Reader Question: Would you please comment on this article - The First Lesson of Marriage 101: There Are No Soulmates.
This is an excellent article! Thank you so much for bringing it to our attention. Though the article is specifically about the Marriage 101 course offered at Northwestern University, it is also a thoughtful look at what really makes for happy healthy relationships, where and how we’ve been led astray, and what we can do to get ourselves on course to experience the satisfying love we crave. In other words, the basic and essential building blocks of real love.
Check out the article The First Lesson of Marriage101: There Are No Soulmates
Let’s start with the title, “There Are No Soulmates.” If you are regular listener to the show or reader of the blog, you already know I firmly believe we are all soulmates and that many opportunities come our way for romantic love. You’ve also heard me say that we don’t find a soulmate, we become one. That’s crucial. I love that the writer uses this semi-shocking eye-catching title to say the same thing.
The designers of the Marriage 101 course hold similar beliefs with my own. As Alexandra Solomon, the professor and family therapist who teaches the course, points out, pop culture has convinced us of two self-defeating myths:
- The first is that finding love is mainly a matter of luck, of meeting the right person, and that there is a right person for everyone if you can only find him or her.
- The second is that once we meet that right person, everything will fall into place magically, effortlessly, intuitively.
Most of us have a vague idea of how we want to be loved, but typically have no clue how others like to be loved or even that they may want to be shown love in ways that are entirely different from our own preferences. Again, pop culture has led us to believe that when we do finally meet the right person, we’ll be so in sync that learning how to love each other will come naturally with little or no thought or effort.
That rarely happens. Truth is, learning how to love is seldom purely instinctual.
Marriage 101 wisely begins with blasting these common cultural myths, then building back starting with a firm foundation of genuine understanding. Let’s take a look at a few of the core lessons:
Self-Understanding Is the First Step to Having a Good Relationship
Solomon states, “The foundation of our course is based on correcting a misconception: that to make a marriage work, you have to find the right person. The fact is, you have to be the right person.”
This idea of finding the right person is a gross oversimplification that has hoodwinked us into thinking we don’t have to deal with our own crap. Somehow, once we find this soulmate person, our weaknesses, triggers, fears, hot buttons, and issues will evaporate. Though that may sound appealing on the surface, it has two humongous flaws.
First, it places us in the role of helpless victim, completely dependent on finding and hanging on to this person. Instead of going within to understand and address our stuff becoming a strong-self-actualized person in the process, we experience situations or problems as something due to other people and external circumstances. That puts us always at the mercy of others, trapped on a merry-go-round of blame and victimization becoming a casualty of our own misguided belief.
The way out is by going within in order to understand our own issues and context. Gaining a solid objective sense of why you behave and believe as you do is the first step towards becoming equipped to deal with others. It opens you to the idea that everyone, including you, acts mindlessly in accordance with their context (upbringing, life experience) until they begin seeking self-awareness. This self-knowledge will help you avoid behaviors that bring on responses you don’t want from your partner and also avoid acting in ways that will cause him/her to feel and react defensively.
Blaming, oversimplifying, and seeing yourself as a victim of circumstances are all hallmarks of unhappy people, doomed couples, and failed marriages. You can change that by embarking on a course of self-understanding and awareness, but no one can change it for you. Two people can be happy together, but one person cannot make another person happy. Trying to skip over this self-discovery step only robs you of the experience and the enjoyment of consciously becoming you.
Second, by avoiding dealing with your own stuff you come into the relationship as a broken person, expecting the relationship and the other person to heal you. Consider this: If you come into the relationship broken and your partner comes in broken and you each expect the other to do the healing on your behalf where does that leave the relationship? More like a hospital than a haven! Which brings us to the next core lesson:
You Can’t Avoid Marital Conflict, but You Can Learn How to Handle It Better
Technically, we’re all broken. We’re all human and that makes us deliciously and maddeningly flawed. No one is suggesting that you have to heal all your stuff before you can enjoy a great relationship. Far from it! This is about taking responsibility for your own healing and bringing that mindset of seeking awareness into your relationships as an asset.
Conflict is a natural, inevitable, and healthy part of relationship. Conflict can help us expand our world view and our understanding of our own little microcosm IF we adopt the attitude that we are “two people standing shoulder to shoulder looking together at the problem.” In unhappy relationships, the perspective tends to be combative, one wins and one loses. Of course, that usually means both lose and the relationship dies.
