Beware of the Soulmate Myth
The Fantasy Bond Behind the Myth of the Soulmate
I know people who say their ultimate relationship goal is finding a soulmate. They’re looking for a kindred spirit who they were meant to be with. Is this appealing to me? I can see how the idea that there might be another person out there who is just like me and just for me could be comforting and would certainly help me feel less alone at times. But this consideration is contradicted by my very vivid awareness that each and every one of us is a completely unique and individual soul on this earth.
I’m not saying that we are destined to wander the world alone. Human beings are a social species. We need to connect with others. We rely on each other for our survival. From the beginning, because we are born not fully developed, we remain dependent on their parents longer than most animals. Human beings gather together and are instinctively societal; we have always formed families, tribes, communities. Anthropologists study the many ways that we go about this. And now, neuroscience is showing that associating with others is necessary for our mental health and for the longevity of our lives.
Even though the idea of a soulmate is alluring, it is actually damaging to the individuals in the couple and to their relationship. Robert Firestone has identified the destructive impact of the fantasy bond, a defensive reaction in which the members of a couple develop a fantasy of being one with their mate. Their real feelings of love and the delight they once took in interpersonal exchanges are slowly replaced by the fantasy of being merged with and magically connected to each other.
How a Fantasy Bond (or fantasy of a soulmate) Undermines the Love and Intimacy in a Relationship.
Form of Love Replaces the Substance of Love
Couples caught up in the fantasy bond typically focus on form over substance. That is, they place more value on symbols of their union than on maintaining genuine intimacy in real time. They put great importance on honoring established routines, rituals, and traditions, such as birthdays, anniversaries, fixed date nights, and regular vacations. As long as these symbolic activities are maintained, the fantasy of love is upheld, regardless of whether the couple is actually emotionally close and loving. Both people begin operating more from habit and a sense of obligation than from choice.
Each Partner’s Individuality Is Sacrificed
As the fantasy bond becomes stronger, both partners sacrifice more and more of their individuality in order to maintain the illusion of being one. They gradually assume an attitude of ownership over each other, with little concern for the partner as a separate person. Eventually each of them effectively disappears as a distinct human being.
As partners forfeit their independence, they become increasingly codependent (as opposed to interdependent). Both are weakened as individuals, and they lose sight of the reality that they are both capable of functioning on their own. Operating as half of a whole rather than as a complete person is slowly debilitating. When the individuals in a couple stop regarding themselves and the partner as separate beings, they are unable to see each other clearly. They become blind not only to the positive traits in the other but also to the other’s negative or self-destructive qualities. With this limitation, they are no longer able to offer empathy and compassion and cannot be true friends to each other.
Communication Between Partners Breaks Down
Formation of the fantasy bond usually leads to communication breakdown within a couple. When the partners’ life together becomes more focused on the superficial aspects of their relationship, their conversation also becomes more superficial and practical. When they engage in behavior that is routine and predictable, they tend to seek comfort in discussion of the same narrow range of topics. When the partners sacrifice their individuality in order to relate as a unit, they often invade each other’s boundaries. They may even speak for each other and treat each other disrespectfully. Each partner may become dismissive and impatient when the other talks or may not listen at all. When each partner no longer sees the other as who the other is, they both lose the ability to communicate the way they would with anyone else. Instead, they relate to each other with less compassion, empathy, interest, and understanding.
Sexuality Between Partners Wanes
In general, the fantasy bond has a detrimental impact on sexual relating. Form and routine gradually replace lively and spontaneous sexual interactions. Each partner begins to relate as a mere extension of the other—an appendage—and they both become less appealing to each other; neither of them is any more attracted to the partner than to his or her own arm. Inequality between partners fosters a specific kind of hostility and resentment that can permeate the couple’s sexual relationship. Typically, the partners are less and less frequently intimate, until they ultimately have just another sexless relationship.
How to Keep Love Real and Alive
Keep the Substance of Your Relationship
To keep your relationship real and fresh, you can consciously avoid constructing your life and your relationship in a way that is so orderly and predictable that there is no room for spontaneity and surprise. You can make sure not to get caught up in everyday busyness to the point where you and your partner are living parallel lives rather than sharing your life together. You can make it a priority to spend time enjoying each other’s company, having fun together, and getting involved in shared activities and interests. Most important, you can make a concentrated effort to slow down enough to get in touch with your feelings and communicate with each other from that feeling place.
Preserve Your Independence and Protect Your Partner’s
As one partner in a couple, it is vital that you strive to maintain your own independence as well as to support the independence of your partner. You can actively pursue your own interests and aspirations, and you can encourage your partner’s separate interests and aspirations. Maintaining an empathetic attitude toward your mate will help you react to your partner as a separate person and be attuned to your partner’s distinctive personality. Maintaining your individuality will keep you and your partner from relating as a unit.
It is also important to be realistic, and to view yourself and your partner clearly—the strengths and good qualities along with the limitations and weaknesses. Resist the temptation to idealize your relationship. This aspect of the fantasy bond may seem positive, but in truth it disrespects the autonomy of both individuals. If you look at your relationship objectively, you can develop an appreciation of what it offers each of you and also of how it can be improved.
Pay special attention to how you are talking with your partner. Notice if your conversations have degenerated into talk that is primarily about superficial, practical, or predictable topics. Avoid being impatient, irritable, or short with your partner. Don’t be dismissive or sarcastic. Resist the temptation to speak for your partner, or as a couple.
Think about how are you listening to your partner. Instead of interrupting, be attentive when your partner is speaking. Show interest in what your partner is saying instead of just waiting impatiently for your turn to speak. Try to understand things from your partner’s perspective.
Also notice what your body language is communicating to your partner. Your body language can actually be more significant than what you are saying with words. For example, when you say yes while slowly shaking your head no, you give a mixed message that creates confusion and distrust in your partner. Or when you say that you understand, but with an angry look on your face, your partner picks up your underlying anger.
Sustain a Healthy, Interactive Sexuality
The same qualities that indicate good communication also indicate healthy sexuality within a couple—for example, making eye contact and being attuned to your partner. When you are vulnerable and open in your sexual interactions, you will experience deeper intimacy with your partner. Clearly state what you want, and express interest in what your partner wants. Freely indicate your desires.
It is equally important to change any behavior that diminishes your sexual relationship. For example, if the sex act has become automatic and even mechanical for you, you can be more personal and engaged when making love. If you notice that you have been discouraging your partner from approaching you, you can be open and responsive to your partner’s approach. Combining sex with love provides the greatest intimacy and gratification. Sexuality is one of the most important aspects of a romantic relationship and can provide a deep sense of fulfillment in life.
No matter how compatible you are with someone, you are not completely alike. There are always differences, some of them significant. To try to pretend otherwise is hurtful. Maintaining the fantasy of a soulmate demands that you downplay any qualities that are different. Anything that inhibits who you really are in any way is harmful to you. The individuals and the relationship grow and thrive when partners are honest and authentic with each other. As they get to know one another, they can develop a genuine connection.
It’s unfair to you and your partner to imagine that you should find everything you ever needed in a relationship in one person. It’s too much to expect that of a partner, of yourself, and of a romantic relationship. And when you really think of it, what could be more boring than being with someone like you all the time? The different personalities and quirks that each partner brings to their union are what make a relationship lively and interesting.
Parts of this blog were excerpted from Daring to Love
Reprinted with permission: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Copyright 2018 by Tamsen and Robert Firestone, PhD