the Deep End: the Myth of the Soul Mate
Heather D. Eggleston
Most of us have probably heard: “I’m waiting for my soul mate” or “I thought he was my soul mate” too many times to count. We offer the excited, lovesick, heartbroken (fill in the blank depending on the stage and state of the romance) speaker a sage nod that presumes we know exactly what they mean.
The soul mate is one of those ideas that is so entrenched in contemporary language and thought that it almost defies close examination. Why explore something so flipping obvious? Yet its very prevalence provokes a deep dive into its meaning and origins.
A cultural mindset that urges individuals to believe they have one true love somewhere in the vastness of all Creation has serious implications for real people’s lives. But are those implications healthy? And who do they serve? What are the benefits and drawbacks of such a myth?
Much of our cultural programming exists just beneath the surface. Encoded beliefs shape individual and collective action. Some such beliefs are healthier than others. But growth requires ruthless examination of all of them.
What does the prevalence of the belief in soul mates say about the human condition?
A deep dive into the myth of the soul mate requires an exploration of what it is, where it comes from, and its societal and psychological implications. Expect scenic route detours exploring the hormones of love, a brief history of marriage, and Edgar Cayce (along with whatever else interests me in the moment).
What is a soul mate?
There are a number of tributaries that feed into the soul mate river as it flows in popular imagination. Like most cross-cultural concepts they meander, merge and diverge before meeting in their shared conceptual pool.
1) There’s an immediate affinity: “It’s as if I’d always known them.” There’s something magnetic about the Other that pulls at you. It feels propulsive, powerful, and purposeful.
2) That pull brings about a whole lot of euphoric sensations. You get a rush from being around them. There’s giddy delight and promise in even the most mundane interactions.
3) “I felt all those empty places inside fill up when we met.” You’re suddenly complete. You don’t feel lonely because you have this amazing person who seems uncannily perfect for you.
4) There’s a feeling of safety because you’re “meant to be.” You belong together. The fear of being alone abates in the joy of finding this perfect being.
5) “We’ve had so many lives together!” Many people describe the soul mate connection as one that’s carried throughout incarnations, which explains the strong affinity and immediate emotional connection. They swear they’ve been together before.
6) The couple feels like they have something important to accomplish that requires the two of them to partner. They must fulfill their destiny together. The world won’t be right if they’re not together.
7) Which means, their love is meant to be. The relationship is pre-ordained and thus sanctioned by a Higher purpose. No matter the mundane circumstances there’s something sacred drawing them together.
8) They know that the strength of their bond will carry them through the struggles of life to a place of contented joy. Their story will be a happily ever after. How couldn’t it be? After all, they’re soul mates.
From whence did Soul Mate myth come?
In western thought we find the concept first in Plato’s Symposium, a dialogue about love in which Socrates and his buddies share a lot of wine and dish about Love. The soul mate myth is placed in the mouth of Aristophanes, an historical comic playwright who liked to poke fun at most everything, including Socrates.
In the Symposium Aristophanes tells a goofy story about how humans used to have four arms, four legs, and two faces. Some were male, others female, and others had both male and female genitalia. These proto-humans were physically strong. They rolled themselves around and made a tremendous ruckus. These obnoxious giant creatures threatened the serenity of the gods, which is never a good idea in the mythic world. In an effort to shut them up, the gods divided the once upon a time whole humans into two separate parts. This separation prompted the humans to spend their lives searching for their other halves rather than making a lot of arrogant noise.
We don’t know if this myth circulated in the popular imagination or whether it was a Platonic fiction, but we do know that Plato’s choice to have a comic playwright tell it is purposeful. Aristophanes was the comedian of his day. He told this story at a drinking party after losing to a bout of the hiccups. Such a setting and mouthpiece takes a bit of the romantic haze off its subject matter. Aristophanes concludes his somewhat absurd tale with the idea that if all humans were reunited with their so-called other halves then we would be a peaceful species that wished to do nothing much but enjoy the company of the Other. In other words, sex with the Other is the way to utopia.
