Photo: Levi Brown
I already knew he wasn't right for me, this guy my friend had dragged me out of New York on New Year's Eve to meet.
I knew exactly whom I was supposed to be with, and it was not this stranger. My soul mate was worldly, creative, successful, plugged in—just like me, except with more self-confidence. He'd mesh flawlessly with my stylish urban life of dinners, friends, weekends seeing art exhibits and indie bands. I didn't care about wealthy or powerful. I cared about cool. And this Kevin person my friend was forcing me to meet was clearly uncool. He lived two hours away; he didn't have a remarkable job or a byline or a portfolio. Forget it.
On the other hand, I was getting older, and Perfect Soul Mate had yet to materialize. The cool guys I dated weren't turning out so well, and one particularly bad breakup spurred me into action. With the help of the vast world of online matchmaking (and several supportive friends on speed-dial), I bulk-dated. It was, by and large, a great experience. I met a lot of nice guys who were completely uncool but—and this was new for me—really very happy to spend their weekends with me. That Perfect Soul Mate began to get a little fuzzy around the edges—but I held out hope.
So when one amateur-matchmaker friend said she had a setup for me and she was throwing a New Year's Eve potluck expressly to make the connection, I balked. "I'm dated out," I said. "I don't want to spend New Year's on a blind date. Some of my girlfriends are going to a nightclub. I'd rather do that."
"Okay." Her voice over the phone was calm, though I have to think she was stabbing a fork into my picture. "If that's how you feel."
The email she sent a few minutes later was gentle but insistent. "I know you're tired of the meet-and-greet," she wrote, "but I am setting you up with a single, straight, available man who likes to cook, make furniture, and garden, and has two dogs. And you're telling me you'd rather go out and do tequila shots."
So there I was, at potluck New Year's Eve in the Catskills, studiously avoiding Kevin, when I noticed a pan of brownies. They looked food-porn beautiful, but, snob that I was, I doubted the inside would match the outside. What the heck; I cut a square and took a bite.
Mouth shock. It was the best brownie I had ever tasted. Intensely fudgy and rich, not too sweet and with a hint of salt, the kind of treat you'd pay $3 for at a coffee bar. "This is amazing," I told my friend. "Who made it?" With a smug look on her face, she pointed across the room. "Kevin," she said. The man she wanted me to meet. I looked his way at the precise moment he glanced at me, and a quiet voice in my head said, "That's the man you're going to marry."
No, voice, I am not, I thought heatedly. He is entirely wrong for me. Impossible.
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So of course, we talked for the rest of the night and began dating right away. He introduced me to his parents almost immediately. I became very familiar with bus service to upstate New York. We planned a trip to Mexico. And then three months in, I dumped him. "We're in different places in our lives" was my excuse.
"I don't think so," he said, "but okay."
Truthfully, he just wasn't Perfect Soul Mate.
I get a little embarrassed when I think about how attached I was to a fantasy, but I'm hardly unique. "Every person—men and women alike—walks around with an idealized other," says Lois Braverman, president of the Ackerman Institute for the Family, a therapy-training center in New York. "It's some idea of who you think a life partner should be, and it includes how the people around you are going to react. In other words, it's not just that you're going to marry a doctor; it's how you imagine your parents, your friends, your extended circle reacting when you walk into a room and say, 'This is Robert—he's a doctor!'"
And most people can describe that idea in great detail. "I was supposed to marry a financial guy, or a lawyer, and live in Brentwood," says marketing executive Kasey Soll Pitillo, referring to the tony Los Angeles enclave. But that didn't happen; instead, she's happily married to Jim, a firefighter she's known since high school, and they live in a less fancy neighborhood. Though they'd flirt when they ran into each other, it took years, and a chance meeting, for Pitillo to realize he was the one. In her mind, "there was no way firefighter Jim and corporate Kasey could ever be a match." Cut to a few years ago: After reconnecting on Facebook, the two met for a drink, and the rest was wedding bells—or rather, elopement in the Napa Valley. "He wasn't my opposite," Pitillo says now. "He was the complete missing piece to my crazy puzzle: the most intelligent, quick-witted, honest, multifaceted, engaging, interesting, handsome human being I have ever met."
But it can be hard to see that, immersed as we are in a culture that loves a glam power couple (Beyoncé + Jay-Z, Gisele + Tom Brady), where we drink in Prince Charming when we're little and rom-coms when we grow up. The idea that your partner should conform to your preconceived notion of Mr. Wonderful is potent, Braverman says—but breaking away from it can be even more powerful. Anne Kerr L'Heureux, founder of Hyde yoga clothing, grew up in a New York suburb populated by bankers, lawyers, and doctors, and her ideal was anything but. "I pictured myself marrying a bohemian," she said. "A novelist or a furniture designer. I was going to live in Brooklyn and not have any money." But after yet another creative type broke her heart, a friend introduced her to Matt, who was... an investment banker. "And he was awesome," L'Heureux says. "Totally not what I thought a banker could ever be." They started dating, but "he was working all the time," she says. "He took conference calls in the middle of dinner, and that was exactly what I didn't want. I wanted someone who was going to be around, especially if we were going to start a family. He kept saying he was going to retire, but I didn't see it happening, so we broke up. I started dating someone else, though we kept in touch, met for lunch, things like that."
Then Matt made good on his word:
At 45, he left the bank. "I was amazed," says L'Heureux. "He did what he said he was going to do!" Wedding and baby followed in short order. "I used to say I would never, ever marry someone in finance," L'Heureux admits now. "But he is so right for me. I'm the one who's into yoga, but he's the most present person I've ever met, without even trying. We're really complementary, but I had to look past that shell that we all decide we want."
"When you allow yourself to experience a person who doesn't fit your ideal, when you let yourself move from that idea of whom you're supposed to be with, it takes more personal strength," says Braverman. "You're standing on your own."
One unifying theme in these stories is chemistry: No matter how hard you try to evict Not-Soul-Mate from your head, he lingers. Soon after I broke up with Kevin, I had a health scare and ended up in the emergency room. Did I want to call my sister? My best friend? No, I wanted to call the guy I had broken up with three months before. Beata Santora, the editor of the Quick and Dirty Tips website and podcasts, had a similar experience with Frank. When she knew him in high school, they could not have been more different. "I was shy, studious, into ballet," she says. "He was a party-hearty guy sowing his wild oats." Years later, they reconnected, "and I found him charming." Even though she was dating a guy "who was perfect on paper, who wined and dined me in all the right ways, there was no connection, no chemistry. I'd leave him to go meet Frank in a dive bar." Santora also saw a new side of Frank: how hard he'd worked to put himself through college, then business school. "But," says Santora, who married Frank in Rome in 2009, "it took us a long time to realize this was something serious."
It took me seven months. One fall day, an email from Kevin popped up in my in-box. He just wanted to say hello, and that he missed me. I melted. Why wait around for some fictional hipster when here was an actual warm human being telling me how he felt? There was a heavenly reunion, a trip to Paris, and an engagement ring, and 12 months later we were married in the garden at his parents' house. A year later, we adopted a little girl.
Here's the thrilling thing about saying farewell to this idealized notion of Perfect Soul Mate and hello to a human being: a real, lasting relationship that's made up of "passion, attraction, joy, connection," says Braverman. "In the long term, how someone treats you is the most important thing." For the record? Fictional soul mates have no idea how to treat a woman.
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