Everyone wants a breathtaking love story. We want the “happily ever after” that ties all of the loose ends from our past into a definitive knot—the plot twist that makes all of the ups and downs that we’ve endured make perfect sense.
However, I’ve come to believe that our fascination with love stories and misconceptions about soulmates have twisted our perception of love in a dangerous way. Our belief that true love should be passionate and dramatic causes us to cling to unhealthy relationships that should have been left in the past. We believe that one person holds the key to our hearts—driving us to search for an idealized, once-in-a-lifetime love when what we really need might be right in front of us. We focus on limerence, the intoxicating but inevitably short-lived feeling of falling in love—not the challenge that it takes to maintain real love over the course of a lifetime.
Here are 4 dangerous misconceptions about soulmates—and how we might want to think about love instead.
We confuse passion and overwhelming emotion for love.
Author Robin Norwood explains the difference between passionate love (eros) and companionate love (agape) in a way that completely revolutionized my understanding of love. In a relationship characterized by eros, she writes that love is experienced as “an all-consuming, desperate yearning. In order for passion to exist, there needs to be a continuing struggle, obstacles to overcome, a yearning for more than is available. In a passionate relationship, something very important is missing: commitment; a means of stabilizing this chaotic emotional experience and providing a feeling of safety and security.”
In a relationship founded on agape, meanwhile, love is experienced as “a partnership to which two caring people are committed. The depth of love is measured by the mutual trust and respect they feel toward each other. Their relationship allows each to be more fully expressive, creative, and productive in the world. Each views the other as their dearest and most cherished friend. Another measure of the depth of love is the willingness to look honestly at oneself in order to promote the growth of the relationship and the deepening of intimacy.”
She continues: “The society in which we live and the ever-present media that saturates our consciousness confuse the two kinds of love constantly. We are promised that a passionate relationship (eros) will bring us contentment and fulfillment (agape). The implication is that with great enough passion, a lasting bond will be forged. All the failed relationships based initially on tremendous passion can testify that this premise is false. The trust and honesty of agape must combine with the courage and vulnerability of eros in order to create true intimacy.”
In my post, Do Soulmates Exist?, I describe a relationship from my past that I now realize was founded entirely on passion:
We were finishing each other’s sentences within hours of meeting, an uncanny connection unfolding between us from the very first moment—an inexplicable, instantaneous understanding of one other that was unlike anything that either of us had ever experienced. It was as though we had known each other from the time we were children, despite growing up with half a continent between us. [On the first night that we spent together,] the story of his life already felt familiar, as though it were my own.
We carried incredibly tenacious feelings for each other, no matter how much time passed or how much distance there was between us; and the chance to take another shot at a relationship that felt destined to persevere in the end provided reason enough to keep trying. Our feelings for each other were preserved, unchanged, no matter what had happened in our separate lives in the meantime, like flowers pressed between the pages of a book.
The depth of emotion that we experienced within this relationship is hard to put into words. Our feelings for each other were fueled, rather than thwarted, by our relationship’s continuous cycles: from indescribably perfect periods when it felt like we were destined to be together, our whole lives leading up to the moment that we met; to times when we would be separated by thousands of miles, or when we were in relationships with other people, or when I would pass him on the street with incommunicable hatred and hurt in my eyes, wishing desperately that we had never met.
After three exhausting years, I finally realized that this intensely passionate relationship would never become what I needed it to be or what I deserved. Ultimately, I could no longer deny the fact that he was unable to do two things that are required within any lasting relationship: to be vulnerable in the presence of a person who you trust to care about you in spite of your rough edges; and to turn your feelings for your partner into commitment toward the relationship. Because our relationship was founded on eros but lacked the vital lifeblood that agape provides, it was destined to fall apart—no matter how tenacious or profound our feelings might have been.
We expect a single person to meet all of our needs.
From a young age, we’re steeped in the narrative that each of us has a counterpart that we should spend our lives searching for; that we’re a single soul split into two bodies, never fully whole until we’ve found our perfect match.
Think about the pressure that this puts on us—both to find our soulmates, and to live happily ever after with them.
