Great Expectations

Has the quest to find the perfect soul mate done more harm than good? Psychologists provide insight into how the never-ending search for ideal love can keep you from enjoying a marriage or a healthy relationship that you already have.

Marriage is dead! The twin vises of church and law have relaxed their grip on matrimony. We’ve been liberated from the grim obligation to stay in a poisonous or abusive marriage for the sake of the kids or for appearances. The divorcerate has stayed constant at nearly 50 percent for the last two decades. The ease with which we enter and dissolve unions makes marriage seem like a prime-time spectator sport, whether it’s Britney Spears in Vegas or bimbos chasing after the Bachelor.

Long live the new marriage! We once prized the institution for the practical pairing of a cash-producing father and a home-building mother. Now we want it all—a partner who reflects our taste and status, who sees us for who we are, who loves us for all the “right” reasons, who helps us become the person we want to be. We’ve done away with a rigid social order, adopting instead an even more onerous obligation: the mandate to find a perfect match. Anything short of this ideal prompts us to ask: Is this all there is? Am I as happy as I should be? Could there be somebody out there who’s better for me? As often as not, we answer yes to that last question and fall victim to our own great expectations..www.sunmatchservice.com

That somebody is, of course, our soul mate, the man or woman who will counter our weaknesses, amplify our strengths and provide the unflagging support and respect that is the essence of a contemporary relationship. The reality is that few marriages or partnerships consistently live up to this ideal. The result is a commitment limbo, in which we care deeply for our partner but keep one stealthy foot out the door of our hearts. In so doing, we subject the relationship to constant review: Would I be happier, smarter, a better person with someone else? It’s a painful modern quandary. “Nothing has produced more unhappiness than the concept of the soul mate,” says Atlanta psychiatrist Frank Pittman.

Consider Jeremy, a social worker who married a businesswoman in his early twenties. He met another woman, a psychologist, at age 29, and after two agonizing years, left his wife for her. But it didn’t work out—after four years of cohabitation, and her escalating pleas to marry, he walked out on her, as well. Jeremy now realizes that the relationship with his wife was solid and workable but thinks he couldn’t have seen that 10 years ago, when he left her. “There was always someone better around the corner—and the safety and security of marriage morphed into boredom and stasis. The allure of willing and exciting females was too hard to resist,” he admits. Now 42 and still single, Jeremy acknowledges, “I hurt others, and I hurt myself.”

Like Jeremy, many of us either dodge the decision to commit or commit without fully relinquishing the right to keep looking—opting for an arrangement psychotherapist Terrence Real terms “stable ambiguity.” “You park on the border of the relationship, so you’re in it but not of it,” he says. There are a million ways to do that: You can be in a relationship but not be sure it’s really the right one, have an eye open for a better deal or something on the side, choose someone impossible or far away.

Yet commitment and marriage offer real physical and financial rewards. Touting the benefits of marriage may sound like conservative policy rhetoric, but nonpartisan sociological research backs it up: Committed partners have it all over singles, at least on average. Married people are more financially stable, according to Linda Waite, a sociologist at the University of Chicago and a coauthor of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier and Better Off. Both married men and married women have more assets on average than singles; for women, the differential is huge.www.sunmatchservice.com

The benefits go beyond the piggy bank. Married people, particularly men, tend to live longer than people who aren’t married. Couples also live better: When people expect to stay together, says Waite, they pool their resources, increasing their individual standard of living. They also pool their expertise—in cooking, say, or financial management. In general, women improve men’s health by putting a stop to stupid bachelor tricks and bugging their husbands to exercise and eat their vegetables. Plus, people who aren’t comparing their partners to someone else in bed have less trouble performing and are more emotionally satisfied with sex. The relationship doesn’t have to be wonderful for life to get better, says Waite: The statistics hold true for mediocre marriages as well as for passionate ones.

The pragmatic benefits of partnership used to be foremost in our minds. The idea of marriage as a vehicle for self-fulfillment and happiness is relatively new, says Paul Amato, professor of sociology, demography and family studies at Penn State University. Surveys of high school and college students 50 or 60 years ago found that most wanted to get married in order to have children or own a home. Now, most report that they plan to get married for love. This increased emphasis on emotional fulfillment within marriage leaves couples ill-prepared for the realities they will probably face. .www.sunmatchservice.com

Because the early phase of a relationship is marked by excitement and idealization, “many romantic, passionate couples expect to have that excitement forever,” says Barry McCarthy, a clinical psychologist and coauthor—with his wife, Emily McCarthy—of Getting It Right the First Time: How to Build a Healthy Marriage. Longing for the charged energy of the early days, people look elsewhere or split up.

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