“Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.” – Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
Before online dating’s endless compatibility questionnaires, Nora Ephron’s romantic comedies or Elvis softly crooned “some things are meant to be”, there was a philosopher named Plato and his work, The Symposium. The text, dated between 385-370 BC, depicts a lively dinner party full of boozy Athenian intellectuals debating views on love, desire, gender roles and beauty, and in the midst of the revelry the character Aristophanes gives a speech mythologising the origin of the human race.
In the beginning, he explains, there was the sun, the earth and the moon. From the sun was born man, from the earth woman, and from the moon the androgyne. The humans were created as double (two beings in one form), each with four arms and four legs. They were subordinate to the gods but soon grew jealous and greedy, bold enough to believe they could ascend to the lofty heights of their rulers. Zeus became fearful of the humans and their growing strength, and felt compelled to punish them. To teach them a lesson he spliced them in two, so that each half was left with a desperate longing for their missing ‘other’. Aristophanes’s tale, though rooted in myth, is widely considered the first-known documentation of the concept of ‘soul mates’, and the genesis of so-called ‘romantic destiny’.
Such rhetoric can also be found throughout various religious texts and interpretations. Take the Bible’s Old Testament, for example, which describes how God created Adam in his own likeness, yet acknowledged this new being needed a partner – going on to use Adam’s rib to create Eve: “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”. The Midrash, a commentary of Hebrew texts studied in Judaism, understands the scripture to dictate that Adam was first created with two faces, and that God took one of his sides, splitting him in two and further perpetuating Aristophanes’s ideology that humanity was first formed in pairs.
Still, the specific phrase ‘soul mate’ didn’t appear on record until 1822, when the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote, “To be happy in Married Life … you must have a Soul-mate as well as a house or a yoke mate.” The implication being, it was no longer enough to have a spouse or companion with whom to share the physical and emotional load – it was vital to find someone you also identified as an ideal partner to your ‘soul’ in order to have a truly successful marriage.
The most iconic romantic literature of that era speaks to a similar notion. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice sees lovers Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy eventually admit their affections for one another with Darcy professing, “You have bewitched me, body and soul” while Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel Wuthering Heights presents an archetype of the soul mate relationship – following protagonists Heathcliff and Catherine and their enduring (if not doomed) connection. “He’s more myself than I am,” Catherine says, before famously declaring, “I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.”
These examples all but scratch the surface of the philosophy and literature that have not only endorsed soul mate theory but also given rise to some (at times) wildly mistaken expectations of an ideal romantic relationship. Still the question remains: how are we to distinguish our ‘other half’ – our soul mate – if and when they come into our lives?
There’s more than a little ambiguity over the exact definition of a soul mate. If we break down the terminology we understand ‘mate’ to signify a friend, companion or sexual partner. But what do we know of the ‘soul’? A quick Google search offers that it is the core essence of the human spirit, the immaterial part of a person that lives neither in the body nor the mind, but somehow in tandem with the two. So what does it look like? I (and Google) couldn’t tell you. The location of the soul? No idea. It appears to defy form and scope, existing somewhere beyond bone and blood (making it very difficult to quantify).
Further browsing through the archives of pop culture, however, offers that a soul mate is someone with whom we’ll share an immediate and intense connection, and, following that, will not only see our flaws but love us for them, whose thoughts we know as though they are our own, is never jealous and to whom we will feel constant passion regardless of the longevity of the relationship. Quite the laundry list, indeed. So at what point in a partnership should we be able to tick all those boxes? And more importantly, is it logical in the current sociological climate to equate these characteristics with a successful and long-lasting relationship?
It’s probably a good time, in the midst of all this pondering, to mention that I am in fact a registered civil marriage celebrant.
