A truly lasting love is not easy to find. As adolescents, most of us entertained fantasies of discovering our soul mate—a bond so perfect nothing could disturb its devotion. Sadly, reality is not so simple: real relationships are complicated and messy. If we are unlikely to discover our one true mate, how should we go about choosing a prospective partner? How do we recognize a good enough match for our souls?
We know that without a good relationship, our life will be smaller and less fulfilling. So we look for someone who might fit the bill. We fall in and out of love. We make our share of relationship mistakes. Some of these are minor letdowns that pass relatively painlessly. Others become horrible disasters that take years to untangle and heal.
Then there are the in-between times. We are alone, possibly having finished one relationship and looking for the next. Or we have started and are involved in a relationship that we are not quite sure of yet. That is when we need help making a good choice, one that does not lead into a blind alley.
More and more people turn to dating sites to try to find a mate. Nearly 25% of adults 24-25 years old use online dating and 20% of committed relationships connect online. Internet dating makes meeting people more convenient. It provides a wider selection of prospective partners but it does not help with making the final choice. Well-matched profiles do not mean good chemistry or compatibility. We still have to make the right relationship decision.
It is easy to get cynical when we look at all the failed marriages and painful divorces. On the brighter side are the many relationships that succeed: over 40% of married couples say they are “very happy.” Of those, a sizable proportion has extraordinary relationships that last 30 years and more. We need to look and learn from these good relationships to discover how they made a positive choice of partners.
Karl Pillemer’s wonderful book, 30 Lessons for Loving, provides excellent advice on marriage gleaned from interviews with 700 elderly ‘experts’. In a similar vein, I interviewed a number of extraordinary couples for the chapter, “Spirituality and Relationships in Later Life,’’ in the book, Jung and Aging. It seems that there are many couples out there experiencing wonderful long-term relationships filled with love and personal fulfillment.
If we distill the information on good relationships, what do we find? These couples enjoy a depth of love that flourishes and expands over the years. They spend time together, appreciate and accept each other and share their inner worlds. Their marriages have two fundamental characteristics: sharing and growing.
What do these couples share? Actually, they share their whole lives and their whole selves. These relationships are expansive: they do not exclude anything. To quote from Pillemer’s elderly experts:
For me it has been an absolutely exhilarating trip through life, sharing it with someone else. And that sharing has been the essence of who we are and what we do.
Sharing yourself and your life with an open heart and true generosity creates a loving union that helps both members thrive and blossom. We learn to love by giving and receiving love. Through loving more fully, we grow into more complete human beings.
Again quoting the experts:
My wife and I have found that the marriage has allowed each of us to develop more into the unique people we are.
Realize the marriage can grow and become more beautiful, really. And you can be happier than you ever dreamed of.
So how did these couples choose each other? What should we look for in a partner to create a a satisfying relationship? Did these lucky people discovered their soul mates? Actually, what they found in each other was a person whose soul resonated with theirs—what you might call a soul match.
An irreverent Indonesian spiritual guide once told me: It is very difficult to find your one true soul mate—hardly worth searching for. However, there are many people whose souls are a good match for yours. Look for one of those and you will be happy.
So what signs and portends tell us we have found a good match for our soul? First, we have to put aside our preconceptions and the fog of our media-saturated culture. A beautiful attractive body does not make a soul match—nor does material success or intellectual brilliance. We are seeking a heart and soul that resonates—not simply a sexy body, seductive words or a fascinating mind. These might be an added bonus but they are not the essence.
To recognize our soul match, we listen carefully to our most subtle experience: quieten the mind, open the heart and discern the still small voice of intuition or inner guidance. We have to heed something deep inside that tells us: Yes, this is right. To clarify that knowing, we take notice of four interrelated essentials of a soul match: Attraction, Rightness, Compatibility and Generosity.
Mutual attraction is the captivating force that draws two people together. It has many dimensions from the physical and sexual to the profoundly spiritual. Initially, attraction is experienced as an erotic charge that stimulates sexual desire—popularly called chemistry.
