An interesting op-ed in The New York Times early this month indicated how unfolding changes in American religiosity are tracking trends in romantic coupling.
In the piece by Skidmore College (New York) religion professor Bradley B. Onishi — “Could I Be My Own Soul Mate?” — Onishi suggests that the traditional model for human romantic relationships bequeathed by Christianity is changing due to cultural transformations.
Note “The One” that men and women looking for love have sought all these centuries since romantic-love matches became a thing is called a “soul mate,” not a “heart mate.”
That reveals its cultural origins.
Onishi contends the traditional relationship model that emerged was a marital one based on biblical precepts. He explains that when the industrial revolution birthed the market economy, men went to paid work while women (who the Bible decrees must be subservient and obedient to their husbands) stayed home, unpaid, to care for children and home. This split paradoxically “produced a perfect well-rounded whole,” Stephanie Coontz curiously opines in her 2005 book, Marriage: A History — How Love Conquered Marriage.
Explaining how religion intertwines with this, Onishi writes:
“This approach to partnership, wherein two members of opposite sex complete each other, was essentially religious in origin — ‘complementarianism,’ for the theologians out there — a well-known example being the biblical adage that ‘two shall become one.’ It also recalls Plato’s ‘Symposium’ — one of the earliest purveyors of the soul mate myth — where the comic poet Aristophanes explains that humans were once united in pairs, but were then split into unhappy halves by Zeus. Ever since, the comedian explains, each of us have been roaming the earth searching for our missing piece.”
I suspect that since most people believe in the divine and a supernatural reality, and a personal God who is directing their lives, it’s a short walk to having a sense that unseen forces might be orchestrating your love life or at least producing a “better half” that you might one day access in the flesh, as it were.
But, like faith itself, there is no evidence whatsoever that “soul mates” exist except in romantic poetry, the minds of teenagers and the expectations of the perpetually naïve.
Still, we have Jane Austin novels (Pride and Prejudice, etc.), whose central theme is often the bodice-ripping though unrequited importance of young women marrying “well,” meaning rich, and to men of such integrity and character they could be biblical heroes themselves.
This brings us to the odd new-new-wave idea of “self-coupling,” where a person decides they can complete themselves with only themselves, such as English actress Emma Watson of Harry Potter film franchise fame. Onishi writes that Ms. Watson, who is “approaching 30,” told British Vogue that she has decided “being single and without children doesn’t signal failure. It just means she’s “going on her journey of self-fulfillment alone. And that’s OK.”
(Watch a video of the interview embedded above in this post. Her discussion of relationships begins at about 9:33 in the 30-minute clip.)
Sadly, for many others, the “soul mate” meme remains as powerful as ever. Onishi reports that two-thirds of Americans believe in this romantic fantasy, according to a 2017 poll by Monmouth University Polling Institute. He notes the continuing popularity of “The Bachelor” franchise, even “among self-identified feminists” (who presumably should know better).
Still, things are definitely changing.
Today, Onishi explains, “instead of a life-defining relationship, many of us now see partnership as as one part of a puzzle that includes a career (which often demands geographic mobility), family, a social life, personal wellness, volunteer work and creative or recreational outlets. A relationship is not the foundation of selfhood, but only a piece.”
However, it does not necessarily lead to a life of isolation, loneliness and sadness.
“It does not preclude meaningful relationships of all types,” shorn of the abject dependency, constraints and emotional struggles of many exclusive marital couplings, Onishi suggests.
Marriage and divorce rates in American continue to slide as citizens navigate trending these cultural changes regarding relationships.
“Not everyone will find The One, and they might be happier that way — living with higher levels of economic, social and sexual freedom without a constraining, or toxic, partnership — which may help to explain the decline in marriage over the last two decades,” Onishi says, quoting Eli Finkel’s 2017 book The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work.
In that arena it’s probably a good strategy, in finding happiness and fulfillment, to not insist on trying to find your soul mate.
Better to bet on the lottery. At least lottery winners are real.
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