A great marriage is not when the “perfect couple” come together. It is when an imperfect couple learns to enjoy their differences. ~ Dave Meurer
Unfortunately, some people use very strange criteria in making their decision about who to marry. They have some limited set of characteristics in their heads that tell them when they’ve found Mr. or Ms. Right. How often have you heard someone say, “I’m getting married because I found my soul mate”?
He Knows My Inner Being
Never fully defined in any literature, the term “soul mate” is used by people as if we all clearly understood what is meant. We have asked a number of people to explain what a soul mate is. We never get the same answer. Nevertheless, it’s a popular buzzword. Some definitions of a soul mate is a person who…
- has the same background as you.
- thinks like you.
- understands you.
- knows you before even really knowing you.
- knows you better than you know yourself.
- you can talk with for hours even when you first meet.
- has the same interests and hobbies as you.
- has your best interests at heart.
Others say a soul mate…
- sees into your inner being.
- is like the missing half of you.
- is a perfect match for you.
- is your twin or counterpart.
- is the one, true person for you.
- immediately connects with you.
If you think there is only one person out there who is the right one for you, you are vulnerable to marry when you think you have found that person. There is much evidence that there are likely many people in the world who would make an acceptable mate for you. The risk of thinking otherwise is that when you believe you have found “the one,” you abandon all sensibility and are driven to marry that person. Some people believe in soul mates because of their divorce experience. It didn’t work with my ex because he was the “wrong one.” Now I will go and find the right one, who will be the opposite of my ex.
Since you believe there is such a thing as the one soul mate in the world for you, you have some preconceived notions in mind. Some people are searching for someone “just like me.” Others believe that someone is their soul mate if they have similar backgrounds, thoughts, or views. Still others believe they will intuitively know a soul mate by their connectedness to them. We’re not saying that having things in common isn’t important. Quite the contrary, it is very relevant in a successful marriage. The problem comes when you are on a mission to find an individual who has one or a few narrow set of similarities or characteristics, and you take it as a sign to marry.
Finding a soul mate is a great start, but people are multidimensional. You cannot judge a person as right for you because he or she has certain similarities or just seems tuned in to you. Now you need to spend considerable time learning all about other aspects, such as the differences between you, the habits and quirks he has, any shared values, dreams, goals, opinions, and so forth. Don’t fall into the trap of the “soul mate mentality” and think someone is right just based on initial impressions.
When He Said Soul Mate, I Knew…
Sheila was married for 17 years to an advertising executive who was never at home. Their marriage happened because she got pregnant during their dating phase, and they got married to legitimize their offspring. Sheila had three children by the age of 36. The lack of availability of her husband drove Sheila to have an affair with the husband of a friend. This relationship went on undetected for four years before Sheila finally decided she could not handle the strain any longer. At that point she asked for a divorce. Once divorced, the friend’s husband quickly backed out of their tryst. She was suddenly available and a threat to his current marriage.
Sheila did not date for more than a year. Then she began to go out with some men from the office. She expanded this to men friends recommended. This intensive dating went on for more than three years. At first, Sheila didn’t want to remarry, and she gave off that vibe. However, as time passed, she became more and more frustrated. She decided she needed to find her soul mate. When asked what such a man would be like, she answered by saying, “He will know me better than I know myself.” We heard nothing more from her until a friend said she met a man and got engaged.
Later, Sheila said Phil was the man she had been searching for. She knew he was “the one” when he opened the car door for her. He wasn’t like the others she had dated. She and Phil immediately hit it off when he told her he was looking for his soul mate. That triggered a discussion for hours. They were of one accord. Sheila did marry Phil, almost immediately. Problems began early because Phil was about to be laid off at work, something he failed to mention during courtship. This put an immediate strain on the marriage. Phil had to sell his home, and they had to move into a small apartment. The pressures eventually forced Sheila to realize that Phil was not her “soul mate,” and she filed for divorce.
Sheila let herself become a victim of the “soul mate mentality.” After intensively dating men with her attitude of “I’m not interested,” she suddenly got desperate and devised a simple formula for deciding when to get married. They would both be of one accord—meaning he would be looking for a soul mate, too. Phil fit the bill, and his gentlemanly courtship behavior was icing on the cake. No need to dig any further in learning more about him or determining if they were compatible in various areas. Being in tune with each other was enough.
We’re Just Alike
Andy and Joyce had led a hard life until they met. Andy married a girl in high school, divorced before 19, and dropped out of college at 20. He had one job after another. He never could earn enough money to even afford to take someone out on a date. He moved back home to live with his mother. This made things worse because his self-esteem dropped even further. His older sister and brother were both successful professionals, which was salt in his wound. From early childhood, Andy’s mother acted as if she thought Andy was a loser. He’d had poor grades in high school, a failed marriage, a failed college career, and a failing business career all before the age of 25. The more he failed at something, the more his mother reinforced that he was a loser. He acted out her script of a person who could do nothing right. It was a vicious cycle of negative feedback and failure.
