What Is a Soul Mate?
Soul mates have a special place in the lives of Black people in contemporary American society because they allow us to shed the burdens we carry through the day. In the safe haven created by intimacy, we find a place to speak honestly about ourselves and to heal from the wounds inflicted on us. Most of us are happiest when we have the opportunity to love and be loved; most of us thrive in the close bonds of commitment. As one of our clients said to his girlfriend, "When the world is kicking me and I'm down, it is you whom I look to for support. And I'd like to be able to do the same thing for you."
If you are fortunate, you may have known some intimate couples whose love has endured through times of trouble and times of joy. Their loyalty, support, and commitment to each other have not flagged, even when the circumstances of their lives have changed. They may share common interests, laugh at the same jokes, have similar taste in movies, and travel well together. When conflicts surface, they negotiate their differences in a climate of trust. They feel safe taking emotional risks, knowing they will not be attacked for admitting vulnerabilities. They are often sexually adventurous and committed to fidelity. Each feels comfortable with his or her own racial and spiritual identity and each partner respects the other's differences. Like all couples, they surely have their trials, but even when they disagree or disappoint each other, they avoid becoming bitter or accusatory. In all of their dealings, they find ways to uplift each other and to infuse hope and determination into the hardships of daily life.
But perhaps you have not had the privilege of knowing such inspirational soul mates. Perhaps your parents quarreled constantly as each one sought to gain the upper hand. Or your father was absent altogether and your mother went from one bad relationship to another. You may have been raised by adults who did not readily express emotions or who vented their frustrations on each other. Perhaps you were smothered and overprotected. Maybe your parents were emotionally distant. You may even have been emotionally, physically, or sexually abused.
Most likely you are still paying the price for these childhood experiences. The absence of strong, positive role models almost always leaves scars, and as an adult, you will have to struggle to resolve the experiences of a painful past. If intimacy was unfamiliar to you, you may be so fearful of getting close to other people that you sabotage your own relationships. Or perhaps the emotional void created in childhood was so intense that you scare potential partners away with your feverish efforts to get close. Men and women who grew up without healthy role models may also create unrealistic fantasies about an ideal lover -- and then find it hard to understand why no one meets their expectations.
Whatever your particular experiences, the result is likely to be the same -- you can't find love or you can't hold on to it when you do. A traditional Buddhist aphorism identifies at least part of the solution to your troubles: When the student is ready, the teacher appears. Essentially the same thing can be said for a soul mate. When you have developed a secure sense of your own identity, worked through some of the unresolved conflicts of childhood, feel confident and happy with yourself, and are receptive to a serious relationship, you are ready at last to make a commitment to a special person.
Rachel and Bill have the type of soul-mate relationship that many men and women, married or single, are seeking. Through a forty-year marriage that endured some terrible moments, they nurtured a powerful, intimate, and inspiring connection. When the winds of racism began to blow in their small Arkansas town, Bill headed north to Chicago in search of work; two years passed before Rachel and their children could join him. A decade later their son was killed in a tragic accident and the couple drew close to sustain each other through the terrible pain. Bill was involved in a brief but tempestuous affair and Rachel struggled with temptation, although she eventually decided to resist the advances of a family friend.
Over the years, they have also shared some moments of magic. They cherish six healthy grandchildren, have paid a triumphant visit to their ancestral homeland in the Ivory Coast, and won a community service award for developing innovative programs for inner-city youngsters. In their toughest times and at moments that shined most brightly, Rachel and Bill always valued their love and respect for each other.
The remarkable thing about such soul mates is that they light up everyone around them with the depth of their feelings. A day spent in their presence can be a day spent in serenity. In Beloved, Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison's extraordinary novel about love and loss, a slave named Sixo captured the power of a soul-mate connection when he describes his relationship with the Thirty-Mile Woman, named for the distance he'd walk in each direction for the chance to spend an hour with her. Sixo declares: "She is a friend of mine. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It's good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind." Such is the potential for Black love.
The Love We Seek
What sort of person can create this type of bond with you? Who is willing to understand and accept you as you are? Who can create a safe space where you feel protected from the often-painful realities of being an African-American in this society?
Our discussions with hundreds of Black men and women over the years have helped us identify some highly valued soul-mate characteristics. There's no shopping list of ingredients, of course, and obviously everyone has differing priorities. Needs also change over time -- it may be important to find a brother with a good-looking body when you are twenty-one, while financial stability and the willingness to commit often become more significant by the time you reach thirty-five. Some women are also discovering that Black men with solid values and respectable, but not glamorous, jobs -- the mail carriers, bus drivers, and office clerks they may once have written off as less than they deserve -- can be worthy and loving mates.
