Are cultural expectations frustrating our best relationships?
"Nothing has produced more unhappiness than the concept of a soul mate."
That's the opinion of Atlanta psychiatrist Frank Pittman in an issue of Psychology Today. For the article "Great Expectations," Polly Shulman interviewed Pittman and several other marriage experts who are concerned that the growing expectation for a perfect match is frustrating singles needlessly and threatening their chances of a satisfying marriage.
If you're still single, do you think that when you marry, your spouse should be your soul mate first and foremost? And if so, do you believe there is a soul mate out there somewhere waiting for you? If you said yes to these questions, then you're among the majority of never married 20-somethings in America today. When the National Marriage Project asked those questions, 94 percent said yes to the first question and 88 percent said yes to the second.
David Popenoe is the co-director of the National Marriage Project. He worries that today's young adults may be "reaching even higher in their expectations for marriage." He points out that the idea of a soul mate isn't exactly new, but that "the centuries-old ideal of friendship in marriage, or what sociologists call companionate marriage, may be evolving into a more exalted and demanding standard of a spiritualized union of souls."
In her Psychology Today article, Shulman describes what singles are looking for in a soul mate as "the man or woman who will counter our weaknesses, amplify our strengths and provide the unflagging support and respect that is the essence of a contemporary relationship."
That's definitely what I was hoping for. I grew up convinced there was a soul mate out there for me. In fact, I filled journal after journal imagining such a person. Here's one short piece I wrote lamenting my endless search for my other half:
I hoped for years for perfection.
In silent thoughts I auditioned thousands.
Reading the part for "mate,"
They danced but stumbled,
They sang but mumbled.
They stole my heart, but broke it in the last act.
And I scored them; with my "perfect" pen I scored them.
But I left the auditions lonely,
Sadly aware perfection is only
Made of hope and dream stuff.
The problem was, I had an undefined longing. I wanted someone to complete me, but I didn't know how much I could ask for. I was like an 8 year old at a buffet dying to just pull up a chair, fork in hand and help myself — but suspecting that might not be quite right.
Every time a relationship didn't work out, I went back to my journal and asked the classic questions: Is there one person out there just for me? Can someone know and love the real me?
In graduate school, I met someone who seemed to answer those questions like never before. As I spent time with a girl named Candice, something clicked. The conversation poured out, flowing endlessly. I could feel my heart in my throat as we talked about things that really mattered to me, and I actually got the response I longed for.
Sitting across the table from each other at the First Colony coffee bar in Norfolk, Va., we dreamed about changing the world together. We talked about generational issues, postmodernism, writing, editing, music and everything we could think of. We saw our talents and interests fitting together in such a way that they seemed to make us more than the sum of our two puzzle pieces. I wanted to be with her all the time. She was attractive, fun and wonderful to do life with.
Despite the incredible connection that grew quickly between us, however, I wasn't sure about something. Is she really my soul mate? I wondered. If she was my soul mate, why did I still find myself looking out of the corner of my eye at other classmates?
In her article, Shulman warns that because few partnerships can live up to the soul mate ideal, "the result is a commitment limbo, in which we care deeply for our partner but keep one stealthy foot out the door of our hearts."
Reading Shulman, I was relieved to realize I wasn't the only guy who ever felt that way. It's embarrassing to admit it now, but at the point in which I finally connected with someone at a soul mate level, I still felt tempted to hold out just in case there was someone a little prettier, a little more exciting, a little more crazy about me.
Female readers may be thinking, Why are guys like that? Why do they have an appetite for someone better than they could ever deserve? I think it often comes down to this: Guys (and many girls for that matter) have a hard time sorting out an internal longing for someone with whom they can deeply connect from cultural expectations that often border on fantasy.
Fortunately, before my confusion steered me away from my best shot at a soul mate, a couple with some wisdom came along. The Morkens, one of my professors and his wife, took time to mentor Candice and me. Spending time with them, I began to recognize where my expectations had been distorted.
They assured me that it's natural to want a deep connection with someone of the opposite sex. That it's a longing that goes back to the garden. Ever since man had something taken out of him to form woman, it has been natural for him to seek out a woman with whom he can become one flesh. Despite decades of cultural messages downplaying differences between men and women, there are still God-designed distinctions that fit us together like puzzle pieces into one flesh. Furthermore, God gives us unique gifts and callings that make us more suited for some partners than others.
But the Morkens helped me to see how those natural desires for a meaningful connection were clouded by cultural expectations of beauty, excitement and self-actualization.
The Morkens talked about how magazines, TV, movies and music cause us to overvalue external beauty and to look beyond the real people in our lives. Because of careful editing, airbrushing and cosmetic efforts, we actually start to believe there are people out there with no faults or blemishes — that ultimate exterior beauty is not only possible, but the most important element in our desire for a soul mate.
The people we draw close to end up facing an impossible standard and are left hoping they can either make the cut or that some day someone will have grace for their imperfections. I needed to be reminded that my soul mate would, after all, be a real person — that she, just like me, would want to be loved despite imperfections.
The Morkens also reminded me that even a soul mate would not always be exciting. The reality of marriage, they explained, is emotional slow down, inevitable conflicts, painful sacrifice and lots of mundane activities like paying bills, cleaning up after kids and helping each other through sickness.
The other key reminder my mentors gave was that it wasn't all about me — that my hope for someone to help me self-actualize (achieve my full potential) was grossly one-sided. While I was looking for a soul mate that could identify and meet all my needs, I was ill prepared to love my wife "just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (Ephesians 5:25). Christ, after all, was the only one capable of meeting my deepest needs. Instead of looking for that fulfillment from a woman, Christ was calling me to accept His love and then pour it out on the person He had led me to.
The best thing the Morkens did was help me see what I had in Candice despite my warped vision of a soul mate. Without being distracted by cultural expectations of perfection, endless excitement and self-actualization, I learned to appreciate the real joy of the connection I had with Candice. I could enjoy her beauty inside and out and see all the things that made us practically and spiritually compatible — or as the Morkens put it, "one of the best matches there ever was."
Just before I proposed to Candice, I wrote her a poem called "Love Feast." In it I described how my appetite for a deep meaningful connection in marriage had been ruined by the "fast food" of cultural soul mate expectations. It's my hope that at least one guy out there reading this (even if it's at the request of his girlfriend) will take a closer look at his desires for a soul mate so that he can see more clearly what he already has. Like I found, he may see that the lure of fast food can keep us from enjoying the truly gourmet.
I used to feast on simple fare
Tame, light spice ... just heavy garnish.
Often I'd add a cup of sugar
But it seldom covered the bitter aftertaste.
It was hard to break old patterns,
Harder still to try new things.
But you were persistent and confident
Baby steps, baby bites and sips.
"Try this," you offered often —
A great chef with the patience of Job.
"Too hot," I'd say, "too spicy" I'd add
As I kept one eye open for a fast and easy meal.
But then the old became bland
While you served up freshness — alive with flavor.
Sweet but not sticky, bold but not bitter.
Fulfilling my appetite, you restored my strength.
Now the appetizers have led to the feast,
Where you've prepared an overflowing table before me
Flavors I never expected — aromas that overwhelm
And I long to sit at your table all the days of my life.
Copyright 2004 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.