Do You Want to Marry George Bailey or Prince Charming?

Thinking of marriage in terms of finding a 'soul mate.'

“Soul mate” is the term that those who study American marriage trends use to describe contemporary expectations about potential spouses on the part of Americans of marrying age. A “soul mate” is someone with whom one shares deep and profound emotional bonds. Soul mates are one’s alter ego, supplying what’s lacking in one’s own personality while simultaneously being pretty similar in likes, preferences and interests.

As the National Marriage Project (NMP) reported back in 2001, “88% [of single men and women] agree ‘there is a special person, a soul mate, waiting for you somewhere out there.’” “Marriage is gaining popularity as a super relationship.”

At the same time Kate Bolick, in her semi-autobiographical piece in the November 2011
of The Atlantic, admits that back in 2001 she broke up with her boyfriend of three years although “there was no good reason to end things. To account for my behavior, all I had were two intangible yet undeniable convictions: something was missing; I wasn’t ready to settle down.”

Today, at age 39, although she still hasn’t discovered — or defined — what she thought was missing, she is sure she doesn’t want to settle down. Not now. Maybe not ever.

On the one hand, you can’t argue with that: If you’re not ready to marry, don’t. There’s no need for two miserable people. Nor should a companion view of marriage be a problem. No less a thinker than Blessed John Paul II repeatedly spoke about marriage as a communio personarum.

Still, it doesn’t take an expert to recognize that something’s wrong with marriage in the state of Denmark … or at least in the United States. If marriage is the consummate “super relationship,” why does one in two American marriages arrive in divorce court? There’s little comfort to be had in Mark Twain’s old saw about “lies, damn lies and statistics.” Even if 50% of American marriages don’t end in divorce, there’s no denying that America is suffering a “marriage gap.” The institution is under considerable stress among the working poor and the less-than-college-educated middle class. It is gone in many respects among the poor and in many African-American families.

Thinking of marriage in soul-mate terms seems, at first blush, a solution to rescue marriage. The notion can foster a sense of personal dignity and value among spouses. If that’s true — and if 88% of marriage-age Americans think that — there seems to be a disconnect between what people think marriage should be and how they are living it. What’s the problem?

The problem is what else secular soul-mate marriage expects and what it rejects.

One thing it rejects is children. For more than a decade, the NMP has tracked the disconnect between marriage and procreation. Americans today marry ever later, defer parenthood ever longer and spend ever more of their lives — before, during and after marriage — without children in those lives.

In one sense, it’s all the logical outcome of a contraceptive culture. If children are seen as threats to adult freedom and independence, they obviously will be avoided. Contraception has also fostered the procreative-unitive split: Sex is the glue of the super relationship. Whether it has anything to do with children is purely one’s arbitrary choice. (Same-sex “marriage” carries this mentality to its logical extreme by completely separating sex, marriage and children.)

Soul-mate expectations, paradoxically, also often are enemies of parenthood. As the NMP notes, making a soul-mate marriage work is really emotionally demanding. So, too, are children. Their advent in a relationship puts real stress on soul mates. A Catholic soul-mate vision sees children as the natural fruit, the natural outcome, of the spouses’ oneness. But if marriage stands more on shared emotions than shared lives, the potential for conflict is far greater, the capacity for emotional involvement far more taxed.
Another interesting dimension of the soul-mate relationship is the expectation that partners come to it independent in every way, but especially financially. Once upon a time, marriage often represented an economic step up for women. Today, women hold their own economically and, in some ways, have been doing better than men during this three-year-long recession. In one way, that’s good: Men and women are standing on more equal footings, entering marriage more as partners.

On the other hand, though, there are problems. In a high-divorce culture, the fragility of marriage stability inhibits today’s soul-mate newlyweds from merging resources and lives. Somewhat like cohabitating couples, assets often remain “mine” and “yours,” rarely “ours.” Soul mates might have great relationships, but they have problems building things together.

Another paradox that students of soul-mate marriage report is the ongoing tendency of men not to commit. When increasing numbers of women are economically successful and better educated, the search for similar men leads to a shrinking pool, especially as women’s age at marriage increases. Unfortunately, morality seems to shrink to the lowest male common denominator: If there are fewer available guys, why should those few close off their options by tying the knot rather than playing the field?

Soul-mate marriage has potential — if we can explain to people how the secular version sells it short. In contrast to that secular vision, one that the NMP calls “emotionally deep but socially shallow,” a real communio personarum — one that is a total, indissoluble and fruitful unity — does not put spouses at odds with children. It does not estrange partners from each other or from building a common life. It fosters the confidence and trust that is the foundation of married and family life.

On this Valentine’s Day, it’s time to say boldly that the Catholic vision of marriage and family life offers a real soul-mate relationship that has greater depth and resilience than its secular counterpart.

It has only been two months since Christmas. Think about the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Were George and Mary Bailey soul mates? The modern world would say No. George is forever denying himself. Mary lost out on her honeymoon. They both pooled their money to rescue a savings and loan. “And why do we have to have so many kids?”

But once we get beyond emotions — in George’s case, fear — it becomes pretty evident that George and Mary Bailey really epitomize what it means to be soul mates. Prince Charming is only a character in a fairy tale. Maybe that’s where the discussion should begin.

John M. Grondelski, a moral theologian, writes from Perth Amboy, New Jersey.