Potentially more romantic than the Greek comedic version is the concept of bashert, a Yiddish word which means something akin to “destiny.” This idea shows up in the Talmud and in Kabbalistic writings. A bashert is the literal match made in Heaven by G-d. According to tradition, 40 days before the birth of a child they’re designated as being for another person. In some Kabbalistic traditions they’re considered one soul divided in two that will be brought together in marriage. There is a caution, though. Just because you’re destined doesn’t mean the marriage is always a joy ride. The bashert will smooth the rough edges of the Other. Character flaws are amplified in the relationship, forcing the lovers to work through problems via the vehicle of the relationship. Destiny, yes. Easy, not necessarily. Virtue in character yields a happy marriage. Vice in character yields strife. In some Talmudic literature the wife becomes a measure of the righteousness of the husband. If the husband is on a good path then the wife is the promised delight. If the husband isn’t, than she becomes his punishment in a spiritual take on “Happy wife, happy life.” While there’s something particularly practical about this application of the soul mate concept, it’s impossible to completely ignore the potential misogyny of the woman’s function as subject to the man’s virtue (or vice). I challenge you to sort out the latent misogyny for yourselves.
Although soul mate isn’t the specific terminology in the second Biblical Genesis account – in which Eve is created from Adam’s rib – there is an implicit understanding that Eve was literally made from Adam to be his companion. Eve is the prototypical helpmate on which marriage is based thereafter. Of course, her transgression with the serpent and the fruit tumbles all of humanity into the Fall. If, however, we accept that she is subject to Adam’s virtue and vice perhaps we can let her off the hook for her alleged bad behavior. The devil didn’t make her do it, she was simply acting out of Adam’s lack of righteousness. Regardless, the original couple is exiled together.
Christianity doesn’t have soul mates. The pair are bonded through the sacrament of marriage, which makes one flesh from two. They aren’t specifically created for each other. There is not a Divine matchmaker that brings them together, as in Talmudic and Kabbalistic Judaism. Christianity’s denial of the flesh – strange in a religion so devoted to the miracle of Incarnation – makes all sexuality suspect. “It is better to marry than to burn with passion,” Paul advises the Corinthians. Marriage is second best to a life of celibacy and strict devotion to God.
A variation on the theme of soul mates shows up in the medieval traditions of courtly love. In this conceit the Beloved is perfect, idealized, and unattainable. This ideal love is considered pure because it remains unconsummated. The Lover burns with pure passion for the perfect woman, who is always out of his reach. The troubadour ideal offers the passion and promise of the soul mate story without the consummation and happily ever after or disillusionment.
Moving forward in history and sideways in orthodoxy, we can’t talk about the modern concept of soul mate without touching on Edgar Cayce, who died in 1945. Cayce was the “sleeping prophet” who reluctantly contributed to much of so-called New Age thought. Cayce is remembered as a natural psychic who could put himself into a trance and then answer countless questions ranging from health concerns to the nature of the universe. Whatever one may think of the veracity of such claims, his readings concerning soul mates inform the way many people think of them today.
Edgar Cayce’s soul mate readings are adamant that we don’t have just one soul mate but many potential soul mates. When those who queried readings from him pushed on the “is this the one?” question he was inclined to reply something along the lines of: “it could be. Or it could be this one or that one. It depends on what you wish to focus on in this life.”
One woman married a soul mate with the understanding that they’d both need to focus more on family and home than their careers. Whenever she (an actress) tried to go back to the theatre the relationship suffered. Oddly for the time, he (a banker) experienced the same problems if he took his focus off the home life. If they’d married other soulmates arguably their careers could’ve been fostered but by being together they committed to shared domestic life.
