Since the beginning of recorded time, we know that people couple and pair up for a variety of reasons. It is only a recent phenomenon that we have put all of our desires into one individual whom we refer to as our “Soul Mate.” I think that what this is supposed to mean, is that we are pre-ordained in the cosmos to search high and low among the 6.5 billion people in the world, until finally, one day, Eureka! We stumble upon each other and call ourselves “Soul Mates.” Sounds to me like some invention of the Hallmark Card Company. They should stick to making those sappy Hallmark Hall of Fame movies – movies that I love by the way (more about that in another article).
The definition of “Soul Mate” that I like best is “you have now found the ONE person who truly understands you.” There’s a ton of assumptions here – the first being that you truly understand yourself! How many of us go through our lives totally unaware that we’re unaware? We have excuses upon excuses why we do what we do without ever looking inward to see what makes us tick. And are we taught to believe that somewhere in our early lives, we can connect with the one person who “gets” us? That all works until the first time your “Soul Mate” pisses you off by walking out of the room before you finished telling him (in painstaking detail) about the argument you had with your sister over how you’re going to cook your Thanksgiving turkey, and all the sides.
As a sociologist, I always look to see who these ridiculous social constructions serve? Who’s getting the most out of this “Soul Mate” thing? Well, as I said before, it makes for a good greeting card. But beyond that, how did we get to put our life partner into this package that included: best friend, exclusive sexual partner, only parent of our children, sole supporter (both financially and emotionally), and our loyal and trusted confidant?
Until recent history, the concept of marriage served mainly the upper classes so that families could form alliances, and produce heirs. Inheritance was protected and remained in the family. With the rise of the middle class, and the diminished influence of families in mate choice, marriage selection put the power into the hands of the individual. Marriage also went from being merely a religious institution to one where the State claimed a stake. Therefore, the state was able to step into the role that the family had previously taken and it served as a means of social control. Who you could marry became the interest of legislators and policy makers rather than individual predilection. The concept of “Soul Mate” was a means to connect individuals for the purpose of long term unions that wouldn’t be easily broken. Well, they never figured into the equation the social changes concerning divorce that have taken place in western civilization. Given that “love” is such a fragile emotion, and given the greatest invention in human history – no, it’s not fire – it’s birth control – women now have more options than ever before. And by the way, it’s mainly women who initiate divorce, two to one. For many “forever” lasts only as long as the “love” lasts. I don’t mean to frivolous, falling out of love is not the only reason for dissolution of a relationship. I am well aware that there are many other variables to consider. But getting back to “Soul Mate,” we can see how the concept can continue to influence and play a role in coupling for individuals.
How many times have you heard someone say, “I thought my first love was my “Soul Mate” but I was mistaken? Now that I’ve met this person, I really know the meaning of the term “Soul Mate.” It continues to serve as the litmus test for mate selection even though its meaning has become watered down as we engage in the activity of serial monogamy, which seems to work for most of us. Since we are tribal people, most of us go through our daily lives with a metaphorical chorus commenting on our behavior. This is similar to the collective voice much like that in ancient Greece. This chorus serves to underscore and give commentary to our actions. It’s a way of enforcing social customs and emphasizing the way things are done. Because of this, very few of us would admit to our family, friends, others in our milieu that we’re marrying for money, or security, or as an antidote to loneliness. We claim that we found our “Soul Mate,” and that satisfies the masses. Now we can buy our expensive engagement ring, and pay for an unbelievable party that, depending on what your social and financial circumstances are, can cost upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
So let’s get back to the question “who does this serve?” Hmm I think you know the answer. If you’re still not convinced that the State has an investment in your marriage, try getting out of the contract. That’s when your “Soul Mate,” becomes a flesh eating virus who relies on the legal system to do what they do best. And that’s to make sure that if you didn’t uphold your part of the bargain that you pay “until death do you part” in one way or another.
Just one more comment about “Soul Mate.” Yesterday was a rainy TV watching day for me and my “Soul Mate.” On 3 separate shows, they used the term “Soul Mate.” The one we liked best was the Lucky Dog Show, when the adoptive doggie mommy met her new pet she referred to him as guess what?? You got it! Her Soul Mate!
Roberta Karant is a writer and a sociologist based in New York.