What if you find someone who loves you more than you could ever have imagined, but your differences sometimes cause friction in your relationship? Does occasional conflict mean that you chose the wrong person? Should you walk away from that once-in-a-lifetime love in the hope of finding a more ideal partner?
What if you happen to find someone with whom you feel divinely connected from the very first moment, but being with them puts you through hell? Are you supposed to stick by someone’s side as they mistreat you, simply because they make you feel more intense emotions than you ever thought possible? Do you have to set aside any notions of what you deserve in the name of true love?
We have to loosen our grip on these misconceptions about soulmates in order to find lasting happiness within our relationships. There is no person who can perfectly balance your strengths and weaknesses; and every relationship contains a certain amount of conflict, loneliness, and frustration. You can find real, lifelong love with someone with whom you have nothing in common other than a shared commitment to your relationship. By the same token, two people who seem perfectly suited for one another on paper can find themselves in a dysfunctional relationship that they’d both be better off without.
The second part of this important tenet is that we can’t rely on a single person to fulfill all of our emotional needs. We all need to feel understood in a deep, meaningful way in order to be happy. However, this doesn’t need to be provided solely by our partners; and in fact, it can’t be. Even the most fulfilling, well-balanced relationship needs to be supplemented by other sources of contentment—friendships, family relationships, careers, and creative pursuits—for a healthy dynamic to form.
One person can’t be everything for the person that they’re with; and we can’t place our emotional well-being solely in another person’s hands. We have to become whole as individuals before we can establish healthy relationships—and we can’t afford to wait to feel complete until we find our ‘better half.’ By handing the responsibility back to each of us to forge happiness on our own terms, it takes a tremendous deal of pressure off of our relationships.
We get swept away by dramatic love stories.
When you believe that something is fated to happen, you become a passenger in your life rather than the driver. In the relationship that I described in my post, Do Soulmates Exist?, I was willing to put up with emotional torture in the short-term because I believed that he was my destiny in the long-term. It took years for me to understand that fate didn’t require me to settle for less than what I deserved; that I could play an active role in constructing my own future. Ultimately, I realized: how could my destiny be tied to someone who couldn’t commit to a long-term relationship with me?
From the outside, it was impossible to understand why we kept coming back to one other, drawn together like magnets, when our union resulted in such intense agony. The reality is that we viewed each obstacle impeding our relationship as a temporary setback within a lifelong love story. Rather than seeing the inherent weaknesses in our relationship, we blamed our circumstances every time that things fell apart. Our indescribable, instantaneous connection led us both to believe that our relationship would inevitably succeed, one way or another. This provided reason enough to keep trying, year after year, no matter how spectacularly it had failed the last time.
After all, I always asked myself, what if I passed up the chance to give our relationship one last try, and our happy ending had been right around the corner? What if I said goodbye before I was truly ready, and I regretted it for the rest of my life? How could we feel such profound emotions and not be destined to be together? Most of all: how could I close the book on the greatest love story I’d ever heard after we’d sacrificed so much to make it work?
I could see this breathtaking narrative unfolding before my eyes when we were together. Sometimes, it felt so close that I could almost reach out and grab it; but it would dissipate as quickly as it had appeared, no matter how desperately I tried to hold on. What I wish I had known then was that a beautiful story is just that: a story that we tell ourselves to make sense of the complicated reality that we inhabit. Love stories have a way of emphasizing certain components—the instant connection, the dramatic arc, the gratifying ending—and letting unromantic, inconvenient details fade into the background. In reality, however, people don’t always play the roles that we want them to; and the circumstances that we’re dealt sometimes force us to abandon the narrative we’ve constructed for a real chance at a happy ending.
I wrote in my post, Do Soulmates Exist?:
It wasn’t easy to fabricate my own sense of closure when the most haunting, evocative relationship that I had ever experienced ended for reasons that I had no control over and will never truly understand. The most difficult thing to let go of was the poignant narrative that had been building for three years—the timeless story of an enigmatic, powerful love that persevered in the most difficult of circumstances, destined to bring us together in the end. It was the Northern Star that kept us coming back to one another again and again, in spite of everything; but in the end, it wasn’t enough.