According to Cayce: “A soulmate is an ongoing connection with another individual that the soul picks up again in various times and places over lifetimes. We are attracted to another person at a soul level not because that person is our unique complement, but because by being with that individual, we are somehow provided with an impetus to become whole ourselves.”
In contemporary secular culture the soul-mate narrative tends to be packaged in romance novels and rom-coms, which are marketed mainly to women. Romance novels until recently adhered to a traditional structure of boy meets girl. The pair overcomes obstacles to being together, whether in their personalities or situations, they fall in love, and there the story leaves us. Rarely do we see what comes after the soul mate attraction and reunion. The implication is that they fade happily into the sunset to share happily ever after together. Romantic comedies – also known as chick flicks – follow the same basic storyline with minor variations on the theme. The Lifetime Channel Christmas movies are an example of extraordinarily popular entertainment that caters to these themes. The popularity of these movies speak to a deep need in the human – particularly the feminine – psyche for an formulaic and easy resolution to the oftentimes thornier path that is real life love and marriage.
Disney specializes in the happily-ever-after promise of the soul mate. The princess knows she’s found her perfect match because he woke her with her first kiss. The promise of a ideal life together is fulfilled before they even speak. It’s love at first sight followed by a bliss because clearly they’re meant to be. The shoe fits, right?
This happily ever after is most often marriage. Shakespeare’s tragedies end in death and – much like the traditional arc of romance novels – his comedies end in marriage. So how did marriage become a thing?
Bonding between human pairs seems to have happened organically to help protect vulnerable offspring. Women are vulnerable during pregnancy and when nursing their young. Men and non-reproductive women are charged with the protection of mothers and children during those vulnerable times. Even in prides of lions the reproductive females and their cubs are protected by the males who walk their territorial perimeter.
As we move forward in history, women’s fertility is controlled through their relationships to particular men. This control is formalized as alliances between certain families. These alliances protect assets, which include the women who produce offspring. Children are wealth. The women who bear them are inherently valuable for their childbearing potential. Marriage as we think of it today appears to have developed in late Neolithic agrarian societies to protect gathered wealth, which includes wives, grain, land, livestock, and children. Not necessarily in that order.
Marriage also ensures sexual access to a specific person or people. The sexual drive is ideally satisfied through this access so men can spend their attention on endeavors other than seduction. The rule of monogamy for wives ensures any children born are from the husband. In a system that presumes limited resources it didn’t make sense to spend them on raising children that weren’t one’s own. It wasn’t until very recently that men were held to the same monogamous standard. And even now it isn’t expected in many cultures and in particularly powerful men. Female monogamy had to be maintained, though. And so adultery by woman was – and is – almost unilaterally punished harshly. The marriage bond legitimizes any children born within it and is sacrosanct.
The marriage bond also ostensibly protects and provides for the woman. In Homer’s Odyssey Penelope is relatively safe from her many suitors due to her marriage bond with the wayward Odysseus, even though he’s been gone twenty years by the time he returns. During those decades he’s had intimate affairs with multiple nymphs and goddesses; yet Penelope’s strength is derived from her virtue and willpower to not submit to the encroaching suitors. Her virtue is her shield.
Yet another function of the marriage bond was to creates alliances between family units, which often consolidated wealth and strategically enlarged the tribal unit. This added another social pressure for the wife to acquiesce to her role as helpmate and producer of children on behalf of the familial structure.
The idea of love as requisite to marriage is a modern concept and is still new in certain societies. But it makes a certain sense that in the larger context of the lack of marriage choice romantic ideals – such as the soul mate – would appeal to women who were largely without autonomy in their intimate lives. A dash of romance, the sparkle of destiny, and the promise of sacred love offers the potential for a higher purpose to a life that was beyond one’s individual control. When marriage is your inevitable lot, why not make it sparklier?
The Chemistry of Love
Human beings – despite St. Paul’s protestations – are driven by forces that compel connection. In other words, humans are sexual. Let’s get reductionist for a moment. What is love, chemically?
