09/01/2010 11:40 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Elusive Soul Mate: From Fantasy to Reality

The other day I finished reading poet-musician Patti Smith's beautiful memoir, Just Kids. Ostensibly about her long relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, the book also serves as a good social history of the burgeoning art, music and literary scene in New York during the late '60s and early '70s.

What struck me about Smith's interwoven narrative of her love relationship with Mapplethorpe -- in which, she describes, both served as "artist and muse" to each other -- is that it reveals something about what a "soul mate" is, or could be. Despite their differences; despite different directions their lives took over the years; and despite Mapplethorpe's struggle with being gay -- ultimately dying of AIDS in 1989 -- he and Smith appear to have been continuously connected, psychically, artistically and spiritually.

This got me thinking about the elusive "soul mate." So many people hope to find one -- even when they conclude such a person doesn't exist outside of the imagination. I think it can be real. It emerges from something you can't create; and yet, it's something you can build.

That sounds contradictory, but let me explain. Over the years I've heard many of my patients talk about their longing for a soul mate partner. A few of them believe they've found one. But most gradually conclude that they've been pursuing an elusive, unrealistic dream to begin with. Even worse, searching for a soul mate has led some into unsatisfying or dysfunctional relationships, partly fueled by their idealization of their partners.

A major reason for failed, dysfunctional relationships is the damage that accrues from our adolescent model of adult love that I described in a previous post. That is, many people become socially conditioned into a view of love that they equate with an intense yearning for their own feeling of being "in love." That heightens desire for an idealized lover, especially when he or she is elusive or unavailable. Longing for the unattainable ideal is more of a desire to be enthralled with your own experience of feeling in love, than a reality-based interest in the real person of your partner.

But beyond that flawed pursuit -- and it continues to color most people's romantic lives today -- many relationships begin with a pretty strong positive charge, emotionally and sexually. And then they crumble under the weight of daily life. You know -- all the pressures, conflicting desires, bills to pay, career conflicts, children's needs, and so on that can take a pretty heavy toll on any relationship.

Therefore, many assume that boredom with their partner and the corresponding emotional-sexual decline is inevitable. That can reactivate old yearnings or hope for a soul mate who might be out there after all, beckoning you to a simple, pure, passionate love. Of course, that's what leads some people into affairs, as I wrote about in a recent post.

Can You Create a Real Soul Mate?
I think there's a way to grow and develop the soul mate experience with your partner. But it does require a strong, perhaps unexplainable connection to begin with. The danger is that what feels like a strong pull towards each other can mask deeply unconscious conflicts and desires that find a "mesh" with those of the other person. When combined with the adolescent model of love that prevails in our culture, the outcome is likely failure or outright disaster.

But in the relative absence of underlying emotional issues, a strong "soul to soul" connection has to be there, to begin with. You know it when you feel it -- a kind of mind/body/spiritual connection. That's why it's called a soul mate. It both underlies and transcends the relationship that the two people may build. Some, who believe in reincarnation, explain this feeling as rooted in a connection in a prior life, as described in a recent New York Times article.

But that feeling, if it exists between two people, is the starting point, not the end point, for building a soul mate relationship. I think the latter becomes possible to the extent that the couple works at constructing a mature adult love relationship. That's a blend of erotic desire, close friendship, respect and support of each other's growth and development -- towards connected but independent, different human beings.

Think of the way in which a new substance can arise from the joining of two separate elements. For example, water emerges from the coming together of hydrogen and oxygen. Similarly, sustainable adult love is the product of two connected yet self-sufficient, "non-needy" people. It's more of an art that you practice and cultivate, rather than a set of techniques from a how-to book.

Even in the absence of a highly charged "soul to soul" connection to start with, a couple can deepen their relationship in ways that come pretty close to a soul mate experience. Here are three practices that can help:

Radical Transparency
Hiding out, concealing your thoughts and feelings, or secret manipulation characterizes so many relationships today. It's not that we want to be hidden or deceptive, but we tend to fall into those patterns anyway as we adapt to conventional relationships in our culture. Radical Transparency subverts this through the practice of two-way openness: First, openness to being fully receptive to your partner's feelings, desires, fears and differences from yourself, and openly encouraging your partner to express them. And secondly, openness in revealing all of your own to your partner. If you don't think doing both are hard, try it! They build the kind of intimacy and connection that's part of a soul mate relationship.

Share the Stage
This practice takes the form of demonstrating equality in your actual behavior, not just in words. That is, it's letting go of trying to control or dominate your partner through overt or subtle maneuvers. Instead, shift towards practicing "power with" rather than "power over." That's the basis for creating a mutually supportive relationship. Because of our social conditioning, that means different things for a man and a woman. For a man, supporting a woman's autonomy, independence and competency, while showing that you value her emotional sensitivity and responsiveness. For a woman, supporting the man's capacity for emotional connection, openness and vulnerability, while also valuing his strengths and solution-oriented tendencies.

In other words, each demonstrates support for the underdeveloped capacities in the other. Many incorrectly assume those are innate gender differences because of lack of awareness about socially conditioned behavior. But both genders can grow their underdeveloped capacities and strengthen an adult partnership. For example, daily decision making, especially where there are differences or conflicts. Ask yourself in those situations, how can you best serve the relationship (that "third entity"), rather than your own ego? Doing that, by the way, contributes to building the empathy that's necessary for a healthy relationship of any kind.

Intensify "Good Vibrations"
A third practice relates to your sexual/physical connection. It's hard to build "good vibrations" when you're conditioned to expect decline in your relationship over time, and then relate to each other in ways that create a self-fulfilling prophecy. This practice means letting go of inhibitions and fears, and cease using your sexual relationship as a vehicle for unspoken emotional grievances. When you're also practicing Radical Transparency and Sharing The Stage, that helps. Typically, couples give short shrift to the physical/sexual part of their relationship because of the pressures and demands of everyday life. When sexual interest and excitement wanes as a result, too often they become fixated on finding the right technique or new sexual position to restore it. While mechanical "functioning" may improve as a result, your sexual relationship with your partner won't.

"Good Vibrations" build naturally as you become more open and communicative about your sexual desires and needs. But it also requires that you take the time and the setting for focusing on each other, physically and sexually. You have to create "adult" time -- without the kids. And then engage in physical/sexual practices that will build energy and connection. That's what I meant in my previous post by the difference between typical "marital sex" and "making love."

Overall, partners in an adult love relationship recognize and validate each other as separate people. They view differences as exciting, not something to be feared or squashed. That includes differences from each other in perspectives, outlook and desires. In fact, differences provide an exciting edge that helps a relationship stay alive -- especially when there's a larger, shared connection around vision, values and overall purpose of your life together.

All of the above contributes to the transcendent experience people have in mind when they think of a soul mate. It's clear that both men and women want more heightened, sustained connection and vitality in their relationships. Surveys, as far back as a 2000 Gallup Poll, along with other research findings, show that both younger and older men and women -- straight or gay -- long for a lifelong, charged relationship in all realms -- emotionally, sexually and spiritually.

That's hopeful news. It strengthens the possibility that people may be able to evolve beyond our adolescent practice of love and towards more adult relationships -- ones in which you have a shot at creating that longed for soul mate partnership.

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is Director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C.