Wednesday, October 19, 2011

This Relationship Corner: The Dangers of Soulmates

Relationships are hard work. They are irritating, aggravating, take a lot time time and emotional investment. There's a lot of pushing a rock uphill, only to have it roll right back down. You're going to have conflict, you'll need to apologize, and there will be times when you wonder whether you were better off alone. And that's a good relationship.

Do I sound cynical? You might be reading this and wondering why I'm so negative about relationships. I'm not. I've been happily married for nine years and I look forward to spending the rest of my life with my lovely wife. We have a very healthy relationship, and we are closer now than we've ever been. And of all the many factors that make our union strong, this is one of the most important:

We don't think we're "soulmates."

Time for some hard truth. There's no such thing as soulmates. Now, you might have two people who are right for each other, who belong together and will build a happy life, but that doesn't mean they are soulmates. Soulmates don't exist outside of vampire romance novels and Hollywood romantic comedies. And to keep chasing after one is an exercise in perpetual futility.

What is this mythical soulmate? Soulmates, as the lore explains, are two people so incredibly connected that they are as one. They never argue or disagree, they always know what their partner is thinking, they exist in a constant state of bliss, and the romance never stops. In short, like the unicorn or fast food that actually looks like the commercials, it doesn't exist.

I read an article recently about why the very idea of soulmates is harmful to relationships. The author, Andrew G. Marshall, a marital therapist, has witnessed the carnage firsthand. If someone believes that their "soulmate" is somewhere out there, they are more likely to abandon every relationship the first time it gets difficult. After all, because this relationship has hit a rough patch, it must mean that they haven't found the right person and should keep looking.

Either that, or rather than argue and be angry, two perfectly healthy activities, the couple will push down all those feelings to preserve the soulmate illusion. This, too, is a problem: "Although this works in the short term, eventually all feelings are switched off — not just the negative ones." In other words, the more you try to only have positive feelings, the more likely you are to not feel anything for this other person. Hardly something you want in a relationship.

Want the bare truth? People want to believe in soulmates because it sounds easy. The two of you will click and never have any kind of problem ever. You will always have that butterfly feeling whenever you're around each other, you'll never fight and live happily ever after. This relationship requires no work, no compromise, you'll never have to give up something you want, never have to do something unpleasant, and it's never inconvenient.

That's fiction. Human beings don't work like that. We're imperfect and messy, and we make things difficult for all sorts of reasons, sometimes just because. Plus, every one of us sees the world differently. And this means that even if you find someone who's right for you, someone great, it's going to be a tough journey.

When you don't accept this truth, you wind up being the bitter and cynical one as you watch every one of your relationships fail. Ultimately, it's the romantics who become the most hard-hearted as their idealism gets shattered over and over. Rather than accept that their perspective was unrealistic, they just write off relationships entirely.

Here's the thing, going through the tough times brings you closer together. When you don't bail at the first argument, when you stick it out and learn to deal with the messy realities of learning to live with someone else, you'll see whole new depths to your relationship. That's where you find the lasting satisfaction. Resolving conflict strengthens your relationship, and enduring ongoing conflict teaches you about your character and your partner's.  Nothing cements your bond like working on yourself and your relationship to become a better person for your partner's sake.

Having a good relationship is like anything else, it takes effort, painful, boring, exhausting effort. Show me the most gifted athletes in the world and I'll show you people who practice every day to be better. They might have a lot of natural talent, but they know that natural ability only goes so far. To truly succeed, they have to hone their abilities and slog through hours and hours of practice, training, scrimmages, watching the game tapes Monday morning, studying the playbook, and focusing on what matters.

Why wouldn't the same be true of relationships? Following your hearts may have brought you together, and I'm right there with you. But to stay together once the initial warm and fuzzy feelings fade, you need to have a realistic perspective. This can require you to do things like discuss finances, explore past relationship baggage, have hard discussions about how one or both of your lives is going to have to change for this relationship to keep going. It isn't sexy, but very needed.

And that's before you even think about getting married.

When it comes to something as important as marriage, you can't just count on finding a soulmate and having all the details fall into place. Internet writer John Cheese (that may not be his real name) wrote an article recently about 5 signs you are ready to get married. I agree with everything on this list, because what's on it are the factors that make a relationship endure: being friends, having trust, the ability to be yourself, and truly having a long-term perspective.

If having a healthy relationship is starting to seem more like two diplomats sitting down to figure out how two neighboring countries can avoid blowing each other to smithereens, you're right. Don't get me wrong, I believe in love and marriage, I'm living those beliefs right now, and the reason that I am not cynical about relationships is because I am realistic. I know that the reason I am still reaping the benefits is because I am willing to do the hard things: run errands when I'm tired, apologize, and have serious discussions about long-term issues.

Our marriage didn't happen because the stars aligned and the angels sang and we are the only two lucky ones who actually get true love while the rest of you are just settling. No, we found that we were quite compatible and built upon that compatibility to make a life for ourselves. We will always have our differences, our arguments and different perspectives. That doesn't make us a bad relationship, it makes us a real one that can survive whatever is down the road.

The good news is that this kind of relationship is available for you as well. But you have to be willing to work hard, invest in the relationship, and ditch the idea that there's a soulmate out there for you. Instead, there's a real, imperfect, flawed human being with bad habits out there waiting for you. And as far as I'm concerned, that's a much better fit.

What are relationships like in a fantasy universe? Find out in the book I wrote.

Previous Relationship Corners


  1. Great post, Burton.

    You hit the nail on the head. Relationship takes work on both sides.


  2. Just a thought -- I don't think believing in soul mates is the same thing as believing that your relationship will be without effort with the perfect person. I believe in soul mates and I define it more as the one person who is worth going through all the crap with. I also tend to believe that God has a person for you to marry and that seems to fit into a soul mate idea. Sadly I don't think we talk about how much work a relationship - marriage, dating or friendship takes. Even the best of friends who have that instant connection take work to maintain friendship... just a thought

  3. All of us have some sort of plans for a wedding and we always want our wedding to be a certain way. Oftentimes, expecting too much makes us overwhelmed and we feel pre-wedding depression.Thanks for sharing this post;

  4. Great post i must say and thanks for the information. Education is definitely a sticky subject. However, is still among the leading topics of our time. I appreciate your post and look forward to more.

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