Each one of us has an odor print – known as pheromones – that is more unique than even our fingerprints. Most of what we scent is way below the surface. Even though the science is pretty new and inconclusive, it seems like humans can smell fertility, sexual and reproductive compatibility, and availability in potential mates. These pheromones mix in a potent chemical soup that assists in human attraction.
Dr. Helen Fisher of Rutgers University studies the chemistry of love. She divides it into three stages: lust, attraction, and bonding. Each of these stages is dominated by particular hormones and correspondent biological feedback loops.
The lust stage is dominated by the hormone testosterone, which is often associated with the male animal but exists in various levels in all humans. Testosterone, among other things, increases libido. It’s during the lust phase that the individuals may not see each other as more than warm, desirable bodies. Estrogen, which tends to be more dominant in women, also plays a role in the lust stage. It’s uncertain exactly what estrogen’s heightened levels provide, but they may drive sexual satisfaction.
During the attraction stage dopamine is released, which brings a blissful, excited feeling akin to the cliched butterflies in the stomach. This euphoria stimulates more testosterone production, which heightens sexual arousal. But heightened testosterone also makes us more territorial and aggressive. Remember the lions staking the perimeter of their territory? At the next stage we release norepinephrine, which is a stimulant that keeps us excited and aroused. It also helps us to narrow in our focus on “the one” who currently generates these heightened sensations. Norepinephrine can also suppress appetite and make it hard to sleep. Those tumultuous chemicals keep us tossing and turning when we think on the object of our attraction. This feedback loop takes hold. Contact with the Beloved keeps us craving more of those strange but stimulated, excited hormones. Oddly, during the attraction stage there is a decrease in serotonin, which may help keep us focused on the need for more of the one we desire. The Other becomes a drug we need to get our Love fix. The Other is our drug. We’re suddenly love addicts.
Stage number three – bonding – releases oxytocin, which is known popularly as the cuddle hormone. It’s secreted during sex and when we snuggle as well as during breastfeeding and childbirth. Oxytocin promotes a shared feeling of connection with the Other. This hormone is needed for longer-term attachments and continued attraction. It’s the least driven of the stages but perhaps the most important if we want to maintain that coveted soul mate status. This is where we feel safe, understood, and can relax into the relationship.
Most humans are hormonally driven to mate at some point in their lives. Our body chemistry and personal inclinations give us options on whether we follow through from the initial lust stage to full bonded attachment. Feedback loops serve to reinforce these drives so long as we choose to maintain them. This kind of love is an embodied experience.
Metaphysically, love is something else entirely and predictably difficult to define. The Greek philosophers (philo – friendly love of; sophia – wisdom) had multiple types of love ranging from good old eros, which is sexual desire, to agape, which is Divine love. E-harmony’s dating web-site defines love as: chemistry, commitment, infatuation, and compatibility.
The presocratic philosopher, Empedocles, posited a cosmic cycle of flux between two opposing forces: love and strife. Love (philia) attracts and strife (neikos) repels. The magnetic interactions of love and strife are the cycle of creation and destruction. This magnetic push and pull offers a simple framework.
While there is certainly more nuance and variations than may appear on the surface, this is a workable definition. Love is what attracts. We are attracted to what we love. This is biological, intellectual, and even spiritual. No wonder it’s such a powerful force.
So what’s the problem?
Now to move our focus back (way) out; what are the real-life implications of belief in soul mates? The myth of the soul mate is compelling. It promises fulfillment, euphoria, destiny, and sometimes even enlightenment. But is it good for us?
When we’re operating from a “meant to be” mindspace the chances of staying in an unhealthy relationship increases. Just the act of saying: “he’s my soul mate” invests a lot into a relationship. According to the sunk cost fallacy, the more we invest in something – or someone – the less likely we are to leave. So even if the red flags are flying, the Lover may ignore them to justify the initially stated soul mate status.