Andy met Joyce when a mutual friend suggested they would have a lot in common. Sure enough, the friend was correct. Joyce had grown up in the same town, yet she and Andy had never met. When they began comparing notes, they found tremendous similarities. Joyce’s mother was a very controlling woman who judged Joyce and always found her lacking. No matter what Joyce did or accomplished, it was never good enough for her mother. As a result, Joyce had developed an overeating problem in her teen years. Whenever she tried to lose weight, some conflict would develop with her mother and cause a setback. Even when Joyce went away to college, her “failure in her head” mentality kept her from achieving what she knew she was capable of. Joyce had even tried marriage. In her sophomore year, she married a graduate student who left her after seven months. She attributed the marriage debacle to her eating disorder. She always blamed herself for whatever went wrong.
Andy and Joyce saw in each other some amazing similarities that they interpreted as signs that they were meant for each other. Their relationship seemed to help them, too, because instead of dragging each other down, they were mutually supportive. For the first time, they began to feel good about themselves. There were some red flags, however. Occasionally, if Joyce became depressed, Andy couldn’t handle it. They even separated one time because of this. Another problem was that Joyce was Catholic and Andy was Jewish. Joyce’s mother was totally opposed to the couple marrying. Also, Joyce wanted children, and Andy wasn’t sure. He’d had so much trouble as a child, he didn’t know if he could be a good father.
In spite of these issues, the couple believed that their similarities were the signal that they were right for each other. Joyce was happy to act in opposition to the wishes of her domineering mother. Andy and Joyce’s marriage lasted 11 years, but most of the final 6 were stress-filled. Joyce had again retreated to her illness of overeating, which caused tension in the marriage. Andy continued his struggle to hold a job for more than a year at a time. His out-of-work periods created great financial strain on the marriage. They were not the only ones to suffer from the marriage failure. They had a child who was constantly caught in the middle of the downward spiral of his parents. Some years after the divorce, Joyce committed suicide.
Andy and Joyce were a sad couple who identified with each other’s circumstances and mindsets. Two halves don’t make a whole, but they thought so. Andy was not ready to care for and support another wife. Joyce was still struggling with her overeating disease and was far from mentally healthy. They ignored all the red flags that were obvious to both of them. No doubt, they each believed no one else would have them, and so this was their one opportunity to remarry. When you find someone who has some similarities to you, it is not enough of a basis for a healthy marriage. Andy and Joyce confused similar backgrounds, conditions, and problems with shared interests, dreams, and goals. They had none of those.
His Children Caused Our Divorce
Belinda married a man when she was in her twenties, and it didn’t work out. He told her she was smarter than he was; she made him feel inferior. Belinda was smart, talented, and beautiful. For some men, that’s a threat.
By her mid-thirties, Belinda married again. This time she picked an older man, Frank, who was a senior executive at the company where she worked. He had also been married before and had three sons—two who were teenagers and the third of college age. Belinda had no children, and she had originally worried how well she might be accepted by Frank’s children. As it turned out, they seemed to love her and she blended in well with his family. All went fine until the couple began to squabble. In these instances, Frank would drag his sons into the fight, and they took sides with him. It got so bad that Belinda demanded that the three boys not be allowed in their home. The friction was aggravating an already deteriorating situation. This angered Frank and brought everything to a head. Eventually Frank and Belinda divorced. She told all her friends that she would never again marry a man with children. In fact, she felt so strongly about this that she would not even consider dating someone who was divorced with kids.
Mark had recently moved to town and joined the church where Belinda attended. Mark had never been married and was a little younger than Belinda. When she met him, she set her sights on him as the next “Mr. Belinda.” Nothing would get in her way. He was the perfect candidate. Never married, no children, and no baggage—she thought. They were married, and Belinda found out differently after the wedding. She had never asked if he had children and only found out when she accidentally opened an envelope from one of his past live-ins asking for child support money. Mark had (intentionally) failed to mention that he had lived with two women and had fathered a child with one. He had been too ashamed to tell her this during their short courtship.
Belinda “learned” from her first marriage that a man who has children is not a good husband. She, therefore, concluded that if she could find a man who has no children, she should seriously consider marrying him. This so-called “learning” came about from not allowing enough time to understand what really went wrong in her first marriage and, instead, blaming the presence of her husband’s children for the breakup.
The One-Dimensional Match
What do these stories have in common? They may seem very different, but they are all examples of having one dimension in mind as a trigger for concluding, “I have found the right one. I am ready to remarry.” Sheila was searching for the illusive soul mate. This thinking focused her on a limited dimension of a prospective spouse—someone whom she would immediately “recognize” as her soul mate. This kept her from examining all aspects of her relationship with Phil. How could she be aware of any negative factors with him after concluding from the start “he’s the one”? When you jump to a conclusion that fast, you are assuming all other aspects are irrelevant or will magically work out.
