Wanted: Someone to Grow Old With, but Only Soul Mates Need Apply

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Before she married, journalist Iris Krasnow saw a psychic because although she was certain she'd found her soul mate, he didn't appear to have realized it yet.

(The psychic told her she was her own soul mate and to stop looking for one.) " 'Soul mate' is a dangerous concept because this magical, mystical sustained high and romance doesn't exist in long-term marriage," said Krasnow, a professor of journalism at American University who interviewed dozens of married people for her book. "Some people said they had married their soul mate, ditched that soul mate because they met their [real] soul mate at work because he was sexier and smarter and then ended up missing their old soul mate."

Twenty-somethings are so starry-eyed about love today that most aspire to marry a "soul mate," according to a survey released Wednesday. But such romantic expectations are unsustainable and bound to explode down the rocky road of marriage, sociologists say. Ninety-four percent of never-married singles said they wanted a spouse who'd be a soul mate first and foremost, according to a Gallup organization survey commissioned by the National Marriage Project, a nonpartisan initiative at Rutgers University aimed at promoting the stability of marriage. When ready to marry, 87% said they believed that they will find that soul mate, according to the survey, titled "Who Wants to Marry a Soul Mate?: Findings on Young Adults, Attitudes About Love and Marriage."

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The survey consisted of telephone interviews of a representative national sample of 1,003 single and married men and women ages 20 to 29. "What is surprising is that the soul mate ideal has become the most desired characteristic in a marital partner for this age group, surpassing religion and economics," said sociologist David Popenoe, co-director of the Marriage Project. "This is an unrealistically high standard for marriage today--so high that it is bound to generate failures. People today break up at a lower threshold of agony than they used to, especially if someone believes in the concept of a soul mate and they don't think the person they married is their soul mate. It makes marriage more fragile."

Only 42% of singles said it was important to marry someone of the same religious faith; 16% said that the primary purpose of marriage is to have children. Though not ideal, 62% said, it's acceptable for women to have a child out of wedlock if she hasn't married Mr. Right. An emotionally available husband, 80% of women agreed--one who communicates his deepest feelings--is more desirable than one who makes a good living.

"While marriage has been stripped of many of its institutional, practical and public meanings, it remains the pinnacle of an intimate partnership, the notion being that the ultimate marriage is to a soul mate," said Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of the Marriage Project.

"Soul mate" was not defined for survey participants, but, said Dafoe Whitehead, the phrase is tacitly understood as a "deeply intimate, hyper-romantic, super-relationship" that would last over time. Psychologists who study marriage think the concept has been perpetuated for decades, affecting generations in obsessive pursuit of a soul mate.

Indeed, an Internet search at a popular bookseller Web site for titles with "soul mates" found 62 books ("Soul Dating to Soul Mating" and "21 Ways to Attract Your Soul Mate"). Former monk Thomas Moore's book "SoulMates" was on the national bestseller list for eight months.

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Young adults have simply inherited our culture's guiding story of marriage told over and over in movies, music and books, said Blaine Fowers, professor of counseling psychology at University of Miami, who adds that "soul mate" is a hackneyed term. "We are in love with this idea of romance and this fantasy about marriage," said Fowers, author of "Beyond the Myth of Marital Happiness," (Jossey-Bass, 2001). "Over the last hundred years, marriage has changed drastically. We have had this really exhilarating social experiment where we have tried to combine passion and marriage. Ongoing passion [is something] marriage cannot deliver."

That is not to say marriage is devoid of lusty, sexy passionate moments, but knowing someone's bathroom habits, eating rituals and personality tics can--how shall we say--dim the flame.

The soul mate tradition has its roots in the individualism movement, which began in the late 1700s and developed over the centuries, said Fowers. People stopped marrying for political alliances, economics and social class, he said. Over time, the feel-good marriage was born. "The main thing for the individual is whether or not I am happy," explained Fowers. "This becomes the prime indicator of the quality of marriage. But the problem with emotions is that they change. . . . Most of the literature on marriage is on pleasure. Pleasure is good, but it does not please us over time."

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The goal of marriage should not necessarily be "happiness" but a lasting affection, commitment and partnership that enables a couple to go the distance. Many marriages end because spouses decide they haven't found the love and companionship they thought they wanted, not because they are in destructive unions. "This is the disillusionment and failure of ordinary marriages to live up to this ideal," said Fowers.

Young adults view marriage as a risk (88% said U.S. divorce rates are too high), said Dafoe Whitehead, who thinks young adults live together instead of getting married to determine whether a partner is a soul mate or an impostor. A significant number--47%--of young adults agree that current laws should be changed to make getting divorces more difficult.

Paradoxically, young adults lack confidence in marriage while entertaining a dream of landing the uber-mate. A reality check is needed, said Dafoe Whitehead, in the form of real-life marriage survival skills.

As Krasnow puts it in her book: "Here's the straight truth: A.) Marriage can be hell. B.) The grass is not greener on the other side. C.) Nobody is perfect--including you. D.) So you may as well love the one you are with."

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Kathleen Kelleher can be reached at kathykelleher@home.com.

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