Soulmate marriages: Model of hope AND unrealistic expectations

soulmate marriage

I wrote this a few years ago, and it is interesting to revisit. I still stand by what I wrote, but also have discovered the delights in taking marriage / long-term partnership out of the equation, and being open to all kinds of romantic entanglements. What do you think?

I recently made friends with a delightful fellow writer in her 70s. She is so bright, funny and insightful, and when we went for lunch the other day, we naturally delved into talk of publishing, family and feminism. I was thrilled to find that despite our age differences she is equal parts ready to share, and eager to hear and learn. She wanted to know everything about me, then told me about herself. She wears good jewelry and has smooth skin.

Her favorite topic is her husband. They’ve been together forever, and he still turns her on. “When I know he’s coming home, I start to sweat,” she told me. “He just gets sexier and sexier.” This woman has had a phenomenally successful career as an author and magazine writer, and her greatest accomplishment is her marriage. She often takes her husband along on her reporting trips. “He is so smart, so funny and so sure of himself,” she says. “There is nothing I could ever do to make him doubt me. I always want to be around him. At this stage of life, every day we wake up and say, ‘Oh God. How much time do we have left together?’ I tell him I want to make a suicide pact. He takes me seriously, but then he laughs at me — which is good. I need that.”

I assured her that no matter what happens to her husband, she will go on — and she may even surprise herself and find a strength she doesn’t yet know. “No,” she said, dismissing me for the first time in our conversation. “I’m a tough woman. I am. And we have both been so lucky — we’ve had such successful careers, and have wonderful children and I adore all my grandchildren like you don’t know. But I could live without seeing my grandchildren again. I wouldn’t want to live without my husband.”

Speaking with my new friend felt like what I imagine it is like for pet owners to try to chime in when people talk about their human children — she has something profound that I may never experience. I feel a remarkable, deep love for my children. But they are not mine. They will leave me one day. A small part of me feels less human than my friend. That part that tells myself that it is OK to be single.

I tell myself it is OK to be single because I have no other choice. Of course it’s OKsoulmate marriage — that is how I get up in the morning! And for the most part, over the aggregate of my days and weeks and years — I am a really very happy person (I worry that sounds defensive). I am happy because I am grateful for all the wonderful people and experiences and things I have. I am grateful for the romantic loves I have had. But I am also happy because of my hope — for all the loves and successes and dreams that I aspire to. If I am real with myself, that hope includes a longterm partnership like my friend describes. Something constant and continuously delightful. A rich love full of respect and laughter and physical and intellectual intimacy. The fairy tale that we all dream of — and so very often dismiss as unrealistic.

That is one side of the story. The other side is that ideal becomes the standard. I have friends well into their 30s and 40s, desperate to be married and have kids, but terrified that anything less than this perfect union is not worth their time or any ensuing heartbreak. I argue that a short-term marriage may in fact be a successful one. After all, my marriage was far from sustainable. But it was completely worthwhile, and my life would be far less than it is now if I did not have that experience or the children it produced.

I told my friend about my 10-Year Marriage Contract concept. She is enthusiastic about its potential as an idea, a movement. “But I wouldn’t read it,” she said, with a warm smile. “I believe that really fabulous marriage is very possible.” She touched my chin with her soft, manicured fingers. “And you,” she said. “You are so delicious. You will find that. I know it. And I am good at knowing these things.”

And because either I really did, or because I wanted to, I believed her.


Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour,, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post’s ‘Must Read” list.

Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.

A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.

10 thoughts on “Soulmate marriages: Model of hope AND unrealistic expectations

  1. This is such a compelling post. My parents have this kind of marriage. At one point my mother and father both said that no matter the years and the aging, they still look at each other like as if they were those same teens many years ago. I empathize with you on wondering whether or not I will ever get to experience that kind of love. And if not, that’s ok too!

  2. I guarantee that couple had problems at some point. In my experience most marriages have a trajectory

    Madly in love stage=first 1-2 years

    Comfort stage=next 3 to 5 years

    Getting on each other’s nerves stage=Next 5 to 10 years

    A lot of marriages crack during stage 3. What they don’t tell you is if you stick it out (especially once the kids are out of the house) you start to grow closer again and realize how much you depend on one another (especially once you reach the point where you have been married longer than you were single).

    I have an idea based on your 10 year contract idea but with a little modification. Call it a “gap marriage”. You agree to get married and have children. You stick together and share household chores until the kids are all out of diapers and going to school. Then you agree to split up and see other people for a while (but nothing serious) to take a break from each other. Every 10 years or so you get back together and have a brief fling (also helping each other with the kids all the while and hopefully staying in the same area). Finally, once you hit your late 40s/early 50s and playing the field isn’t appealing anymore you agree to get back together for good and grow old together.

    This is how you can avoid the “can’t stand each other” stage that a lot of marriages go through.

  3. Sheila – I love it! Of course, once you get out in the world, there is no telling what the heart may attach to. But you are wise in your suggestion.

    And I am also sure every couple has rough spots. At least.

  4. I wish someone had told me that marriage wasn’t easy. That loving someone wasn’t enough to make things work. My marriage began with troubles in year 3, then hit rock bottom year 5. That year, I had an epiphany. I didn’t need my husband to make me happy. With a whole lot of strength, I kicked my husband out and made him think about whether we wanted to make this family work. And now I can say that I have that marriage that that person is talking about. But I wish it didn’t have to be that hard to get here.

  5. Jenn – I wonder WHY people don’t realize how hard marriage is? After all – it’s all around us! It’s not like going to medical school or traveling in a third-world country — experiences that a small percentage of the population experience. WTF? What do you think?

    1. I’m going to take a stab at your question, Emma. I think it’s for the same reason none of us fully realize how hard having (and raising) kids is: because there’s no way to really KNOW it until you’re living it. Because we’ve all done such a good job of embracing and varnishing the societal idea — happy marriage, happy parenting — that we don’t talk enough or honestly enough about the hard parts. Think about it: most people purposely hide and don’t talk about the really, really hard parts.

      I also think some of it has to do with naivete. None of us believe the hard stats apply to us. We all believe that our relationship, our kids, our lives will be different. Then, at some point, we find out we’re mere mortals too.

      I see where you’re coming from w/ the 10-yr marriage idea, but I don’t think it will really solve anything. Breakups, even pre-planned ones, come with messy emotional stuff. I truly think women and men would be better off holding out for a potentially fantastic relationship than settling for an OK one.

      1. Thanks Jennifer, always appreciate your comments. Re: “I truly think women and men would be better off holding out for a potentially fantastic relationship than settling for an OK one.”

        But that is what is happening, and we find people who are devastated because they miss out on parenthood and spend years alone. The question comes down to this: is it better to have loved and lost, or never to have loved at all? Most people opt for the former — I certainly do.

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