The Danger of the “Soul Mate” Narrative

lovers-271191_640Most of us are familiar with the “soul mate” concept in relationships: your life’s purpose should be to find the one person you’re made for so that you can experience your perfect ending.  It’s the essence of most fairy tales and chick flicks, and these stories form much of our childhood canon.  Ariel finds her Prince Eric,  Jasmine finds her Aladdin, Cinderella finds her Prince Charming.  The characters fall in love (usually at first sight), overcome external enemies that seek to tear them apart, and marry in a blissfully perfect wedding ceremony just before the credits roll.  Rarely are we given glimpses of the characters’ real lives and day-to-day struggles beyond the day they say “I do.”  As Anne Sexton sarcastically writes in her hilarious poetic parody of the classic story,

“Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle-aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.”

What’s often implied in these narratives is that having a long, content marriage isn’t really about effort, compromise, and sacrifice; it’s about going on a treasure hunt for perfect compatibility.  Even more damaging is the subtle idea that if your relationship isn’t going well, you must be with the wrong person, and you need to begin the search again.

Most people grow out of the soul mate narrative to some extent.  Through real-life heartbreak and disappointment, they discover that life isn’t a Disney movie and that even well-matched relationships take hard work to maintain.  They recognize the necessity of basic compatibility, while acknowledging the impossibility of perfect compatibility.

However, I would argue that most of us don’t grow out of that soul mate narrative completely, and that it doesn’t just affect our approach to romantic relationships.  It impacts our friendships, our careers, and our churches, and I believe that its impact is almost entirely negative.

When we remove the “romantic relationship” terminology from the soul mate narrative, we discover a set of assumptions about how to be successful in every area of life.  The soul mate narrative more broadly applied goes something like this: your life’s purpose is to find the friendship/job/church that was made for you so that you can live happily ever after.  If you find the job that is your soul mate, work will never feel like work.  You’ll jump out of bed every Monday morning with a huge smile on your face, the day will fly by, and you will be reluctant to leave when 5:00 rolls around.  You will never say “T.G.I.F.”  You will never face extreme boredom, frustration or exhaustion.  If you find the friend or friends who are your soul mates, they’ll always be available to hang out and eager to do the same stuff you want to do.  You won’t experience miscommunication or suffer from hurt feelings.  If you find the church that is your soul mate, you will always feel connected, fed, loved, and accepted.  You’ll never disagree with the sermon or dislike the music, let alone the carpet color.

While we might never state or even consciously think these assumptions, I believe that they drive us to frequently change jobs, dump friends, and switch churches (and I do mean “us”; I have personally been guilty of this mentality plenty of times).  It’s a weird offshoot of our consumer culture: advertising companies constantly seek to make us unhappy with the material goods we currently have, and we extend that discontentment to our work and relationships as well.  The syllogism goes something like this:

The perfect spouse/job/church/friend will make me perfectly happy.

I am not perfectly happy.

Therefore, I must not have the right spouse/job/church/friend.

Of course, I believe that basic compatibility is necessary.  I know I would be miserable as an engineer or a lawyer; those jobs don’t line up with my personality or skill set.  I could not be married to someone who does not share my core beliefs and values.  And sometimes we change quite significantly and we need to move to a place in life that does not constantly grate against who we are.

But it’s important to remember that we live in a fallen, broken world with people who are in need of loving, in need of saving.  Every relationship takes hard work and is much more full of ordinary moments than extraordinary experiences.  Every job is filled with long stretches of boredom, periods of deep exhaustion, and moments of extreme frustration.  Every church has serious problems because its people are deeply flawed.

And you know something?  I think it’s more beautiful to lean on God, trust in Him, and fight our way through those long, boring, disappointing, enraging times at work than it would be to get a “dream job” that makes us bounce out of bed in the morning.  I think a marriage made up of a lifetime of mostly ordinary moments–washing dishes together, praying together, fighting and reconciling together, taking turns spitting in the sink while you brush your teeth together–is more glorious than a ‘happily ever after’ in a dust-free castle.  I think when God’s people assemble for worship each week even though they offend and bore and irritate each other, He is truly glorified.

We look forward with eager expectation to the next world, one that will never disappoint or frustrate us.  There will be no false note in our happiness, no pretense in our joy.  In the meantime, let’s enjoy Disney movies and chick flicks as a parable of the world to come, not as a set of expectations for our present lives.  Let’s cleanse our thinking of the soul mate narrative so that we can be free to work with contentment at our exasperating jobs, flawed churches, and imperfect relationships.

P.S.  Hello, wonderful readers from Australia! I was thrilled and honored to learn that a post from my blog was featured on the EQUIP women’s Facebook page.  Thanks so much for visiting, and here are some other posts you might enjoy:

1. Three Gifts the Gospel Gives

https://emilymullaswilson.wordpress.com/2014/02/23/three-gifts-the-gospel-gives/

2. The Joy of the Half-Empty Glass

https://emilymullaswilson.wordpress.com/2012/10/18/the-joy-of-the-half-empty-glass/

3. Faith-Filled Gratitude: Anxiety’s Antidote

https://emilymullaswilson.wordpress.com/2012/07/23/faith-filled-gratitude-anxietys-antidote/

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8 thoughts on “The Danger of the “Soul Mate” Narrative

  1. Loved your Ann Voskamp review. I know you seemed pretty critical of her writing, so I think I know the answer to this, but…would you consider it as a non-fiction selection for 10th graders at a Christian school?
    This article was excellent too. You’re a gifted communicator. Keep up the good work with your keypad and your classroom instruction! God bless!

    • Hi Ryan! Thanks for taking the time to stop by my blog and read a couple of posts. Your guess is correct: I would not use it for 10th graders because I wouldn’t want them imitating her writing style. Can you imagine kids writing things like “The bird alighted on the tiny branch thin”? Heaven preserve us. Why not use Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God if you’re looking for well-written devotional literature or Unbroken if you’re looking for an exciting read that will ultimately point kids to Jesus? Also, one of my best friends in college attended RVA. Very cool to see that you work there!

  2. Hello Emily

    Firstly, thanks for the great post! I think it’s so true about applying the “romantic” narrative to other areas of life. I feel like I see so many people on the search for their work soul-mate these days. It’s as though as Christians, we have forgotten that work is part of the fall and that work is actually meant to be difficult! Thanks for raising this issue and helping us to think through it with you 🙂

    Hopefully I can help answer your question about Australian readers as well. A few days ago an Australian women’s conference called Equip shared your blog on their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/EQUIPwomen . It seems that you’ve struck a nerve with lots of Australian Christian women as well!

    Tara xx
    http://www.hereinthewaitingroom.wordpress.com

    • Tara, thank you so much for reading, commenting, and solving the mystery for me! I agree wholeheartedly that the ‘work’ soul mate seems to be one of the most common narrative threads today. People used to be pretty content in ordinary jobs, but lately it seems like if a job feels like work, it’s viewed as a wrong fit. And thanks so much for telling me about the women’s conference Facebook page! It’s nice to know where my new readers are coming from! I look forward to checking out your blog as well.

  3. Agreed. The generalization of the soul mate narrative is that if you find the right person / job / place to live, life is easy and everything falls into place. You never have to work hard, make tough choices and compromises and deal with problems.

    What a damaging narrative. I find that children’s literature is full of such damaging ideas. They set us up to fail. What’s more – they are totally lazy writing.

    • Well said. There are many recurring narrative threads in children’s literature that are misleading and destructive. I had never thought of many children’s books as “lazy writing,” but it’s so true. My ears bleed when I read to my nephew sometimes.

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