Also the underlying belief that “we’re meant to be” implies that whatever happens in the relationship should be suffered toward the greater good. “If he’s my soul mate,” we say, “ then I have to stay and help heal him.” Or “If she’s my soul mate I have to take the abuse. It’s my destiny, right?” This kind of thinking is all too common and obviously problematic. Staying in damaging relationships for any reason requires deep analysis and sometimes a lot of outside help. Untangling the added layer of soul mate status deepens the complexity of already tangled situations.
On the flip side, when in the flush of new love euphoria, established relationships may be thrown off with uncharacteristic disregard. Remember the chemistry of bonding? In the early stage of excited infatuation and lust the old faithful already bonded partner at home may seem drab, mundane, and uninspiring. The new lover’s high tempts toward the ecstatic. Add the concept of spiritual soul mate to the mix and marriages fall apart, discarded in the frenzy of the new. “I love you, but she’s my soul mate. I have to be with her. It’s my destiny.” By the time the new lover’s high wears off, along with any positive cognitive bias, the damage to existing relationships is already done.
Following rapidly on the tail of potential discarded relationships is the inclination to rush into marriage or long-term commitment with the soul mate before the euphoria wears off. As Alexander Pope wrote: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” The belief that we’re marrying our soul mate justifies actions that a more sober mind might avoid. In the flush of early love, especially one layered with the belief that “he’s the one,” there is a positive cognitive bias toward the Other. Things that we wouldn’t tolerate normally are sublimated in the joyful feelings of connection and belonging. The so-called honeymoon phase only lasts through the honeymoon. Eventually the attraction phase shifts into the bonded stage and reality sets in. The perfect Other is, after all, only human. And humans are far from perfect.
So what do we do when faced with the results of a potentially rash action? One common response is to change important aspects of the self in order to better fit with the Other. This is a way to chase the original feelings of spiritual belonging together. If the Beloved has a passion for video games, we learn to love them, even if we’d rather be hiking the Appalachian trail. A certain amount of compromise is necessary in any healthy relationship. But compromising one’s one passions to better fit with the Other is a slippery slope into disillusionment.
And the disillusionment that comes when the perfect Beloved turns out to be otherwise is harsh. The more we build up a relationship – or person – in our mind, the harder they fall when they turn out to be real people. Fights get meaner. The loss of faith more acute. When the relationship turns out to have challenges – and all relationships do – those challenges are harder to navigate because of the heightened expectations at the onset.
Finally, the soul mate myth presumes a static essential self that may not really exist. This is controversial but many neuroscientists, philosophers, and psychologists question if such an unchanging self exists. The idea of a destined soul mate presumes not only that we have such an essential self but that it invariably matches up with someone else’s. This potentially requires a belief in predestination or fate, which implies a lack of ultimate freedom or free-will. While these ideas aren’t necessarily incompatible they do require complicated thought to resolve. The theologian and philosopher Boethius resolved the issue of fate or free-will for himself by saying that God knows where we’ll end up but we decide how to get there. A belief in fate may – like the concept of a soul mate – offer a feeling of safety. Something bigger than my will is making the calls and determining the ultimate destination for me. But what role then, does free will play? Am I free to choose who and what I love if I’m destined for a particular soul mate?
The Stoic idea of “Love your Fate” offers a template that seems simple on the surface. Be attracted to what Is. Love what Is. But this sets us up – yet again – to stay in unhealthy or even dangerous relationships because they’re what’s “Meant to Be.” Problematic, to say the least.
On the Brighter Side
On the other hand, the myth of the soul-mate has some possible benefits. When both partners believes they are with their one-and-only there is an amplified commitment to grow together.
They may foster the ongoing chemical high by nurturing the bonding stage. Oxytocin flows with activities like cuddling, looking in each other’s eyes, stimulating conversation, and freedom within their partnership that allows for self declared soul mates to live fulfilling lives together.