Conflict brings opportunities for awareness and communication. Rather than resorting to blame and finger-pointing, the course teaches concrete skills like the XYZ method: When you did X, in situation Y, I felt Z. In the article, Solomon offers a classic example: Calmly telling her husband that when he left his clothes on the bathroom floor in the morning because he was late for a meeting, she felt resentful because she felt he didn’t notice that she was busy too. That approach is less likely to put her husband on the defensive and more likely to launch a dialog leading to a better outcome. Lashing out with “you” statements, especially “you” statements containing words like “always” or “never,” (You’re always such a thoughtless, messy slob. You never think about me or my needs.) though tempting are almost guaranteed to result in defensiveness, walls up, swords drawn, and battle engaged.
Conflict well-used is an opportunity to talk together, exposing, enlightening, and resolving feelings and beliefs. Used to its best advantage, conflict brings couples closer together.
A Good Marriage Takes Skills
If you think about it, we don’t really “fall” in love nor would we want to. We rise in it. Rise to our best selves, rise to our evolving selves, rise to co-create with another. It’s all about rising to the occasion rather than falling and stumbling blindly.
Fostering good relationships takes good skills and skills take learning. Even those born with a bit more talent or aptitude require practice and expanding on that native ability, whether we’re talking about relationships or long-distance running or cooking.
The article states, and I agree, that one of our more beloved cultural myths about marriage is that it should be easy. Hogwash! Neither is it true that marriage is always hard. It’s an experience shared by two people for the betterment or detriment of both.
For most couples, the number one skill that needs cultivating is communication. We learn our first patterns of communication as small children, and lots of us did not grow up in homes where good communication was practiced or modeled. Even if you know your dad was critical and your mom was belittling, you may be completely oblivious to the subtle ways that has shaped your own ways of communicating. But your partner is.
Even if you have superb communication skills in other areas of your life, you still have to create a common language with your Beloved.
All the skills required in business and leadership – negotiating, communicating, showing meaningful appreciation, taking turns – will need to be cultivated within the framework of your individual and couples love language.
You and Your Partner Need a Similar World View
The developers of the course wisely point out that even the best communicating skills can’t overcome a diametrically different world view.
“For people to be happy in their marriage they must be able to understand not just what their partner is saying, but the experience behind the words,” writes Sam R. Hamburg, author of Will Our Love Last? Without some level of understanding, partners will be unable to comprehend beliefs held and positions taken. Instead of empathy, they will feel resentment, even bitterness.
That said, it is possible to overcome significant differences by focusing on cherished commonalities. Several times recently, I’ve shared the story of the atheist man married to the devoutly religious woman. Rather than letting it break them up or trying to change each other, they built a joint worldview, a bridge across this seemingly uncrossable chasm of difference, by focusing on mutual respect and interests. Their shared language and view allowed for differences and even allowed for them to cherish differences while focusing on what nurtured their relationship.
While writing this today, a meme based on a quote from Monica Drake, appeared in my Facebook feed. “The Buddhists say if you meet someone and your heart pounds, your hands shake, and your knees go weak, that’s not the one. When you meet your “soulmate,” you’ll feel calm. No anxiety, no agitation.”
Chemistry is a wonderful, powerful, and sometimes terrifying thing. It’s tempting to base relationship decisions on that tingle, but a sustainable satisfying relationship needs a more solid foundation. Talking about skills and communication and doing the day-to-day work may seem unromantic, but the payoff is huge. And building that firm foundation opens up a wealth of ways to enjoy romance far beyond the superficiality of pop culture.
On the flip side, all the skills and communication expertise in the world won’t help if you haven’t learned the basics. Being the right partner instead of looking for the right partner. Attracting and recognizing a compatible partner. Agreeing together to grow into the right partnership while honoring your individuality.
Real love is a verb. It’s work. It’s in the trenches every day. Real love is a much deeper, richer, and more complex experience than pop culture allows. Something to be savored.
So is it true that there are no soulmates? We've been brainwashed to think there is one perfect mate out there for each of us and that finding that person, our soulmate, is the lucky magic carpet to happiness. But real love is a much more practical kind of magic based on a million little decisions made and actions taken every day.
It begins with learning how to choose a mate, mindfully and with true self-knowledge. It starts with you.
We all are human soulmates, full of infinite potential for love.