“Amber,” I asked, “do you love me?”
She paused and looked down. It was a late weekday night, we had class the next day, and we were talking about our hopes of engagement. Now my question hung in the air of that dirty stairwell, awaiting a response.
“I don’t know,” she finally managed.
We were inches apart, but immediately I felt the distance in her words. We had been flirting with the possibility of marriage for a few months already, but suddenly Amber’s uncertainty threatened everything.
“If we’re going to talk about marriage, you need to figure this out,” I said tersely.
Sensing the hurt and fear in my voice, Amber quickly backtracked. “No, of course I love you!”
“No,” I insisted, “ you have to answer that question for yourself. You need time and space to think about this.”
I walked back to my apartment that night, tormented by the thought that, for all the things that Amber and I had in common, fate had determined that we were not meant to be together—that for as much as I loved her, and she loved me, we could never be “soulmates.” Perhaps, I thought, just like I had seen in those weepy chick flicks, I needed to do the loving thing and let her go. (See Sleepless in Seattle.) The episode also forced Amber and me to confront an urgent question: what is a soulmate, and are we soulmates?
But how could Amber and I, for all the love and good times that we shared, not be soulmates? That was my question. And it was a recurring conversation in our relationship: I knew that I wanted to marry her, no questions asked, but she vacillated between declarations of love during the day and fears about our compatibility by night. Her fears about our compatibility boiled down to an awkward fact: I wasn’t really interested in talking about how I feel. We had had many a late-night stairwell conversation that went something like the following.
Amber: What are you feeling?
Me: [Silence] I don’t know.
Amber: I need you to tell me what you’re feeling. Otherwise, I can’t feel close to you.
Me: [feeling the pressure now] Um…I don’t know what to say.
Finally, Amber delivered the message to me straight one night: she didn’t feel as in love with me as she did with her previous boyfriend. With him, she explained, she felt an almost immediate soulmate connection. They easily poured their feelings out to each other, and over time, there was this dazzling maze of emotional connections that had formed. Me? She didn’t say it, but I got the message: I was the boyfriend in the movie that is nice but boring—the guy that the girl leaves when she realizes that she’s not with her soulmate. Compared to the other guy, talking to me was like talking to a blank wall.
If Amber married me, she knew that I would be a devoted husband who loved and cherished her until death do us part. But would she always feel that love? Despite my most earnest attempts, would my love feel cold to her, say, ten years into marriage? That was the question that pursued her. And as much as I loved Amber, I felt like I could do nothing to alleviate her concern. We weren’t soulmates. Whatever we did have, we didn’t have what the cosmic lovers in the picture below had.
But what about the love that Amber and I did share for each other? Granted, I was a rookie at sharing my feelings with Amber. But we liked talking about the same things, reading the same books, and we both shared the same life aspiration of having a dozen children and growing old and wise together. We could talk for hours about some obscure question of great interest to both of us, and we shared many of the same life goals. And you want to talk about romance? Early in our relationship, I took her in front of a giant Victoria’s Secret billboard smack in the center of New York City and told her that her soul-deep beauty was way more alluring than what those models offered. And it is reported that, on at least one occasion, we were told by a park passerby who saw us kissing that we should “get a room.” (I will not confirm or deny this report.)
I mean, for a guy who hailed from the Amish, had no sisters, and had been historically terrified of the opposite sex, I was doing all right, if I may say so. And she trusted that I was a good man who would try to love her well, and that I would be a great father. And yet—and yet—there was her utterly demoralizing verdict: I’ve seen better and I’ve felt more intensely; despite your best attempts, you’re not good enough. (Okay, she didn’t say it that way, but that’s how it felt.)
I argued with her about this. I said that love is a movement, and if you marry me the story of us will be the story of an ever deepening love, an ever greater intimacy, a more profound knowledge of each other. At the time, I didn’t have the following quote from John Paul II in my arsenal, but if I had, I would have aimed and fired: “love … is always only ‘becoming,’ and what it becomes depends on the contribution of both persons and the depth of their commitment.”
In other words, a deep and authentic love and intimacy is not the predestinated fate of the soulmate gods, but the decisive creation of a free man and woman. Deep and lasting love does not just happen; two people, together, have the privilege of shaping their love. What love becomes depends on what a couple makes of it.
So give our love a chance! That’s what I wanted from her. But that night in the stairwell, I had not yet won Amber’s trust that I would be the kind of man to fight for our love.
However, Amber knocked on my door the next morning, embraced me, gave me a cup of coffee, took my hand, and walked with me to class. All was suddenly well. What she was trying to say, I think, is that she trusted that I would join her in deepening our love and intimacy—that I would be a diligent co-steward of our love. Of course, that put the onus on me: I had to try out more than “I don’t know” when Amber asked what I was feeling; I had to take seriously her desire to connect with me on an emotionally rich level.
What is a soulmate? If a soulmate is “the one” with whom you’re supposed to feel an instant connection—and the initial intensity of that connection is supposed to be the authentic barometer of whether a couple is compatible for marriage, count me skeptical. Why? Because what love becomes depends on what a couple does with it. If a man and woman have good character and share many common values and have romantic affection for one another, I’d say they are more than capable of forming a deep and lasting love. The idea that there’s “the one” person out there with whom you can truly connect—despite your best attempts to connect with a person you do sincerely love—seems honestly ridiculous, but surprisingly powerful. That idea gnawed at me for most of our dating days.
But if I could have our dating days all over again, I’d have fewer hours-long stairwell conversations angsting over whether we’re “the one” for each other, and more time letting our love organically grow over dates and shared friends and social gatherings. With less time agonizing over “maybe we’re just not meant to be,” maybe I’d have been more light and free with Amber (and therefore less prone to stiffen up when Amber asked me what I was feeling).
Anyway, I’m happy to say that after a few awkward months of dating, five years of marriage later, we have grown into “the one” for each other.