In a recent interview for British Vogue, the actress Emma Watson raised some eyebrows when she described herself as “self-partnered.” She is approaching 30, and according to Ms. Watson — an activist and award-winning star of the Harry Potter movie franchise — it took much hard work to recognize that being single and without children doesn’t signal failure. It just means that she is going on her journey of self-fulfillment and discovery alone. And that’s O.K.
Ms. Watson is not the only one to describe herself and her relationship status in such terms. Lizzo, the rapper and flutist who went from underground star to mainstream darling this summer, proclaims in her hit song, “Soulmate”: “I’m my own soul mate/I know how to love me/I know that I’m always gonna hold me down.” Apparently tired of looking for “The One,” Lizzo realized it was her all along.
For most people, the idea of self-coupling may be jarring, but a closer look might reveal it to be more of an end point of a trend. Marriage rates have been declining steadily since the 1970s. Many of us are “dating” more, but somehow going on fewer dates. Sex is safer and less burdened with shame than in the past, and seemingly more available, but we’re having less of it than we were a generation ago. And despite all these mixed signals, most of us are still looking for The One.
If the popularity of “The Bachelor” franchise (even among self-identified feminists) isn’t convincing enough, according to a 2017 poll, two-thirds of Americans believe in “soul mates.” But what does finding The One mean in 2019? And can, as Ms. Watson and Lizzo proclaim, you be your own one and only?
According to Stephanie Coontz, the author of the 2005 book “Marriage: A History,” finding The One used to be about completion. In the 19th century, the rise of the market economy divided the sexes — men into the world of bread-winning work and women into that of unpaid domestic labor. “When these two spheres were brought together in marriage,” Ms. Coontz wrote, “they produced a perfect well-rounded whole.”
This approach to partnership, wherein two members of opposite sex complete each other, was essentially religious in origin — “complementarianism,” for the theologians out there — a well-known example being the biblical adage that “two shall become one.” It also recalls Plato’s “Symposium” — one of the earliest purveyors of the soul mate myth — where the comic poet Aristophanes explains that humans were once united in pairs, but were then split into unhappy halves by Zeus. Ever since, the comedian explains, each of us have been roaming the earth searching for our missing piece.
The ideal of completion hearkens to a time when women were economically and socially dependent on men and marriage was reserved for heterosexual couples. Today, instead of a life-defining relationship, many of us now see partnership as one part of a puzzle that includes a career (which often demands geographic mobility), family, a social life, personal wellness, volunteer work and creative or recreational outlets. A relationship is not the foundation of selfhood, but only a piece.
This does not mean that seeing oneself as one’s own partner or soul mate is equivalent to loneliness. While loneliness is an epidemic in numerous developed countries, including parts of the United States, the “self-coupling” Ms. Watson and Lizzo reference is not the same thing as social isolation. It does not preclude meaningful relationships of all types.
In his 2017 book “The All-or-Nothing Marriage,” the psychologist Eli Finkel uses Abraham Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs to explain this phenomenon. According to Maslow, human beings must satisfy certain existential demands in order to attend to others. Physiological needs (such as food, water and shelter) form the foundational row of the pyramid, which then moves upward to safety, social belonging and self-esteem (that is, status and importance). Dr. Finkel maintains that marriage is no longer a requirement for meeting any of the “lower-level” dimensions of human existence. The sexual revolution, accessibility to contraception and the social acceptability of remaining single or getting divorced have made it possible to fulfill our foundational needs through our career, family, friends, hobbies and creative outlets.
What it does mean, however, is that love and partnership can now reside at the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: self-actualization. In an academic paper on love and marriage published in 2014, Dr. Finkel and his co-authors argued that since 1965 American marriages have formed around the ideal of “expressive individualism,” which centers on the creation of individual identity and the charting of a path of personal growth.
During this period, Americans began to see marriage as inessential, and are now “more likely to view it as a means of achieving personal fulfillment — one lifestyle option among many.” Dr. Finkel and his co-authors point to the character Carrie Bradshaw, from the TV show “Sex and the City,” as the archetype of the self-expressive approach to partnership. “Carrie was less concerned with building a bond with any particular partner,” they write, “than with achieving a self-expressive emotional experience.” In sum, marriage is now one of several avenues to becoming “your best self.”
This leaves us with a changing vision of The One. Many of us no longer require love, much less a soul mate, to fulfill our rudimentary needs. Partnership is now seen as a pathway toward perpetual self-growth.
According to Dr. Finkel, this makes love and relationships fickle. Not everyone will find The One, and they might be happier that way — living with higher levels of economic, social and sexual freedom without a constraining, or toxic, partnership — which may help to explain the decline in marriage over the last two decades. Those who do find a partner who fulfills their highest-level needs hit the jackpot. The “all-or-nothing marriage” means that those who cultivate a deep emotional and psychological bond with their partner will be likely to enjoy the most intimate form of human relationship.
It’s easy to view the self-expressive marriage as a result of some sort of narcissistic turn in American culture. Roy Baumeister and Michael MacKenzie, psychologists at Florida State University, offer a gloomy forecast for marriage, parenthood and even civic participation because of what they take to be the narcissism and entitlement of Gen X and Millennials. If the happiness of the self — myself — is now the highest value, the search for The One seems like a search for someone who will make me The One I’ve been searching for all along.
Despite the perennial seductiveness of labeling younger generations entitled brats, there’s more to the story. The psychologists Brooke Feeney and Nancy Collins offer an expanded picture of self-actualization as a balance between giving and receiving care and support. They maintain that caregiving and sacrifice, which for many people take place in long-term romantic partnerships, are pathways to self-actualization. In their view, healthy forms of dependence are actually key to independence.
“Because dependence on close relationship partners, particularly in times of need, is an intrinsic part of human nature,” Dr. Feeney and Dr. Collins write, “relationship partners who are sensitive and responsive to this behavior actually serve to promote independence and self-sufficiency.”
This means that for many of us, self-fulfillment arrives through self-giving. A partnership based on two individuals seeking self-actualization is not necessarily an endless tug of war between two competing narcissists. It can be a balance of distance and intimacy, support-giving and support-receiving, sacrifice and self-care. In other words, the path to “becoming my best self” may be best achieved through long-term relationships built on reciprocity, trust and compromise.
It seems the search for The One is no longer about finding the only person who can make your life what it’s supposed to be. It’s more like a quest for someone who will join you on the lifelong journey of growth.
Sometimes, though, the only suitable companion may be yourself.
Bradley B. Onishi is an associate professor of religious studies at Skidmore College and the author, most recently, of “The Sacrality of the Secular: Postmodern Philosophy of Religion.”
Now in print: “Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments,” and “The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments,” with essays from the series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.
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