Andy and Joyce identified one important aspect in their lives that they had in common—others thought they were losers. They had become convinced themselves, and so immediately decided to huddle together against the world. Anyone who is feeling so incomplete and inadequate should not consider marriage in that condition. If you already feel like a failure, there is nothing worse than to jump into another marriage, get another divorce, and “prove” it to yourself all over again. You don’t have to have the intense mental problems Joyce had. The normal emotional stress of a divorce can place you in the same condition. This story is not a case of rescue. It’s a case of believing you should marry someone because he or she is in the same predicament you are. Misery loves company.
When you divorce, you immediately look for the culprit. With a lot of time passed, you will see things differently. You will learn what you contributed to your marriage failing. Time helps us see more clearly when the anger and grieving are past. If you don’t wait for that time to elapse before doing a post-mortem on the marriage, you are likely to conclude something very narrow like Belinda did: The divorce occurred because her husband had children. Armed with this “fact,” she set out to find a childless husband replacement.
The Perfect Person
We have heard many other versions of this story—where a divorced individual has a “perfect” person in mind. The ideal usually relates to one attribute—often the reverse of what the ex-spouse had. He doesn’t drink. She won’t be such a religious fanatic. He won’t travel in his job. She won’t have an ex-husband who lives in town. From these examples, you can write the story about what happened in the previous marriage. Is it wrong to be concerned about issues such as these, especially if they were a problem in your past marriage? No, of course not. The problem is one-dimensional searching: When you are so focused on one issue you tend to ignore other things. Because someone you date has or doesn’t have the characteristic you are looking for is no guarantee of success in marriage. You still have to do the hard work and allow the time to make sure he or she has other good qualities and not any horrible ones. You also have to be observant of the dynamics between you. How do you two interact in various circumstances? What does he do that causes conflict? How does she behave when under pressure? To gauge all of this takes time, an open mind, and an objective attitude. It sounds cold and calculating, but remember, divorce is painful and affects your entire family.
Sign of an Unhealed Divorce
Another reason that single-dimension searching is a problem is that it is a sign of an unhealed divorce. Think about it. Sheila sought a soul mate believing that was what was missing in her prior marriage. She was frantically dating. She was frustrated and desperate. Does this sound like a woman who has allowed time to pass and worked through her problems to become healthy and independent?
Then we have Andy and Joyce, two people who needed to get their own acts together before putting their problems on each other. They were each still struggling with low self-esteem from childhood, which was reinforced in their previous divorces. Andy was still living at home with mom. Joyce was unable to control overeating, a clue that she was not well.
Finally, Belinda had gone through two marriages and was still confused about what had happened. When you are still blaming someone else for the failure of your marriage, you need to remain in recovery and accept what you did and learn forgiveness. Belinda wasn’t close to accomplishing that. She was still playing the blame game.
If you are on a one-track search for Mr. or Ms. Right, you are not ready to remarry. Don’t get confused when you date that because someone has what you deem desirable similarities to you, this is enough of a basis for marrying.
Are You at Risk?
Searching for a soul mate can be dangerous. Are you at risk for this behavior? Do you…
- have a “soul mate mentality”?
- believe you will know the “right one” the minute you meet him or her?
- search for your next spouse looking for one important trait—maybe the opposite of what your ex had?
- think there is only one person in the world who is right for you, and you are on a mission to find him or her?
- have a set of criteria for the ideal spouse or a simple formula for knowing who would be your soul mate?
Here are some tips to help you avoid trapping yourself in the soul mate myth.
Retrain your thinking. If you have a “soul mate mentality,” educate yourself about the risks. One way to do this is to read and reread the stories in this book of redivorced people who naively searched for their soul mates only to get burned because they refused to see or acknowledge any problems once they made up their minds.
Don’t shop for duplicates or opposites. Finding your mirror-image mate in background or experience is no assurance of a good match. Likewise, just because someone doesn’t have the ugly habits or traits of your ex (drinking, yelling, spending, controlling) doesn’t mean he will be right for you, either. List the problems of your past marriage(s) and make certain that these are not the only criteria you use to select a future spouse.
Don’t be unequally yoked. If you choose someone who has a major difference in belief systems from you, it is likely to become a problem after the “honeymoon phase” is over. When your most fundamental beliefs are at odds, you will eventually see divisions creep into the marriage that could lead to its downfall. Any disagreements or major differences in belief systems will certainly become more pronounced if and when children are part of your family.
Allow enough time dating. Quick decisions about a soul mate can be overcome if you date someone at least a few years before marrying. Be alert to problems and red flags.
Edward M Tauber, a corporate researcher, industry consultant, and divorce counselor, received his Ph.D. from Cornell University. A former professor and department chairman at the University of Southern California, he's also been a senior executive and consultant with Fortune 500 companies.
Jim Smoke is an internationally known author, speaker, and life coach. A pioneer in the divorce recovery field, he has worked with singles and singles-again for more than 30 years. Jim has written 17 books, including his bestselling Growing Through Divorce (nearly 600,000 copies sold).