Chemistry is a spark that ignites the fires of erotic love, an experience that is wonderful and enlivening—at least for a time. However, for a long lasting connection, we need an attraction that is more than physical, more than skin deep. If the magnetism is centered on only particular features—beauty, intelligence, emotional availability, material success—then it is will fade and dissipate with time. Our bodies, minds and situations change, so our bond has to be to something more permanent.
To last a lifetime, love must focus on the being of the other person, not just some particularity. True attraction includes the whole person, recognizes surface imperfections but sees beyond those to something more fundamental. At our best, we are attracted to a soul and not a personality.
When we find ourselves magnetized by some quality—charm, wit, vulnerability, authority—that is the time to step back and get a wider perspective. We have to learn who the real person is behind the façade. We have to see with eyes unclouded by passion and our need to be loved.
Erotic attention captivates us. Seeing devotion in our partner’s eyes compels us to reciprocate: we fall in love with being loved. We crave attention because it fills an empty place inside us; we are seduced by idolization. True attraction is not fantasy or worship—it is two real people realizing they are meant to be together.
Can we recognize the difference between attraction to a whole person and attraction to some feature of that person? Can we resist being captivated and seduced by attraction itself?
Do I get drawn to a partner who has particular characteristics? What are they?
Do I ignore troubling attitudes and behaviors of a partner in pursuit of love?
Do I really know and understand my partner before I get involved?
Do I crave attention and adoration? Do I fall in love with love?
Is the attraction I feel to my partner deeper than I can fully explain?
When I was about 20 years old, I had a dream in which my future wife appeared by my side. I knew she was my wife because she felt right. Later, that feeling of rightness was like a compass guiding me to choose someone I could be with for my whole life.
This feeling is far from unusual. Karl Pillemer tells us: “In the search for a partner, nearly all of the experts describe a powerful “sense of rightness,” an intuitive and almost indescribable conviction that you have made the right choice.”
The advice his interviewees give is remarkably similar: …trusting your instinct has a lot to do with it;…rely on your intuition about your relationship;…no sense of an endpoint somewhere in the future.
While hard to explain or articulate, this feeling is described as absolutely essential for a fulfilling relationship. The experts all agree: “Never get married without it.”
One indicator of the sense of rightness is what Arnaud Desjardins calls at-ease-ness. This is the recognition that you feel profoundly comfortable in the relationship. You can be yourself and you can allow the other person to be who they are. At its best, at-ease-ness means you are able to trust the other person with your most vulnerable and intimates secrets. There is no need to pretend or try to be someone you are not.
So why do we not listen to this intuition of rightness and ease? All too often, I am told by clients after a breakup, “I kind of knew all along it was wrong—I just did not want to listen.” The opposite of the sense of rightness is a subtle nagging doubt: … a sinking feeling in my stomach, …a sick feeling somewhere down there. These signs of wrongness are all too easy to ignore in the passion and romance of an early relationship.
Couples get trapped by their own need for love. They tell themselves that the relationship has to be the right one. The fear of being left on the shelf, the pressure from friends and family and the inability to say ‘no’ gathers momentum until it feels too late to back out.
Both rightness and at-ease-ness arise from a deep sense of resonance and acceptance in the relationship. Something inside relaxes because we know that we are in the right place with the right person and the search is over. There is a magical quality to the relationship when our souls have found a match: An underlying recognition that we belong to each other.
Do I listen to the sense of rightness or wrongness about my partner?
Do I try to convince myself that my partner is the right one because I need to be in the relationship?
Can I imagine being comfortable with my partner for the rest of my life?
Am I truly relaxed and totally at ease when I am with my partner?
Do I have nagging doubts, bad feelings in my stomach, or a subtle sense of wrongness about the relationship?
Compatibility is the essence of comfortable companionship that bonds two people together, even as the fires of passion subside. It arises out of two essential aspects of a relationship: similar values and similar natures.