The sincere belief that one is with their soul mate gives an emotional stability to the individuals involved. They don’t have to worry that the rug will be pulled out from beneath when the next cutie walks by. It allows for the very human ups and downs of life of relationship without the fear of rejection.
It also offers a willingness to see through those tough times because of a shared sense of destiny. Or the belief that their love is blessed from above. After all, they were made for each other.
Who is served by the soul-mate myth?
Anecdotally, it seems that women are more susceptible to the soul mate pitfalls than men. This seems obvious when we consider that romance novels, rom-coms, and Disney’s sanitized fairy-tale princesses are marketed largely to women.
The patriarchal system of which we are all indoctrinated promotes a model of womanhood based in the ideal of being a wife and mother. Alternate models of womanhood like the slut, old maid, librarian, and crazy cat lady are “Other-ed” and still considered suspect.
Patriarchy has historically required women to act in submissive ways to ensure male protection and safety. Women couldn’t get credit cards or run in marathons until the 1970s. Individual women survived at least the past 12,000 years not only by playing the roles given but by becoming deeply entrenched in them.
In a world in which women were considered resources, the belief that your marriage with your soul-mate is meant to be, for better or worse, was likely very useful in getting through the day. Nowadays, in which there isn’t one mandated world-view, the belief that there is a love that’s perfect for us may offer comfort and solace as we work hard to create meaning. Love is primary. It’s the third layer on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. When love seems elusive, illusory, or just plain difficult the eventuality of a soul-mate relationship may bring comfort.
Men are certainly subject to the soul mate traps: “Everything will be better when I meet The One” isn’t a gendered phrase. But culturally they haven’t had to survive and thrive based on their usefulness to men. And the soul-mate myth hasn’t been marketed to them the same ways.
For this reason alone I’d be inclined to throw this whole mess out the window. Except…
Is the myth of the soul mate healthy?
The Platonic soul mate myth is problematic but it’s also tongue-in-cheek. Is it Plato’s fault if we all took it a little too seriously? One perfect half out there for which we’re doomed to search until we fall into an enraptured trance gazing into the eyes of the Other is a potentially dangerous proposition.
As for bashert, there is an elegance to the idea that G-d is the matchmaker supreme and with patience, hard-work, and a righteous life one can find love with their preordained Other. This belief, though, requires a deep spiritual understanding that is belied by the pop-culture milieu in which it’s often understood. Destiny isn’t always easy. Oftentimes it’s really hard.
The Biblical help-mate is steeped in gender essentialism in which functional roles are firmly established. The man is the head and the wife serves. While this model may work for marriages born in this particular doctrine it is beyond problematic in that it doesn’t allow for authentic freedom for either partner.
I’m positionally opposed to belief structures for their own sake. But if one want to enjoy the concept of the soul mate without falling into its many traps, the Cayce approach is surprisingly and refreshingly sane.
In Cayce’s estimation, soul mate doesn’t mean easy street with no problems – often it’s quite the opposite – but it offers the possibility for deep and lasting growth if all parties involved commit to working for it. It also means that we have more freedom of choice when a relationship doesn’t work out for whatever reason. We aren’t doomed to a life without love, romantic or otherwise. There are – as they say – plenty of soul mates in the sea. And not one of them is your only chance for happiness. This, however, is not how most adherents think of it. The sober, reality based soul mate myth is far less exotic than the prevalent cultural myths of love at first sight and happily ever after.
Perhaps it’s time to discard the myth and reflect deeply on why so many people seem to need it.
Plato, Seth Benardete, and Allan Bloom. Plato’s Symposium. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Print.
1 Corinthians 7:9
Ephesians 5:31; 1 Corinthians 7:9
Todeschi, Kevin. Edgar Cayce on Soul Mates. ARE Press. 2007.
Homer, and Emily R. Wilson. The Odyssey. , 2018. Print.