I’m often asked what motivated me to get certified – it’s the second most frequent question behind ‘So, can you marry yourself?’ (No, I cannot). Initially I just thought I’d be good at it; the accreditation spoke to a number of my strengths (and it makes for a great wedding gift). But I, like most others, am also endlessly fascinated by the vast emotional potential that can exist between two people: the feelings, the unspoken energies, the frissons that occur in defiance of rational thought. How does someone get to a place in their hearts and minds where they feel brave enough to commit to another person, legally, in front of all their family and friends? I’ve found that there is abundant joy in being able to marry two people who have chosen this kind of existence for themselves. As the Zombies sang, “It feels so good to know two people so in love.” Revelry is at an all-time high, wine is free-flowing, and for a day we all get to float together in space, buoyant on the good vibrations of our nearest and dearest.
Another thing I’ve learned from my involvement in various weddings: it turns out doubt flows just as freely as joy. Rarely, though, is it directed at the couple tying the knot. Rather it tends to come to light amidst the guests themselves. More people than you’d think fight during or after weddings. People cry. People go home and re-evaluate every relationship they’ve ever had – or lack thereof. If you’re currently dating someone and not feeling 100 per cent emotionally aligned, you might experience inexplicable rage towards your partner for not measuring up to the transcendent display of love witnessed earlier that day. If you’re single, it can be more akin to an intense burst of bitter loneliness – another blatant reminder that the world was designed to be paired.
Or is it?
Philosopher Alain de Botton has a lot to say on the matter: two books’ worth, multiple talks for his co-founded company The School of Life and various online essays (including a piece published by the New York Times titled Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person). According to de Botton, the culture we are raised in has much to answer for when it comes to our understanding of ‘successful’ relationships. “The notion of that we would be not only married, but be happily married, only roughly dates back to the middle of the 18th century,” he explains in his 2016 talk on love for The School of Life. “Until then you tolerated your partner for the sake of domestic concerns and children – you did not expect to love them. A very new idea was born in the middle of the 18th century that historians call romanticism. And we are all the heirs of romanticism.” Romanticism, de Botton argues, tells us that we all have a soul mate out there and it’s our task to identify them. “When we meet the soul mate we will feel a very special feeling and a kind of instinctive attraction to this person, and we will know they are our destiny,” he says, each word drenched in his endearing brand of sarcasm.
In case it wasn’t clear – de Botton is not a fan of romanticism, in fact he insists it to be the true enemy of love. One reason for this is his assertion that, in our own special way, every human is “deeply dangerous”. We are basically walking petri dishes of irrational impulses, pure selfishness, extreme doubts and insatiable desires, which make us very troubling to be around at the best of times. However romanticism dictates that your special person, or soul mate, will have an immediate understanding of your flaws and feel deeply empathetic and protective of your fragile heart and ego. De Botton believes this is where it all goes wrong: an unfounded confidence in our ability to share our flaws with others and still maintain that frenzied attraction of the relationship’s early days.
He argues the most dangerous thing we can feel towards potential paramours is hope, because romantic hope blinds us to the harsh realities of sharing an existence with another (also strange) person. Although, he admits, “It’s very hard to diminish hope around love, because there are vast industries designed to inflate our expectations of love.” In other words, soul mates are marketable. Soul mates sell books, music, films, art. Locking eyes with a handsome stranger across a crowded room and feeling some immediate and binding connection: sexy. A partnership based on reason, rationality and a shared commitment to working at it: not as sexy.
"Why would the gatekeepers of popular culture reinvent the wheel when selling soul mates has brought them so much success?"
Principal psychologist at Sydney’s The Relationship Room, Rachel Voysey, hears a lot about unrealistic emotional expectations brought on by the notion of an ‘other half’, and is explicit about its validity in science. “The idea of having a soul mate in a spiritual sense isn’t aligned with psychology,” she explains. So that immediate connection, that Romeo and Juliet through the fish tank ‘love at first sight’ feeling? That’s actually a mind-state known as limerence: “a physiological cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters when you meet a certain person and you fall into lust”. Voysey advises against interpreting this biological state as evidence of finding one’s soul mate. “That doesn’t happen with everyone you meet, it only happens with certain people, but that’s also just a stage you pass through, it’s not the definition of a soul mate.”