When partners share related values, they agree on what is important in life. We hold our values close to our hearts and do not give them up easily. Conflicts between values, opinions and attitudes, easily become a major sticking point in a relationship. They lead to endless arguments and estrangement. Incompatible values are the cause of many breakups.
What are our values? They include our core beliefs about sex, religion, politics and how human beings should treat each other. In a relationship, they center around our attitudes about caring for each other, managing money, having children and how to rear our children. Values are those things we feel are most essential to being a good person.
The second aspect of compatibility is what Arnaud Desjardins terms, “two natures which are not too different.” He is not talking about personalities or interests, preferences or communication styles. These surface attributes often converge over time. It is our essential natures, our inner selves that need to be compatible and in resonance.
Our natures provide a template for how we relate to the world and to ourselves. We are born a certain way and even if we wish it, certain aspects of our being do not change fundamentally.
If I need peace and quiet while my partner yearns for the loudest party, this is going to be a problem. If she is tough and I am sensitive, if I want to talk about feelings and she prefer things to be practical, we cannot help but irritate each other. Sharing space, time and activities with someone whose nature is compatible makes life easy and comfortable. Sharing a life with someone who grates on your nerves becomes intolerable quickly.
We recognize compatibility by a feeling of companionship and a sense of at-ease-ness with the other person. When our values and natures are in harmony, we feel at home and know that our partner is a good person.
Do we share similar beliefs and values about children, money, politics and religion?
Do we fundamentally agree on things that are important?
Do we enjoy a sense of companionship? Are we good friends?
Do we approach life and living together in a similar way?
Do we really understand each other?
Research shows that generosity is the glue that holds a loving relationship together; it is a powerful predictor of a happy marriage. Not just the virtue of giving to one’s partner freely and abundantly, generosity encompasses small acts of service, expressions of affection and the willingness to forgive mistakes and failings.
The basis of generosity is the impulse to make the other happy, as Desjardins tell us. This impulse arises out of a quality of love that is selfless rather than selfish. In the right relationship, we feel drawn to give, to share and to support. This creates a mutual sense of abundance and spaciousness in which it is easier to act from the better, more openhearted parts of our selves.
An essential aspect of being generous is the encouragement we support the growth and development of our loved ones. As I described earlier, the essence of relationship is sharing and growing. If we do not grow, if love and connection do not deepen, then the relationship stagnates and may die. Life is growth; stagnation is slow death. That is true of our relationships and of our inner selves.
When generosity is lost and there is little appreciation, we feel uncared for, neglected and unappreciated. We are not getting what we need so it is easy to retaliate by not being kind or giving in return. Lack and scarcity in a relationship starts a downward spiral of resentment and distance.
Partners who value a generous open heart, who support and love each other are rewarded accordingly. Loving-kindness begets loving-kindness.
Do I feel generous, openhearted and giving with my partner?
Do I feel my partner’s support, kindness and appreciation?
Do we both hope and wish for the greatest good and happiness for each other?
Do we accept and forgive each other’s faults easily?
Do I feel resentful that I am not getting what I need in the relationship?
These four aspects of a soul match—attraction, rightness, compatibility and generosity—are closely interrelated. While they may not appear all at once, in the right relationship there is a sense of growth and expansion as each person engages openheartedly with their partner. Together these qualities create something unexpected, something that can be described as pure magic.
Finding and creating a bond with our soul-match that is just the beginning of real relationship. The practice of sharing love—connecting to, engaging with and accepting our loved one—is constant and ongoing. We have to grow. We have to cultivate selflessness, generosity and awareness in ourselves. Then our life takes on a sense of animation and serenity. We become who we are meant to be. That is the power of a soul match.
Arnaud Desjardins. 1990. Toward the Fullness of Life: Threshold Books.
Karl Pillemer. 2015. 30 Lessons for Loving. Hudson Street Press.
Jerry M. Ruhl and Roland Evans. 2014. “Spirituality and Relationship in Later Life” in Jung and Aging, Eds. L. Sawin et al. Spring Journal Books.