What Black Men Want
Imagine how Black men might be in a world with fewer obstacles and more support. What if we could eliminate the negative images that have been created, not only in the minds of White people but, tragically, in our own minds as well? Haki R. Madhubuti, the poet, essayist, and literary critic, offers this stirring description in his essay "Black Manhood: Toward a Definition":
a lover of life and all that is beautiful, one who is constantly growing and who learns from mistakes. a challenger of the known and the unknown. the first to admit that he does not know as he seeks to find out. able to solicit the best out of self and others. soft. strong. not afraid to take the lead. creative father. organized and organizer. a brother to brothers. a brother to sisters. understanding. patient. a winner. maintainer of the i can, i must, i will attitude toward Black struggle and life. a builder of the necessary. always and always in a process of growth and without a doubt believes that our values and traditions are not negotiable.
With Madhubuti's ideal in mind, let us try to answer the question our sisters keep asking: What does the Black man want from his woman?
She needs to let me admit my need for compassion. Media stereotypes depict Black men as hard and dangerous and our own pride makes us want to convey an image of emotional strength. But the truth is that we confront a cold world every day and want to find some warmth, comfort, and compassion from the women we love. We don't want to be fawned over but we want to be able to let our guard down and have our feelings affirmed. One of our clients puts it like this: "When things are rough, I want to make sure my woman can be a friend to me. I want to be able to talk to her and know that she will be there for me."
In the African tradition, we have a saying that "life at its best is a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony." Taken literally, it tells us that a Black man may discover his own strengths in moments of great vulnerability. But it takes a supportive and loving woman to see that strength.
She should be comfortable with her own sexuality. Many Black men tell us they are looking for a woman who is sensual and at ease with her sexuality. Some adjectives they use to describe this blend are well groomed, attractive, affectionate, attentive, and responsive. But the stereotype that men are just "looking for a little piece of action" doesn't hold up. In our discussion groups, men say having an orgasm isn't enough to achieve full sexual satisfaction. "Sure, the physical release is important, but so are the emotions that go along with it," said a young attorney. If a woman is uptight or unresponsive, it is difficult to connect with her emotionally.
She should know how to be strong without being hostile. The painful history that has forced Black women to be strong has been a great asset to our families and our communities, but some men feel that women are confusing strength with combativeness. "If her being strong means that we have to fight all the time, then I have a problem with that," said one man, complaining about women who approach relationships as if they are arming for battle. "I don't think a woman has to prove that she is always right to be liberated." He termed his own goal "egalitarian intimacy": "I see us as companions and equal partners, two adults who are going forth and sharing ourselves. I'm not interested in either one of us baby-sitting the other." Women have to be careful not to confuse assertiveness with aggression that may be displaced from earlier, failed relationships.
She should take pride in her ethnic identity and spiritual roots. Men who have a strong sense of themselves as African-Americans often feel that women with similar outlooks can better understand the travails of a Black man's existence in this society. A spiritual foundation, which has historically been central to the lives of our people, also remains important to many men. When it comes to both ethnicity and spirituality, the key to compatibility is not being perfectly matched but feeling comfortable with differences.
She should not have a hidden agenda. Men resent women who bring a set of rigid expectations to their relationship, especially when they aren't candid about them. There's nothing more frustrating than discovering you are being tested or judged without your knowledge. "If you want something from me, come right out and ask for it," pleaded one man at a session we set up to explore the sources of gender conflict.
Men also complain about women who play games, such as flirting with no intention of becoming sexually involved or being deliberately outrageous to provoke a reaction. And they resent being judged by standards they consider irrelevant -- mainstream society, for example, tends to define manhood in terms of financial resources or control over other people, achievements that have little value in a true Afrocentric relationship. "Some women make me feel like I should submit a résumé," said an insurance broker named Stan. "They want to know right away about my job, my paycheck, even my bank account. Those are ugly-acting sisters and I try to stay away from them."
She's got to trust me. A common complaint from Black men is that their women don't trust them to have nonsexual friendships or business dealings with other women. They feel that their romantic partners view them through a lens of suspicion, assuming they are likely to stray off course unless they are constrained by a tight leash. In one of our discussions, a radio producer described his irritation when his girlfriend kept questioning him about a friendship that dated back to his teenage years. "I felt that I was being nagged unfairly. I don't lie to my woman. If I say she is my friend, I need to be trusted about that. I don't want to be in a position where I have to justify having lunch with someone."
She shouldn't put me down. Black men often have a heightened fear of appearing weak or dominated, especially by women. Because of the way they are treated in White society, they are extremely sensitive to perceived threats against their manhood and often bristle if they feel they are being criticized or ordered around. "I want a woman who builds me up, not someone who tears me down," said one man. Men who are struggling to become more assertive and to deal more effectively with the battering impact of racism want encouraging support, not negativity and nagging. They also want women to realize that their visions of success may differ and that they shouldn't be criticized for those differences.
