It has been a been a roller coaster month of romantic headlines, from conscious uncoupling to Dancing With the Stars' crowd-favorite, "Disney Night." Watching the night of dancing princesses vaguely reminded us of our childhood hopes for a romantic fairytale ending with a perfect other half. Yet, facing the contrast between young dreams and the reality of another broken marriage was a harsh wake-up call. Let's face it; navigating the path to romance often ends in hotel heartbreak. Why might this be?
As millennial women, we were groomed for a white knight fantasy. From childhood favorites such as Snow White to adult rom-com staples such as How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days or Sleepless in Seattle, the media perpetuates a romantic storyline in which compatibility and lasting romance is something effortless, built on chance, sustained by good looks, fun dates and electric sexual chemistry. These story lines shape our expectations for romantic happiness. It is not enough to find someone with whom we are mostly compatible, who would make a good parent, with whom we could learn and grow wrinkly; now, we expect a perfect fit and an easy, instantaneous "connection." In short, we want a soul mate. But it is this desire for a soul mate that is actually the undoing of our happy ending.
A "soul mate" is defined as one who is ideally suited to us, perfectly completes us, one with whom the relationship feels easy and natural. With them, a relationship is just "meant to be," à la . A survey of young adults conducted by the National Marriage Project found that while 84% of young adults report finding a marriage partner "very important," a full 94% of young adults say they would like to marry a soul mate, and 73% of people ages 18 - 29 believe that there is a soul mate out there for them.
Would it be a fairytale to find someone who could complete us, with whom we will waltz off into the sunset? For many millennials, the answer is yes, especially in the face of rising divorce rates and dramatic transformation in the marriage and romantic landscape.
In recent years, marriage has shifted away from its historical role as a civic institution bonding parents to children to now being commonly understood as an institution nurturing emotional satisfaction, attraction and sexual chemistry between individuals. These differing values alter the timeline and selection of a long-term mate. A 2012 report from the U.S. Census Bureau shows the average age of first marriage has reached historic heights, hovering at around 27 for women and 29 for men, reaching into the mid-thirties for many adults in big cities. That delay is not because our generation is afraid of marriage, but rather, that we are terrified of divorce. So we postpone marriage, trying to secure "forever" by testing out the "temporary." Cohabitation is thriving, with over 7.5 million unmarried couples living together, up from about 450,000 in 1960. A full two-thirds of 20-somethings agree that this is a good way to avoid divorce.
We heard that those who get married later and possess a college degree have fewer divorces and more stable marriages. So we spend our twenties trying to find ourselves through travel, accumulating degrees and building a career. Marriage will be the capstone of our achievements, and nothing less than tying the knot with a soul mate will suffice. But the tragic irony is that soul mate thinking makes us increasingly likely to divorce. A study of 1,400 married men and women shows that people who hold soul mate orientations are 150% more likely to end up divorced than those who do not.
The widespread cultural belief in "soul mate ideology" undermines our chances at happiness because it makes us passive receivers of idyllic romantic expectations. Further, it fosters self-centeredness; one rarely longs to be a soul mate for someone else, which would require effort. For this reason, believing in soul mates is one of the most dis-empowering belief systems we can adopt. As millennials, we pride ourselves on actively pursuing the life we want to live, rather than simply accepting whatever hand we are dealt. We are innovative, passionate, proactive and not afraid to take risks. Yet, there is a disconnect when it comes to our desire for lasting love. Though there are prospects around us, we forgo taking the concrete steps needed to build happy compatible relationships because we do not "feel a spark." We are passively waiting on the sidelines for love to "happen," and then wonder why it is so difficult.
Compatibility is something co-created through intentionality and conscious choice. It involves mutual sacrifice, effort and commitment for the sake of the other's benefit. A recent study found that of the couples who demonstrate above average daily generosity, 50% of them report being "very happy" in marriage; among the low generosity scores, only 14% can say the same. As studies indicate, selflessness is required to create mutual compatibility. It is not instantaneous, nor does it usually begin with true love's kiss.
We both know from experience that there are some you naturally connect with and others you do not. This is not a call towards forced attraction or companionship. But, our romantic futures should not be placed in the hands of blind chance. It is time we roll up our sleeves and shift our expectations from unattainable perfection to realistic romance, one that accounts for imperfection. We must understand that work in a relationship is a necessary key to success, rather than an indication of imminent failure. We will be letting go of a tired plot line that sets us up for disappointment and embracing an active role in our own unique story.
How refreshing to know that we do not have to be perfect to be lovable, and that our romantic success is not solely dependent on finding the "right" fit, but instead built through cultivating daily moments of generosity, sacrifice and conscious coupling.