone in my life and I want you to fix them now. And it would be great if you could make it funny and not too deep or draining or taxing, and could you manage all that in a Texas twang loaded with amusing catch phrases—that would be great.”

 

 “Soul mate” This is one of the orange words that I hear a whole lot of and this is the one that really and truly scares me. It is a phrase that is more of a neon light, glow in the dark, flashing fluorescent orange alert of a word. When a patient comes in and tells me that she/he has just met his or her “soul mate”, my highly trained auditory units (aka ears) respond by going into extreme hyper alert. My cochlea, incus and malleus all stand up at the ready and I metaphorically strap on my seatbelt. For the most part what I hear my client saying is that my patient believes that he/she has just met the person who will complete them (à la Jerry McGuire). And while that might sound wonderful when you hear Tom Cruise saying it when he is playing Jerry, the reality of the soul mate idea is a little more Tom Cruise jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch.

 

The whole myth of soul mate is one that I find to be highly problematic and  one that is likely responsible for the ever-increasing rise in divorce and marital dissatisfaction. And, I am only half joking when I say that I wouldn’t be completely surprised to learn that divorce attorneys came up with the concept as a way of drumming up business. You see, I do not believe in soul mates nor do I believe in the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy or Santa Claus. There is no such thing as a soul mate, no matter what Plato said. Yes, besides the divorce attorneys, I blame Plato.

The grandpooba of Philosphy, Plato, in his Symposium (which if published today might be the HOT book on relationships) suggested that the orignal humans had one head (made of two faces), four arms, four legs. However, Zeus being the hot head that he was a bit intimidated by the power of this multi-limbed/two-faced human and so he, in an act of self-preservation cut these humans in half. According to Plato, because of this, humans are doomed to spend the rest of their lives searching for their other half who completes them and the new age/self-help industry expands this concept to give us hope of finding our missing limbs and faces so we can once again be whole—the myth suggests that if we are lucky and are good and eat our vegetables, floss our teeth and have low fat percentages and a good credit score that we will find our other half on eHarmony.com or across a crowded room at speed-dating event at El Paso Cantina Grill. (I do think that this Soul Mate is likely Plato’s best selling philosophical concept and likely nets Plato’s heirs enough to keep them fat and happy and out of caves.)

The bad news is that this was a myth and that there is no perfect other who will complete you. The truth is that relationships are incredibly hard work. And that living with another is an exercise in spiritual and emotional growth and requires enormous maturity and the capacity for compromise and negotiation. And truly, if there was such a thing as soul mates it is my sense that would mean that being in relationship would make you grow and expand your soul—a soul mate would not be a get-out-of-the-hard-work-that-is-relationships card. As a rule soul growth and or any kind of growth requires some pain, sweat and, at least, mild moments of misery. Rarely do I hear my clients bounding into their therapeutic hour filled with hope, enthusiasm, and cherubs circling their auric field and clutching a copy of Martha Stewart Bride in their hand when they come across other opportunities for psychological growth and that is because growth is hard. Relationships are hard. And a long-term relationship is ever harder.

 

Very soon, after meeting their soul mate, my patients learn that this perfect-person is not so perfect. They might even learn that this soul mate has annoying habits, leaves the toilet seat up, dresses in less than ideal ways and chews ice and doesn’t want to go shopping with them and that they really aren’t feeling so complete after all. This, to my way of seeing things, is a wonderful time when the client can withdraw their projections and learn what they had hoped they thought the soul mate could give them that they need to give themselves and they also learn that love is easy when someone seems perfect—but love is better when you are able to love someone in spite of their imperfections.  

Sometimes clients take advantage of this insight begin to do some real work into understanding their patterns in relationships and why exactly they felt so incomplete to begin with. Other clients decide to instead purchase an audio program of manifesting your soul mate. It is my professional opinion that the former have happier relationships than the later. The ones who don’t embrace the growth opportunities that meeting and marrying their soul mate offers often bring up words that are a dark shade of blue, words like “separation”, “attorneys”, “separation of assets”, and "divorce”.

 

Copyright 2011 Tracey Cleantis

Tracey Cleantis is a writer and a licensed marriage and family therapist.

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