For the final blog in a series of four posts about the fallacy of the soul mate, I’d like to utterly reverse my position and assert that soul mates do in fact exist. I’m not turning on my heel because of some reader’s sagacious and compelling response to an earlier post. Nor do I do so because I’m weary of writing posts that put me the role of a connubial killjoy, but rather because I do in fact believe that soul mates exist … just not at all in the way that we traditionally conceive of the concept.
While I do not believe there is such a thing as “finding your perfectly matched soul mate,” I’ve seen plenty of evidence that we can become each other’s soul mates as the result of a deep and lasting love relationship. If humans can develop finely honed skills in music, athletics, and language arts, wouldn’t it be equally possible for them to become perfectly suited and completely irreplaceable to their spouses? A musical genius develops perfect pitch and can create soul-stirring compositions of musical beauty. The best soccer players combine incredible footwork skills with a holistic awareness of the playing field; at the highest levels of play, soccer becomes a game of angles, similar to billiards. Someone who becomes fluent in a language “thinks” in that language—there is no effortful retrieval once the language becomes second nature.
Along these lines, for a couple in the later stages of a satisfying marriage, effective and respectful negotiation of challenges has become habitual. Love and respect for each other have been practiced so repeatedly that thoughts of separation or divorce are completely alien. The partnership has become so multifaceted and the compatibilities so intricately dovetailed that one's spouse could never be replaced by anyone else. Two individuals who have become perfect for and irreplaceable to each other have become soul mates. In this way, soul mates become each other’s “one in a billion perfect match.” This for me is the form that a soul mate takes in one’s life.
I suspect that happily married couples eventually pass a threshold into this last, most rewarding stage of marriage. The transition point into the stage of becoming each other’s soul mate would be different for each couple, and some couples would arrive earlier than others. (Sadly, many couples never even come close to achieving this). Perhaps this shift is the result of successful reconnection at a certain key transition point, such as the reconnection that follows the launching of adult children or the transition to retirement. However, this is not a passive process - marriages don’t get better as a function of time alone, but rather they get better as a function of two partners continuing to treat each other with love and respect despite the challenges life brings.
Whenever two individuals do become each other’s soul mate, the remaining years of marriage are grounded in security and a rare and special form of earned intimacy. As I see it, during the soul mate phase of a well-nurtured marriage, the developmental tasks would be to celebrate and make meaning of the life you have lived together, operating as sacred keepers of each other’s history, and to become generative together towards others. One hallmark of couples who have passed into the “soul mate” phase of their marriage is that they continually bless and inspire others through the way they treat each other and those around them. Another hallmark is the “widower” effect – when two people become one, it is often the case that the death of one is closely followed by the death of the other. This isn’t merely romantic nonsense propagated by Hollywood movie-makers – this actually happens with notable frequency for closely-bonded pairs.*
In the final stages of marriage, the love that can be created is a deeper, more satisfying level of love than anything that anyone encounters in the initial cocaine-rush phase of a relationship. In one sense, to make a comparison between the experiences of love at these two relationship stages is like comparing apples and oranges. I would argue that love of a deep and meaningful kind is only possible when based on real knowledge. If being loved is based on being known for who you are and cherished despite your flaws, then the feelings one has during the initial cocaine-rush phase of a relationship can’t be love. These feelings would be some combination of other pleasurable things like hope and attraction, and illusions of the soul-mate variety.
What feels a lot like love in the cocaine-rush phase does not compare to the love that couples may enjoy in the final phase of an exceptional marriage. If you doubt that this is true, consider the difference between the giddy feelings of being in love with someone you've known for a short time and the feelings of love you would have for someone who has been your journeying partner for the past 60 years of your life—the person who has been by your side through thick and thin, who has believed in you and invested in you.
If this is difficult to picture, then, as an analogy, imagine the way it would feel to move into your dream home, full of excitement and thrilling plans for the future (in parallel to the cocaine-rush phase of a relationship). Now, imagine the feelings of love and attachment you would have about the same home after making every square inch of the home suited to your personal tastes and filling it with layer upon layer of joyful memories over the course of a full and rich life (in parallel to the tested romanticism phase). The feelings you would have in either case cannot be compared as equals, but I would guess that most of us would cry harder if the home full of memories caught fire.
In some ways, despite my strong criticism of the concept of soul mates, I’m a (grounded) romantic at heart. My book (Marriage, for Equals: The Successful Joint (Ad)Ventures of Well-Educated Couples) and most of my blog posts are essentially about how to find someone with the raw potential to become your soul mate and to create the kind of bond with them that will allow you to become each other’s true soul mate. Thanks for joining me in this series!
* Abel, E.L. and Kruger, M.L. (2009). “The Widowhood Effect: A Comparison of Jews and Catholics.” Omega, 59, 325-337.
Elwert, F., and Christakis, N.A. (2008). “The Effect of Widowhood on Mortality by the Causes of Death of Both Spouses.” American Journal of Public Health, 98, 2092-2098.
Hart, C.L., Hole, D.J., Lawlor, D.A., Smith, G.D., and Lever, T.F. (2007). “Effect of Conjugal Bereavement on Mortality of the Bereaved Spouse in Participants of the Renfrew/Paisley Study.” Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 61, 455-460.
Helsing, K.J., Comstock, G. W., and Szklo, M. (1982). “Causes of Death in a Widowed Population.” American Journal of Epidemiology, 116, 524-532.
Parkes, C.M., Benjamin, B., and Fitzgerald, R.G. (1969). “Broken Heart: A Statistical Study of Increased Mortality Among Widowers.” British Journal of Medicine, 1, 740-743.
Schaefer, C., Quesenberry, C.P, and Wi, S. (1995). “Mortality Following Conjugal Bereavement and the Effects of a Shared Environment.” American Journal of Epidemiology, 141, 1142-1152.