He remains an undeniable element of my personal history; but ultimately, his significance didn’t arise from the fact that he was meant to be a part of my life until the end of time. His role was that of a catalyst, transforming me into the person that I needed to be in order to end up exactly as I am today: resilient and wise; unflinching in demanding what I deserve; and with no specters of regret haunting my dreams.
We think of love as a matter of chance, not of choice.
I met the man that I married at the Starbucks in downtown Boston where I briefly worked during college. I was a barista, and he was a customer who would come in for hot chocolate several times a day for the chance to chat with me over the counter. Our first date lasted over 24 hours; and as we traversed the city, getting to know each other on a deeper level, we saved a man’s life and I met half of his family. It was romantic, and it’s a story that we love telling, even seven years later. In fact, our love story formed the basis for our wedding ceremony. (Everyone cried.)
However, just as much a part of our story is that our relationship has never been easy. We’re polar opposites in every way; and while our differences have gradually transformed us into better, more well-rounded human beings, it’s also caused many arguments that tend to end in agreeing to disagree.
In fact, just a few months after we met, I broke things off, saying that we’d both have an easier time if we found partners more similar to ourselves. We would never have ended up together if it hadn’t been for his perseverance and enduring commitment. As I said a tearful goodbye to him back then, he told me that he would never walk away from our relationship—a promise that he kept by continuing to show up on my doorstep, month after month. He loved me more than anyone I would ever meet; but because of my misconceptions about soulmates, I was waiting for my perfect counterpart, with a relationship free of friction and dissension. I was unable to recognize what was right in front of me.
In the end, the most romantic part of our story isn’t how we met, or how we came back together—it’s how we’ve stayed together, putting the necessary maintenance into our relationship, day in and day out. It’s the way that we’ve both chosen each other every single day for the last seven years, supporting each other through all of life’s twists and turns. As I wrote in my post, Do Soulmates Exist?:
I have learned that love is not infatuation; it is not magnetic attraction; it is not the dramatic, heart-wrenching passion that results from being ripped apart and reunited. Lasting love is not contingent on these things. It is a daily choice to remain committed to someone whom you are willing to trust with everything that you have. It is vulnerability, and it is sacrifice. It is laughter, and it is reciprocity.
Love is not dichotomous, hot-and-cold passion; it is the feeling of a cup of tea warmed to the perfect temperature, savored early in the morning as the rest of the world sleeps, with a comforting warmth that persists even when you’re apart. It is based on the experiences that you build through mutual dependence upon one another, in good times as well as in bad. It is realizing that you can’t imagine life without one another, because you are the most you with this person as a part of your existence. It is wanting to depart this earth at the exact same time so that you never have to live a single moment in a reality where they no longer exist. I know this now.
We’ve all fallen head over heels for the concept of soulmates. But isn’t it more romantic to love someone because of who they are—not because a mysterious force thrusts you together? Isn’t it more romantic to voluntarily devote each day of the rest of your life to stoking the fire of your relationship—not relying on an inexplicable attraction that could disappear as quickly as it arrived? Isn’t it more romantic to know that either of you could have ended up with any number of people, but you chose each other unequivocally? Isn’t it more romantic to know that chance may have brought you together, but the choice to join two separate lives into one was entirely deliberate? I certainly think so.
We may meet our life partners by chance; but whether or not they stay in our lives is entirely within our control. We have to let go of the romanticized notion of “the one that got away”—the soulmate who we met, loved, and forever regretted losing—and other damaging misconceptions about soulmates. People come into our lives to teach us vital lessons about ourselves and the world around us. If we’re lucky, we meet kindred spirits along the way—people who we form rare, instantaneous connections with, who understand a part of us that others can’t. Some of these people are meant to stick around for the duration of our lives; but many seem to slip through our fingers once they’ve served their purpose. We have to stop swimming upstream, holding on to relationships that aren’t built to stand the test of time—whether it’s circumstances or personal differences that drive you apart.
When we meet the people who are meant to be a part of our lives for the long haul, there will still be arguments, compromises, and difficult decisions along the way. In order to forge a partnership that lasts a lifetime, therefore, we have to be willing to put in the continual hard work to evolve along with our circumstances—becoming better versions of ourselves year after year.
What are your thoughts on soulmates? I would love to hear your stories and opinions—leave me a comment below!
Originally published at www.featherflint.com