The Quest For A Soulmate - An ideal or an idol?
We might start with a definition. Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary:
Soulmate: A person who shares a deep understanding or bond with another; esp. one ideally suited to another as a lover or spouse.
The OED finds the first English use of the word in the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, himself a maker of an unhappy marriage. He is warning a young lady against a bad move in the marriage business and insists:
You must have a Soul-mate as well as a House or a Yoke-mate.
First recorded in 1822, the word didn’t catch on at first. But then in the 1980s, its frequency in English writings began to soar and it continues to get more and more popular. (You can track this via Google’s ngram viewer, which shows how words tumble in and out of use over the centuries.) I don’t know that we can learn much from this, beyond that loose talk of ‘soulmates’ has become increasingly fashionable over the last generation. But is it Biblical? Is it realistic? Is it an ideal or an idol? A holy thing or a Hollywood thing?
We have to admit that within its pages, the Bible accommodates some pretty rough-and-ready schemes for acquiring a life partner, and the whole soulmate thing (falling in love, sighing, gazing at the moon, reciting poetry, that kind of stuff) is not, shall we say, the signature issue. The “one-flesh” pronouncement by God in the garden of Eden gets lost in the mire of lust and violence. There are plenty of low points recorded in the Old Testament. For example, teenage girls enjoying a dance are abducted by a bunch of Benjaminites (see Judges 21). In these soils and by this slant, you can imagine, it might take a while for soul-matiness to bloom.
But women-as-property was only ever one side of the Old Testament. Back then they knew all about love-marriages too. Think all the way back to Genesis, where the Bible starts with the foundational idea of woman as companion, and the man meeting her and saying "This is now bone of my bone and flesh and of my flesh" (Genesis 2:23). Think of Jacob, who had to work seven years as a dowry for his wife Rachel, but they 'seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her’ (Genesis 29:20). Or the book of Proverbs: "May you rejoice in the wife of your youth ... may you ever be intoxicated with her love" (Proverbs 5:18-19). And Ecclesiastes, which sees love, and especially domestic love, lighting up and transforming the otherwise pointless-seeming hamster-wheel in which we spin each day. ‘Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun’ (Ecclesiastes 9:9). And God would often liken His relationship with His people as that of a loving husband to an adulterous wife.
The New Testament, of course, inspired the cultural shift of woman-as-companion. No wonder it was so popular with Greek women who finally found a faith that taught radical things like, ‘Husbands, love your wives’ (Ephesians 5:25) and ‘Husbands … be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect’ (1 Peter 3:7). No wonder they embraced, taught and sometimes died defending Christian marriage.
The most common New Testament understanding of how it is between a husband and wife is a return to the ‘one flesh’, one interdependent whole. Where one is weak, the other might be strong. Where one is slow, the other is quick—and patient. Both see, feel, and decide things in different ways and on different priorities; together, though, they are a powerful whole. It’s a picture of intimacy, communication, forbearance, trust, a shared load. Better yet, anyone who has hung around Christian churches for a while finds plenty of it lived out.
As we know, the New Testament uses the picture of husband and wife to describe the relationship of Christ with his people. It’s impossible to think of a higher compliment being paid to the idea of marriage. Does the Bible teach marriage should be intimate, open, nourishing, supportive, kind, and full of love? Er… yes.
So the human longing for a soulmate is one the Bible seems to endorse. It has, and we should have, a high expectation of a good marriage. We can find a soulmate and love them for a lifetime. It’s official.
That raises several more questions, especially if you are suffering something of a soulmate shortage at the moment.
For example: How do you know if you’ve a found a soulmate? More practically, do any of the current crop of potential soulmates look promising? What if you miss your chance? Is there such a thing as second best? Are you setting your expectations too high? Or too low? What to do if you have an awful feeling you have actually married the wrong one?
I think we can attempt these questions in two ways. First, we locate them in a wider context: in the scary funfair of life, the ups and downs of acquiring a marriage partner are just another rollercoaster, subject to the same perils and (for the Christian) the same promises as all the other big things in life. Then, second, we grab hold of all the wisdom we can. Wisdom doesn’t guarantee against failure or disaster; but it ensures we’re still standing at the end, still loving God, having found a way through.
A rollercoaster, like all the others
First the context. We go hoping for love with insufficient data, little experience and conflicting advice and thoughts, which might be offered by those around us as well as certainly by most of the novels, songs, plays, TV programmes and movies we’ve ever enjoyed.
We are young and impulsive. It may be those parts of our brains that are good at caution haven’t switched on yet. Or, in contrast, we may feel those parts keep setting off false alarms so often that we want to take the batteries out. Worse, we go looking for love in a world that is not just imperfect but actually broken, a place in part of selfishness, greed and betrayal. Worse still, some of the world’s evil comes out of our own hearts and spills into our relationships. This is a world that can disappoint and hurt us, and in which we can harm others.