She also warns against the belief that finding a soul mate will be a passive experience. “There is some interesting research on this where they found that people who deeply believed in soul mates had a more difficult time in the relationship, because they expected that it should just work. And so when they came across problems, they felt that this must mean ‘we’re not compatible and we’re not soul mates’, and they don’t want to work through difficulties,” she says. “Whereas people who believe that it was love and deep and a relationship and expected to have times where they would navigate through choppy waters, they had more longevity and happiness in their relationship. Really believing that one person is out there and it will just work is not helpful for people. You have to participate.”
This participation includes wading through the various stages of a romantic relationship. Limerence – stage one, otherwise known as the honeymoon period – lasts approximately 12 to 18 months. Stage two (let’s call this ‘reality’) occurs once this limerence period fades, as the cracks in your partner become more evident and the blinkers come off. “It doesn’t necessarily break people, it’s more a stage where you have to work through the beginning of seeing the differences between you [both] … you’re re-acquainting yourself with negotiating the relationship.” Stage three entails building loyalty and commitment with your partner, a solid foundation to ideally see you through life’s impending hurdles. The fourth and final stage is cyclical, a never-ending loop of harmony, disharmony and repair, and it is this period which will be the greatest test of your relationship’s longevity. Here, it will help to hold ourselves accountable for our ‘half’ of the partnership, Voysey explains – coming to terms with our own personal histories, and making an effort to be better people because of them. “So if you understand yourself well, then you have a much better chance of making a relationship work from your side.”
Yes, it is psychologically damaging to go out in search of your soul mate, believing that you can passively wander the earth and simply collide with your other half. The chances of running into someone by chance who will immediately feel like the missing piece to your sublime whole, a cure-all balm for your emotional and psychological baggage, aren’t high – I can sign off on this. Yet despite de Botton’s warnings otherwise, I still do have hope in the existence of soul mates. I can’t help it, and possibly wouldn’t be able to solemnise marriages if I didn’t. You don’t watch that many people willingly bind themselves together in love and avoid catching some ounce of belief in ‘other halves’. Idealism might be rationally dangerous to long-term relationships but it’s still intoxicating – stronger than any known pharmaceutical, any weapon, rapidly contagious and possibly incurable. I don’t know how to rid myself of it, and at this point I don’t think I actually want to.
So perhaps there is another way; perhaps our hope in soul mates doesn’t need to be eviscerated completely, but rather redefined? Change the basic structure of the idea by acknowledging that our ideal partner isn’t found, but is built, and that instead of meeting them in our youth we’re more likely (through mutual experience) to grow into one another’s soul mates.
“It takes time,” says Voysey. “It’s two people who deeply value the relationship through thick and thin.
“I have met a few couples that have felt something like ‘soul mates’ and when I stepped back and I thought about why – it’s one thing to chip away at it and to learn to communicate and be trusting and give trust and all that, you can do so much from one side. But the magic formula is finding two people who are willing to do that for each other.”
Letting go of unrealistic expectations – such as perpetual ‘first touch’ frenzy, or the belief that our flaws don’t have negative repercussions for those we hold closest – is vital for this redirection in thinking. Instead, we must make a commitment to riding that loop of harmony, disharmony, repair – finding grace in the endless cycle of it all. The grocery shop, the school run, the dog walk – those tiny, innocuous moments that shape a life are just as critical for measuring the weight of love. Give importance to these, rather than only the grand gestures. Soul mates are made here, too.
No person is perfect, and no soul can be our mate at all times. But I am hopeful that in the shedding of these preconceptions we might find something close – and that it might, in fact, be greater than the books or the films. So that one night many years from now when I am old and soft, I might roll over in bed and study the blanketed outline of the person beside me, or sit in comfortable silence across from them in some restaurant, our lives hanging delicately in the space between. And despite all that we know and have seen in each other – all those undesirable nooks and crannies we don’t want to admit to, the fire and the fury, the quiet desperation and unspoken grief – I will find comfort in the belief that whatever our souls are made of, his and mine might now be the same.