The tall man with silver hair sits next to me at the dinner party and smiles. We have yet to speak a word, but I feel like I know him already. At least, a few salient details.
“He’s a gem,” the hostess whispered conspiratorially in the kitchen just now, while I watched him greet friends near the front door with appealing bearhugs. “His divorce is finally done, his gallery is thriving, and he’s done really well in AA.”
And with those last words, my enthusiasm dims by about half. My soul mate—the perfectly designed man for me, whose image I’ve carried around for decades—would not have a drinking problem. Then I catch myself before my mind slams shut, as it has done far too often in the past. Take it easy, I lecture myself. You’re not a teenager anymore—you can’t afford to keep believing in soul mates or tooth fairies.
But it’s a difficult paradigm to reject. It’s everywhere: in every romantic comedy ever made, and in every romance novel. And it doesn’t help that I know some blissful couples who genuinely seem put on the planet just for each other: my brother and his wife, my parents, my daughter and her husband. With that kind of familial pressure, who can blame me for thinking my soul mate is going to step out of the clouds or off the silver screen?
Apparently I have a lot of company—at least among the young and idealistic. According to a study by the pro-matrimony National Marriage Project, more than 88 percent of young adults believe they have a soul mate somewhere waiting for them, and a majority think the best reason to marry is for love. This is the world that younger singles have inherited: free of the constraints binding previous generations, when marriages were formed by women seeking providers and men seeking mothers for their future children. With all those rules out the window, we are free to seek our soul mate. And seek . . . and seek . . .
One unmarried friend in her 40s ruefully confided, “I’ve spent so much time looking for Mr. Perfect that I may have overlooked a few Mr. Pretty Damn Greats. I think our frantic search for The One is just another way our culture does not live in the moment. We’re always thinking that one person is around the corner—the one that will complete us and make us happy.”
At least that’s the traditional view of a soul mate. It’s based on Plato’s theory that our ancestors originally had two heads and four arms, until they angered the gods and were split in two, condemning all humans to a lifelong search for their other half. When I break it down like that, it makes about as much sense as thinking that somewhere on the planet is one person—only one—who is right for me. If he’s in Timbuktu, or Oklahoma City, how am I ever supposed to meet him? The short answer: I’m not, and I should instead just look for someone who is kind, funny, and loves cats.
“People can get stuck on the idea of finding a soul mate—Mr. or Ms. Right—and that can be the cause of more isolation and suffering,” says Veronika Gold, a San Francisco licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in relationship issues and personal growth. “At the same time, I do believe that there are people with whom we have a deep, strong, immediate connection. You can call them ‘soul mates,’ but the purpose they serve is not to make life idealized or easy but to provide spiritual growth and healing.”
“People think a soul mate is your perfect fit,” writes Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love. “But a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that is holding you back, the person who brings you to your own attention so you can change your life.”
A living example of this is Ellen and Jim, who met in midlife when they were unhappily married to other people. They became best friends, hiking buddies—and then lovers, which ultimately ended both marriages. Racked with guilt, they broke it off. Then a year later, free and clear of each other’s orbits, they saw each other in line at the hardware store. They dissolved into tearful kisses and have been together since.
Says Ellen now: “My feeling from the first time we met was that there was a gold strand that ran between us.
I could almost see it. At the same time, our relationship has been fraught with emotion and upheavals. I had to let him see me in all my rawness, all my defenses gone. And that was the gift: I was real, the mask was off.”
Cyndi Dale, counselor, intuitive, and author of Beyond Soul Mates, suggests that instead of soul mates we seek out “true mates”—people who relate to our true essence.
“Relationships that come from our true self—our true mates—make us feel accepted,” she says. “I encourage all my clients to seek people who connect to our essence. Throw your lists away that have to do with looks, money, and such. This doesn’t help us tap into the deeper part of ourselves. In the end does it really matter if they have dark or blond hair? Are they compassionate? Do they want to relate to us on a soul-to-soul level? That’s what we should be looking for.”
Her words in mind, I turn to my new dinner partner. “Hi,” I say with a smile, extending a hand. “I’m Jane. Do you like cats?”