"What if your soul mate isn't the person you have sex with?" my friend Jim wondered recently. "What if it's your sister or your best friend or some teacher who really inspires you?"
Impossible, I argued. The soul mate package comes fully loaded: sexual, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, sense of humor. You never need anything translated because you completely get each other. And you know immediately because you've found your missing half, as in Aristophanes' speech in Plato's Symposium.
"Have you had that?"
"Sure," I said. "I mean, not for that long, and the guy turned out to be crazy, but for a few months there ..." I trailed off. I realized I had no idea why "soul mate" had outlasted the other myths I'd retired from my personal cosmology, like unconditional love and no work relationships and the man who maintains all his initial enthusiasm for cunnilingus.
It was time to reexamine the soul mate concept. I needed a break from my translation problem anyway; I was sick of parsing the cute bartender's parting words from the week before. I had initially interpreted the English phrase "I'll call you," which accompanied the exchange of phone numbers and bodily fluids, as "I'll call you," instead of the actual intended meaning of "I won't call you." My friends patiently listened to me discuss the phantom call. They also reminded me of the number of fish in the sea, that I'm a great catch and, gently, that sleeping with bartenders might not be the best soul mate procurement strategy.
God bless them, they knew right when to shift from "Don't worry, he'll call" to "OK, he is a jerk." I listened to them because they're usually right. These are the same friends who remember my birthday, bring me food when I'm sick, edit drafts of what I'm writing, let me sulk, tell the truth. My friends are smart and kind, a combination that seems elusive among my bachelor cohorts. As I pondered Jim's question, I realized my (male and female) friends are closer to soul mates than the men I've been romantically involved with.
I'm used to blaming myself ("It's not you, it's me") for being single, but perhaps it's not due to my pathology or my independence or a preference I haven't figured out yet. Maybe it's because romance is a terrible foundation for a relationship. Where friendship stabilizes and supports, romance keeps you off balance, wary, mean and defensive. What could be more perverse than donning a hard mask of unattainability to look for the one we can really open up to? When we're courting, we hoard our compliments, enthusiasm, disclosures -- especially women, with our cultural imperative of "mystery." Yet freely sharing that kind of thing is how you make friends.
This would all make more sense if sex weren't so mutually fun. Stirring such a wonderful extra into the mix should sweeten a relationship, so why does it more often breed antagonism? Why does dating and, to a certain extent, all romantic love feel like a war? The question has stumped human beings for centuries, and the best answer is still probably a poem or a song or a Gallic shrug.
Nevertheless, I undertook an unscientific survey to see what my wonderful friends, married and single, make of the friendship/romance/soul mate conundrum.
Several single gals compared dating to a job interview -- it's impossible not to resent the power that person across the table wields. Elena, who has been married for 15 years, says long-term intimacy just rounds out that resentment. "Once you've gained trust, bared all, built something, there are inevitably these impossibly high expectations," she wrote in an e-mail. Marriage also disappoints because of "the baggage of watching your parents' marriage, all the crap we're fed about love and romance, and all those weird power issues that get attached to sexual and emotional fidelity." When I asked her, as I asked all the married people, "What's the glue that holds you and your spouse together?" she replied, "Children and real estate." She was having a bad day.
Other answers to the "glue" question in my e-interview included: "Humor. Enjoy each other's company"; "Faith, respect and children"; "I know she'll listen when I want to talk about something; I can drop my protective shield around her"; "kindness and acceptance"; "genuinely respect and like each other and have open and honest communication"; "intellectual compatibility (we rant about the same things) ... and we fight fair."
A recently divorced friend offered his ideal: "never-in-doubt devotion and passion commonly associated with love and the honesty and support commonly associated with friendships."
The responses above, except for Elena's, are all things "commonly associated with friendships." Nobody wrote "passion," "romance" or "sex." The people who stay married are simply lucky to remain -- or become -- friends once the hormones chill out. My unmarried survey respondents seem to understand the friendship basis of a good marriage even as they (we) hold out for chemistry and thunderbolts and soul mates.
Nathan, 28 and married, wrote, "It's a truism that single people find the complacency of married people off-putting. What's not so well known is that married people often find the desperation and neuroticism of singles really rather sad." Ouch!
Some of my single friends, however, are starting to build lives around their actual, rather than their fantasy, connections. Deb lived with her boyfriend Jack for five years and when they broke up, she moved in with Alice. She got a lot happier. "Jack was really moody. At the time I thought all the drama must be the passion and excitement of love. But it was really just tension from trying to anticipate his moods," said Deb, who's 36. Living with Alice is so much more harmonious, she added, that the two of them have discussed making it permanent rather than shacking up with any more men.
Julie, a 37-year-old graphic artist, recently had a pregnancy scare during the seventh month of sleeping with a man she knows she won't marry. Her first non-abortion thought was to break up with the man and rent a big house with two girlfriends. Unlike the man, she says, the two women are financially stable and love children. Furthermore, "I know my friends are committed to me; they're not going to decide they don't want to know me in six months."
Gay and single Frank, 34, said his friends feel like family: He spends holidays with them and is godfather to several babies. Frank said making friends feels "more organic than dating. If you wait to find a perfect lover to establish a close bond, you're going to be pretty lonely."
The response that resonated most with me, however, was that of Chris, a 39-year-old, attractive, never-married man. He e-mailed:
No, I don't consciously think of my friend group as a family/lover substitute. But over the years there seems to be an incremental, de facto substitution of friends for lovers in my life. It's kind of worrisome. As I and my friends mature, and as our relationships mature, it all becomes more comfortable, supportive, etc. I'm slowly developing a fuller, more satisfying life as a singleton, and so there's less urgency about finding a mate. Once I was constantly driven by the mating desire, but now work and friends and goofing around and my "hobbies" can make weeks go by without my doing anything about the romance thing. And I really don't think it's that I'm any less horny or obsessed with it. I'm just adapting more and more. Or here's an even more troubling thought: Perhaps my growing comfort in life makes me less and less willing to take risks -- to put myself on the line sexually or emotionally, to pursue someone, to take a leap. Or one final possibility: Dating, especially the initial dance of it, requires ways of being that interest me less and less.
"Yes! Exactly!" I thought when I read this. "This guy is speaking all my fears and conjectures." Sort of like -- a soul mate.
A yenta-minded reader might be wondering at this point, "So what are you two crazy middle-aged kids waiting for?" To them I submit the short dating history of "Chris" and Virginia, which will not do much to dispel Nathan's diagnosis of our tribe's "neuroticism" as "rather sad." Chris and I were set up by a friend, had a giddy, mind-melding e-mail correspondence and then went on an awkward, but not terrible, date with a strange undercurrent (I thought) of hostility. That night, Chris went home and e-mailed me that he liked me and found me attractive but his sense was we'd do better as friends, and maybe I'd like to meet this writer friend of his.
I, meanwhile, stopped off for a nightcap and went home with the cute bartender.