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posted: 1/8/2012 9:11 AM

Soul mate? You may have more than one

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What do you think is the one thing young adults expect from marriage? The answer may surprise you.

Most of us would think that today's young adults might be more than a little cynical about marriage, what with their parents' generation's less-than-impressive record of making marriages work.

However, a recent survey by Rutgers University found that 88 percent of those surveyed believed that there existed one, unique, potential partner -- a soul mate -- with whom they could unite to create the ideal, lifelong marriage.

I am relieved, I guess, to know that young adults have not given up on marriage. I believe it holds unparalleled potential for experiencing the depths of intimacy between two people.

What concerns me about this survey's results, however, are two misguided assumptions about marriage it suggests that today's 20-somethings hold.

First, though it is wonderfully romantic to believe that there is one special partner for each of us, the reality is there are a large number of people in the world to whom we could be successfully married (of course, that doesn't mean it is easy to find any of them, or if we do, that it is easy to get to know them well enough to realize they are potential marital partners).

Research suggests that building a successful long-term marriage involves creating what we might call a "romantic best friendship" with one of these potential partners. We fall in love, and stay in love, with someone we also can become close friends with.

If we think about the sort of people we fall in love with and the sort of people we are close friends with, it is not to hard to believe there could be more than just one soul mate out there. In fact, there are all sorts of people we are attracted to as either friends or lovers. And when one person has the potential to be both, they also have the potential to be good, long-term marital partners.

Second, every successful couple I've known has worked long and hard to create, and re-create, their relationship. Innumerable studies of healthy relationships suggest the same. The consensus seems to be that being soul mates may be a good start, but being lifelong "work mates" is probably just as important.

Think for a minute about what we have to deal with when it comes to making a marriage work -- lifestyle differences, gender issues, job stressors, physical changes, child rearing, extended family relationships or finding meaning and fulfillment in life, not to mention the risk of just getting bored with each other. And, to make things even more difficult, all of these dynamics shift and change as we grow and develop as individuals. Finding a soul mate does not protect us from having to work through these challenges and, unfortunately, today's young adults haven't had much of a chance to witness their own parents do so successfully.

If young adults want a successful long term marriage -- and I'm sure they do -- they will have to learn to work harder and/or smarter than many in previous generations have.

It seems to me that soul mates are people we both find and create. We choose from among a number of possible marital partners and work long and hard to build on that initial romance and friendship to create the romantic best friendship -- that's what a successful marriage is all about.