Acquiring a life-partner, in other words, is just the same as all the other big stuff: families, health, circumstances, careers. All these things can go well in our lives or badly. They can be a great blessing or something that trouble us every day. Or both. Through it all, though—this is the wonderful thing about following Christ—we walk hand in hand with a God who loves us and is good with broken things. ‘Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life’ (Psalm 23:6). "I will never," says God of his people, "stop doing good to them." (Jeremiah 32:40). These are promises to inspire even the most chicken-hearted among us to flap our wings and try to fly.
Investing in wisdom
Second, we grab hold of all the wisdom we can find. Here’s a list. Some points are more personal, which I would not trust very far, others are Biblical, which I would trust very far indeed. Quite a lot are about steering a path between two opposite extremes.
Jesus did say, "Seek first [God’s] Kingdom" (rather than running around after jobs, money or life-partners) "and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matthew 6:33). Put God-stuff first and it will be fun to see who you bump into.
We don’t need to panic about finding a soulmate. But equally, it doesn’t do any harm to seek to meet new people in contexts you are comfortable with. Some people go onto internet dating sites. It’s not wrong; it can be wise.
Bible standards for relationships have stood the test of time. The older, crustier and grumpier I get the more I believe that Christians should only date Christians and that the old-fashioned idea of growing in intimacy and keeping back the best stuff till you’ve formally committed your lives to each other, in public, in front of your mothers, is the best way forward. Actually in all the rest of life, we all know how good it is to serve time as an apprentice. Apprentices can make mistakes or even change careers before too much harm is done. Would you like a first-year medical student doing your heart transplant? Me neither. And there’s something beautiful about two people learning love together, becoming vulnerable, making mistakes, growing in trust, an amateur courtship.
When you are considering a lifetime with someone, it is a massive decision so you may as well try to get it right. Unfortunately, and unlike almost every other really important life-decision (do I go for iOS or Android for example) you can’t go onto the internet and read the reviews about a potential partner. Fortunately, there is a much more fun way. Do the friendship, the companionship, the growing intimacy. This is, by the way, a lot of fun. (OK, it’s also potentially embarrassing and heartbreaking but the odd broken heart is perfectly normal and most people get over it). It’s absolutely essential to take time and get this decision as right as you humanly can. It isn’t enough that the two of you have a shared passion for Manchester United or Star Trek. It means asking some plain questions, even deploying the brain and the critical faculties:
Do I really, really like this person; or do they annoy or bore me a little bit?
Am I a bit dazzled by the whole idea of actually having a boyfriend or girlfriend, of some physical intimacy, of the opportunity to look smug to my single friends and dream a little?
Are we compatible (age, education, culture, friends)?
What do our families and friends think?
When you have doubts, face them, don’t bury them. Talk about them with trusted friends. Do the doubts shrink or grow? That’ll help you decide. I remember a friend who was a nurse and who secretly dreamed of marrying a doctor. Instead, a rough young farmer fell for her. My nurse friend pondered a long time but eventually saw beyond his slightly rustic manners and eating habits into his character and heart. She had to do a little rethinking, a little re-calibrating of her dreams, but really it was easy. Their forty or more happy years of marriage only ended with his death.
Eventually, go for it. Yes, it can go wrong in multiple ways. You can end up lonely and heartbroken. Take all the advice, think hard, pray hard, take your time, make up your mind, but then do something. I have watched too many men, content with job, home and girlfriend sit around doing nothing. And their girlfriends let them. Do something. Many cultures expect the man to do the asking. Ok, then guys, get on with it. You can do this. My proposal to my future wife would only earn one star in an internet review. But at least I did it. And it worked. To the females I would say if he won’t propose, break up with him and tell him that a very desirable person like you can’t be left hanging around. Shock the little bozo into action.
Three final points to put the quest for a soulmate in its proper place:
1. Every marriage, even the happiest, and some are very happy, sits somewhere on a scale of imperfection. Some people make bad marriages. They have a better chance of not doing if they follow the advice given above, but it can happen anyway.
2. Our faith is designed for imperfection. Some people make bad or less than ideal marriages and still do OK by making the best of them and loyally loving. (I’m not referring to abusive or violent marriages: in that case, get out of there.) Some bad-looking marriages may actually be less unhappy on the inside than they appear to us on the outside. Some people cope with bad marriages the way others cope with long-term illnesses or really difficult colleagues or family members or a myriad other life-changing disappointments and setbacks. It’s sad but it’s OK. Is there a place for divorce? Yes, but that’s another subject. I know many who do take that step later wish they hadn’t.
3. Through Christ we inhabit a realm not just of love and faith (we commit to love people and trust God) but also of hope. In the final calculations, all the tears and disappointments of this life are just by way of painful stretching exercises prior to the energetic fun that is coming in eternity. In this life we might marry and be glad we did; or not marry and wish we had; or marry and wish we hadn’t; whatever, we did our best before God; and it’s all prelude to the music to come. We truly have a Soulmate in Jesus. He is the proper locus for our longings and He won’t disappoint us.
Glenn Myers is a frequent contributor to Impact and blames his wife Cordelia, and the grace of God, for 26 years of very happy marriage.