Thirty Years In: A Reflection on “Soul Mates”

By Jennifer Grant

A friend posts a status update, tagging his wife, on Facebook:         

A wedding anniversary is the celebration of love, trust, partnership, tolerance, and tenacity. The order varies in any given year. Thanks for 20 YEARS of all the above, my dearest!

I think long-married people are less likely to use phrases like “soul mate” or “better half” to describe each other and, more likely—like my friend—to use words like “partner.” I wouldn’t say my husband David is my best—or perhaps it’s more accurate to say “only best”—friend. Although he is my most present, loyal, and deepest partner and friend, I have a several “best” friends, and each one fulfills a different role in my life. There are “best friends” who are my parenting confidants and others with whom I can simply relax and chat for hours. Other friends challenge me intellectually or spiritually. There are some with whom I share long histories.

But there’s no one like David in my life, no one I’ve ever shared so intimately with than him—not only physically, but emotionally and in terms of the life we’ve built together. I trust him fully. But are we “soul mates”? Honestly, I’m not even sure what that term means. I know we’re different. He zigs when I zag. But we have, over the decades, been faithful, fallen in love (and out of love, to be clear) with each other many times, and built our life and family together.

David turned fifty last year, and I threw him a surprise party. I had a vision for the evening: one long table (made up of a few smaller ones) set for twenty people down the center of our dining and living rooms, votive candles, handmade birthday banners, and tapas from his favorite Spanish restaurant.

The day of the party, I sent David out with our youngest, Mia, for an outing in the city. My eldest took the train home from college. A friend came from San Diego, and David’s brother flew in from Boston. One of his grad school buddies, our priest, and several other dear friends were there.

That night, as we sat at that long table, the candles flickering, almost every one of David’s closest friends—from boyhood through graduate school and to the present—took turns standing and sharing favorite memories about him. As they spoke, one after the other, I realized that my husband and I had left our individual selves behind somewhere along the way in our marriage. He and I, truly, were a “we.”

I already knew, of course, that we were “we” to our children. We are “Mom and Dad” or, with a sigh, “the ’rents.” But to all of these old friends, we were “Jen and David,” “David and Jen.” I felt humbled to be included in this little phrasing—to hear how “David and Jen were there for me” or “Jenni and David said . . . ” I’d never before, before the night of his fiftieth, seen myself through the eyes of his friends. I wasn’t just David’s wife; I had become an inextricable part of the person they knew so well. I guess this is what almost thirty years of marriage will do.

“If we commit ourselves to one person for life this is not, as many people think, a rejection of freedom,” Madeleine L’Engle writes. Rather, “it demands the courage to move into all the risks of freedom, and the risk of love which is permanent; into that love which is not possession, but participation. To marry is the biggest risk in human relations that a person can take.”[i]

I agree. When we “forsake all others,” we limit ourselves on purpose. We begin a kind of vocation and give ourselves the chance to go deep and die to the self in new—and often difficult—ways. And marriage is hard—but not because of silly things like arguing over which way the toilet paper should hang or whether someone prefers Full Metal Jacket to Singin’ in the Rain—but marriage is hard because growing up is hard.

Author and pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber famously welcomes new members to her church by guaranteeing, from day one, that she will let them down. “We will disappoint you,” she says. “It’s a matter of when, not if.” Bolz-Weber promises that she’ll “say something stupid” and hurt their feelings, but says that if they “choose to leave when we don’t meet their expectations, they won’t get to see how the grace of God can come in and fill the holes left by our community’s failure, and that’s just too beautiful and too real to miss.”[ii]

When I first read that, I thought: Isn’t that exactly like marriage? We all say stupid things, hurt each others’ feelings, and let each other down. But…it’s too beautiful and real to miss.


[i] Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season. San Francisco: HarperOne, 1984), 47.

[ii] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix (New York: Jericho Books, 2013), 54.

 

 

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  1. Melanie Springer Mock says:

    This is so good, Jennifer. I’m 20 years in to my marriage, and social posts about “soul mates” and “best friends” kinda bum me out, making me feel guilty that my husband and I don’t really play that role with each other. Life partners, yes. A vocational calling to the hard work of loving and disappointing another person, for sure. But the mythology that marriage will be about living with your “bestie” forever is just that: a myth. I love the way you beautifully tell your story in this post, and the story of marriage in your book.

  2. Great post, Jen. I’m 27 years in and it’s not been easy–but it has been a catalyst for growth. But when I let go of expecting a “soul mate” I actually grew closer to my husband. I think books, movies, and even just our culture at large put some pretty wacky expectations on marriage. When we can see marriage as a tool of sanctification, instead of a means of self-gratification, we can discover the joy.

  3. I love the idea of becoming a “we” and how that is very hard to define…and also how it takes courage to get there!

  4. Jason Williams says:

    Despite what greeting cards, pop music, and Hugh Grant movies have done with the concept, I believe “soul mate” is still a relevant term. I’ve been married for 12 years, and I understand the whole me -> we thing. I take “soul mates” to mean one mind occupying two bodies, which is what you’re describing. It’s a beautiful (comforting/funny/scary/fulfilling) thing.

  5. Ephesians 5:32 in discussing marriage begins with “This is a great mystery..” Jennifer, your words beautifully speak into this enigma wherein two become one, yet remain two, but are one, though are…

    I was married. We made a commitment to each other for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health – till death do us part. I honored this but my wife didn’t. So apparently, we really just lived together for seventeen years, because if we were married – we’d still be married! It’s that simple.

    The definition of something ultimately becomes what we collectively choose to accept as its meaning, which may or may not be its actual meaning, and like any feeling, isn’t always accurate. Call a tulip a daisy long enough and it becomes known as a daisy, however, that doesn’t mean it’s not still a tulip.

    Anyone can say they’re married, but to be married – is to be David & Jennifer.

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