My interest in this topic dates back to 2001 when the renowned National Marriage Project published its study of 1003 married and single young adults titled, “Who Wants to Marry A Soulmate?” Three findings were enlightening: Ninety-four percent of never-married singles agree that when you marry, you want your spouse to be your soulmate - first and foremost. Secondly, eighty-two percent of young adults agree that it is unwise for a woman to rely on marriage for financial security. Lastly, over eighty percent of women agree it is more important to have a husband who can communicate about his deepest feelings, than to have a husband who makes a good living. Whoa!
The terminology of Soul Partner, I’m guessing, dates back to the 1960’s and the “flower power” years, as compared to the term soulmate which can be traced to poet S. Coleridge in 1822. Soul Partner conjures up terms like romance, passion, desire, and chemistry, which are not the vital ingredients that you would use to support your marital house. The most crucial ingredients for upholding your marital house are: safety, empathy, respect, forgiveness, and the essential ingredient: trust.
The concept of a Soul Partner presents the idea that there is one person out there for everyone, who can make them happy and whole. This concept is constantly conveyed through portrayals in films, books, and television. Bradley Onishi (Institute of Family Studies) writes, "According to a 2017 poll, two thirds of Americans believe in soulmates, which far surpasses the percentage of Americans who believe in God."
The most useful research that I found is from N. Schwarz and S. Lee in the April 2014 edition of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The authors assert that, "Love can be metaphorically framed as perfect unity between two halves made for each other, or as a journey with ups and downs." Terminology for the unity framework includes Aristotle's thought that, “Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies." It also includes expressions such as "we are one,” “my better half,” and “we are made for each other.” Contrast that to the journey framework, which uses these expressions: “We have walked together,” “travelled a long trail,” and “look at how far we have come.”
As the researchers discuss their findings, they caution that framing love as perfect unity can hurt relationship satisfaction. "It may be romantic for lovers to think they were made for each other," claim Schwarz and Lee, "but it backfires when conflicts arise and reality pokes the bubble of perfect unity." Instead, thinking about love as a journey, which often involves twists and turns but ultimately moving toward a destination, takes away some of the repercussions of conflicts in relationships. Correlational data show that people who adamantly endorse work-it-out or growth theories of relationships that draw on the journey frame are more resilient to conflicts and fare better on numerous relationship outcomes.
My own bias toward the journey framework is twofold. As living beings, we are constantly changing. In my opinion, the Soul Partner framework does not embrace change. Beneficial changes may include becoming wiser, more knowledgeable, and more mature. Undesirable changes might include: weight gain, wrinkles, boredom and radical political views. I'd go so far as to say that change is a driving force that fills the chairs in our couples’ therapy offices. Failure to understand and adapt to a spouse's changes, can result in serious marital difficulties. Dr. John Gottman simply calls it "growing apart."
Second, and more important is that with the term Soul Partner, the incentive to repair and fix one’s marital challenges is diminished. If both spouses believe that we are meant to be, there is little motivation to dig in your heels and work things out. "What, me worry?" was another popular expression back in the 60's together with Soul Partner. Contrary to popular belief, compatibility is not something you have; it is something you create.
Another group of researchers, R. Franiuk, D. Cohen, and E. Pomerantz (Journal Personal Relationships, 2002), named the two categories the Soulmate Theory and the Work-It-Out Theory. Following is a sample of the questions that were used in conducting their research:
Soulmate Theory Scale
There is a person out there who is perfect, or close to perfect, for me.
I couldn’t marry someone unless I was passionately in love with him or her.
The reason most marriages fail is that people aren’t right for each other.
Work-It-Out Theory Scale
Success in a romantic relationship is based mostly on how much people try to make the relationship work.
In marriage, effort is more important than compatibility.
Only over time can you really learn about your partner.
How beautifully our sages urge us in the opening words of the wedding Tena’im:“Yaaleh viYitzmach k'Gan Ratoov, may your marital success spring forth like plants in a watered garden.” A marriage requires continuous nurturing throughout the twists and turns of the journey.
During therapy, some conflicted couples plead ignorance, stating, "I have no idea what went wrong; I married my best friend." I often respond with the quote from C.S. Lewis, "You cannot go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are now and change the ending."
One final thought. In a November 2013 Mishpacha Magazine article, Rabbi Ben Tzion Shafier described an outstanding idea. Every wedding begins with the signing of the Tena'im, which is then followed by the signing of the Ketubah. "There is however one more document that has not been instituted,” explains Rabbi Shafier, "the shtar hachlafah, a document of change." He feels that this step would go a long way to helping marriages succeed. The text is as follows, I the undersigned do hereby proclaim the following:
Thank you to: Psychologist Dr. Philip Bomzer for his insightful input, Carol Schapiro, Touro College Midtown Librarian for her expert assistance, and to Judy Mernick Fruchthandler for her excellence in editing.
Dr. Alan Singer has been a marriage therapist in New Jersey and New York since 1980 with an 80% success rate in saving marriages of couples on the brink of divorce. He coordinates reconciliation for family estrangement, is a Certified Discernment Counselor, blogs at FamilyThinking.com, and is author of the book, Creating Your Perfect Family Size (Wiley). All sessions use ZOOM. His mantra: I’ll be the last person in the room to give up on your marriage. email@example.com (732) 572-2707