A friend of mine recently brought a column from a local paper to my attention. In it, the author suggested that the idea of family that is believed so lost in our modern age has been replaced by the urban tribe, a different type of family. I nodded happily along as I read, agreeing on most points and thinking of my own extended community; until I reached the part where the author stated that tribes break up when the members marry. I could not have been more stunned if a parking meter bit me. Throughout the column the author asserts over and over that urban tribes represent family and that the delay in marrying represents a return to romanticism as each member looks vainly for his or her soul mate. But how can it be a return to family values if romantic love destroys the family group? Isn't the whole point of family to place the needs of the group and community above the narcissism of romantic passion? It seems a fundamental oxymoron to declare family values are here to stay when they only stay until we find our soul mate.
Ah, the soul mates. How I dislike the idea of soul mates. And not because I haven't felt it, because I have. Once when I was young I had a soul mate and we did everything a Romeo and Juliet should do when in love, except die. Even now, if I speak to him, our minds follow the same tracks in seriousness and mischief, co-conspirators with almost telepathic connection. But I couldn't possibly live with him again, share my life with him, or take him as a life partner. Not only are we a bad match, but we don't even get along for long periods of time. We don't have the same life goals, the same values, or the same sense of family unity.
One of the things that bothers me about soul mates is where it came from. The idea that there is only one destined love in our life does not exist in greek culture, in Elizabethan culture, or in the european folk tales. You would be hard pressed to find an example of this belief in western culture until the later half of the twentieth century. There are many tales of tragic love or great love but none of them imply that the love is a soul mate or that fate or destiny played the major part.
The idea of a soul mate is linked to the belief in karma and past lives. Which is ironic because western culture does not actively embrace either of these philosophies, though our romanticism has happily embraced the idea of soul mates, bypassing the other philosophies entirely. Ask your average American on the street and they will tell you that they do not believe in past lives but they do believe in soul mates. That these beliefs are in inherent conflict is irrelevant. It is not this cultural failure of logic that bothers me, however. What disturbs me is why our society has embraced this idea so thoroughly and so quickly that it doesn't even have rational underpinnings in our cultural philosophy, and the long-term implications of a society that believes in soul mates.
The second question is easier to address: In a society that believes in soul mates, one can rationalize the termination of a long-term relationship because one has, at last, found one's soul mate. Or we can rationalize the failure to engage in a long-term relationship because we have not found a soul mate. By definition, there is only one soul mate in the whole universe for each soul. The romantic appeal is obvious, but the practical application is ludicrous. Moreover, it implies that love, or the even deeper idea of a "soul-bond", is all that is required to have a truly happy marriage and relationship for the rest of one's life.
It is my considered opinion that romantics have done more than any other social factor to destroy the institution of marriage. They have canonized the idea that love conquers all, ignoring practical relationship skills such as communication, respect, and trust. Marriage has come to mean the joining into one that is warned against in every treatise on love and partnership. Passionate love is not a reason or even a basis for partnership. Romeo and Juliet make a lovely tragedy, but their chances for a happy marriage had they lived would have been no better than anyone else, possibly worse.
The return to family values will happen when society at large embraces the belief that marriage is a partnership, not just between individuals, but involving an entire community. You don't dump your friends just because you think you found the love of your life.
Columns by Buttercup