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Is your soul mate a good life preserver? - 7/11/2017

If you, your child, grandchildren or a friend is searching for a perfect soul mate, or an ideal loving relationship, I’d like to recommend you read a short, tremendously thought-provoking article I recently came across in the New York Times Magazine, dated May 20, 2017.  

Not only was it a worthwhile read, one sentence above all the rest caused me to create a fictional scenario, which I am anxious to share with you. In the article the author, Ada Calhoun, made reference to her favorite writer, J.R.R. Tolkien, about the subject of soul mates.  She quotes him as having written, “Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) most partners might have found more suitable mates.” The notion being, there are no perfect mates.  

Even more, he blames the notion of soul mates for causing young people to take their focus off their potential or present partners’ attributes and positive qualities and to concentrate on potential or the partners’ imperfections and less than idealized traits. The result being they fail to recognize, in reality, “couples are only companions in a shipwreck; not guiding stars.” That last sentence ignited every one of my brain cells and made me view Tolkien as a man with profound insight.

I know most people tend to think they made conscious decisions regarding the choice of their spouse. However, I believe the contrary. The majority of the significant decisions people make when choosing a partner are made unconsciously, and I plan to discuss that in far more detail at another time. What I’d like for you to do is imagine yourself on a cruise ship, filled with tourists on vacation. For some reason, the boat starts to sink and, in your haste to save your life, you have no opportunity to gather up your belongings, to search out the companions you booked the trip with or to exit the vessel in an organized manner.

As a result, you hurriedly rush to the first available lifeboat, jump in and are thankful that, at least for the moment, you’re safe. After you settle down, you find yourself with individuals with whom you share some basic common interests. All of you wanted to see the Antarctic, Hawaii or the Mediterranean, could afford the trip, are adventurous individuals and enjoy travel, but you aren’t necessarily soul mates. There is also an additional objective you share, the desire to survive the ordeal and reach land where you can feel secure and free of fear. That, of course, won’t occur in a day. In fact, you and your boat-mates are destined to share some beautiful days and calm currents, scorching heat and stagnant waters, and turbulent angry seas, accompanied by vicious winds that will toss you and your companions around as though you were only matchsticks.

There will, undoubtedly, be one individual in your lifeboat who you would love to toss overboard; a couple others you can tolerate and work with but not forever; and several whom, even after the ordeal is over, with whom you’d like to develop a long-term, meaningful relationship. On terribly bad days, you may wish you were dead. On good ones, you might feel hopeful and encouraged about surviving the ordeal. If and when you do reach shore, you come to realize little things and petty grievances really don’t matter; that the experience you weathered caused you to grow emotionally as an individual, and to feel closer to your companions.

In the process, you learned to accept your shortcomings, to appreciate your strengths and to value others. You will also realize no matter what hand life may deal you in the future, you’ll be better able to handle it alone or together with whomever you find yourself.  

When you think about it, you may realize it’s the same path of life, itself, and most long-term successful marriages generally follow. Life isn’t predictable, so you can’t be sure of what tomorrow will bring.  Therefore, you need to direct your energies toward surviving the stormy times, keeping your hopes up during the stagnant periods and celebrating the joyous ones.

Let me add: My wife and I have been married more than 60 years, and people often ask, “What’s your secret?” Harriet’s response is, “a good sense of humor.” My answer, which few people initially understand, is a very good life preserver that keeps you afloat during troubled times, because falling in love or lust is fast, festive and fun. But, creating a healthy relationship is slow, painful and arduous. It doesn’t happen overnight. It requires that you first survive the turbulent or calm seas and successfully recover from the injuries that are bound to occur in every relationship. How you weather them determines whether you and your partner will pass in the night, blind to each other, will collide and sink, or establish a safe port where you can dock when you’re in need of repairs, refueling or support.

Calhoun tells a story about a friend whose parents, on the outside, appeared to be a golden couple “but who really didn’t have much to bind them together. When they married, she was Jewish, and he had a good job and that was enough. They struggled while their kids were growing up, and resolved to stay together until the nest was empty, and then go their separate ways. But, something funny happened: By the time the children were grown, neither wanted to leave.”

It makes me think Tolkien was absolutely right when he summarized his discourse on soul mates by saying, “The real soul mate is the one you are actually married to.”  So, if you’re looking for a perfect person or relationship, please know they aren’t there to meet; they’re there to make. It takes hard work, positive and negative feelings, forgiveness and compassion. Most of all, it requires you be insightful with regard to your own actions. You must identify any negative traits and behaviors you need to eliminate or mitigate. You also need to recognize and remind yourself and your partner of your positive qualities and worth. Truly, living with another person isn’t easy. It’s probably the second hardest ordeal you will experience in life. The first is living with yourself. The third is creating a soul mate.

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