What Black Women Want
Today's Black woman is complex and multifaceted. She is strong, but sometimes wants a man she can lean on. She can take care of herself but doesn't always want to have to do so. She values a brother who is sensitive, who believes in himself, and who can distinguish between assertiveness and hostility. With thanks to Haki Madhubuti, we have borrowed the "Black Manhood" essay as a guide for our own portrait of Black sisters at their best:
a giver of life and all that is splendid. one who learns from the past as she journeys down new paths towards the future. a planter, an explorer, a singer of songs. open to ideas from others. loving and loveable. strong. beautiful. soft and gentle. supportive and nurturing. attentive and caring. a sister to sisters. a sister to brothers. devoted mother. empathetic. assertive and resourceful. carrier and keeper of the culture, at all times believing i can, we can, we must. loyal to family, committed to community. victorious. eternally dedicated to the upliftment of her people.
Like the men, Black women obviously have differing needs. Still, our clinical practice and personal experiences have given us some insight into the question we are so often asked: What do Black women want?
He's got to tell the truth. Honesty is at the top of most lists and the ability to talk about sensitive and personal subjects is typically considered a must. "I don't want my man to play games with me, I want him to be honest," one woman told us. "If we can't be real, nothing else is going to make up for that." Whether the topic is dating other people, making a commitment, feeling blue, or shaping a vision of the future, women want to be able to communicate frankly with their men.
He needs to let me know that he loves me. Openly expressed affection is important to many. "I don't want to guess whether a man loves me, I want to know," said a client named Freddie. "Otherwise, I'm always holding back, afraid to give too much. I want to feel free to be as loving as I can be." We asked Freddie what gave her confidence that she was loved, and she emphasized small considerations -- a man who fulfills commitments, calls to say he'll be late, stays attuned to her feelings, and asks questions about her day. "It's the little, everyday things that show he really cares."
He needs to know who he is. Women who have clearly defined goals and a systematic strategy for pursuing them often value stability and a sense of direction. "I want a man who can say, 'This is who I am, this is what I want, this is how I'm going after it,'" said the owner of a small business. "The avenue he pursues doesn't matter, just so he is clear about himself." Black women who include professional achievements and financial stability as criteria for a soul mate often say they are not so much concerned about the size of a man's paycheck as the health of his ego -- they feel that someone who likes his job is more likely to have the sense of accomplishment that is crucial to self-esteem.
He's got to have some sense of spirituality. African-American women who turn to spirituality for hope and inspiration, in good times and in bad, usually look for men who respect the power of worship, meditation, or prayer. Although she does not attend formal church services, Margaret considers herself quite spiritual and says she needs a man who feels the same way: "If my partner appreciates a higher power, we can tap into faith together and in that way find inspiration and replenish our souls."
He's got to give something back to the Black community. Many women who are upwardly mobile and at ease in mainstream, White society still feel deeply committed to strengthening the lot of those who have been left behind and they want their partners to feel the same way. "That doesn't mean that he has to march in every demonstration or make Black power the focus of his life," said one woman as clarification. "But he has to be proud of and aware of his African identity. Someone who is in denial about it or doesn't think it is important would not be the right person for me." Whether a man forges links to the Black community through his spiritual beliefs, his artistic passions, or his political concerns, her notion is that he give back. "I want him to have a sense of something larger than himself in the world."
He needs to respect my talents. Many Black women are proud of their professional accomplishments, often achieved by a great amount of talent and drive and usually against numerous obstacles. They want to be involved with a man who respects them and has the confidence not to feel threatened by their success. And they want the space to keep on growing. As one woman told us: "I don't want to be in a relationship that is all-consuming. A man's got to know where he begins and where I begin. He doesn't try to take me away from myself."
He shouldn't try to control me. Many African-American women bristle when they feel that men are trying to dictate their behavior or deny them an autonomous identity. This is especially true of younger women who are just beginning to define a firm sense of self. As one aspiring model told us: "I want someone who can just allow me to be me. There's an awful lot of guys out there who think they can tell you what to do, what to wear, and who your friends should be. That gets old real fast."
He should bolster my self-esteem. Everyone has insecurities, and psychologically healthy women look for partners who are reassuring and supportive, not men whose main way of relating is to put them down. A shy young woman explained why this matters to her. "I want someone who will help me cultivate my better qualities. I tend to be introverted so I look for someone who likes being out there, someone who will encourage my efforts to become more assertive."
He should consider my needs. A common complaint among women is that their men are self-centered and listen carelessly, if they listen at all. "It's always about them," complained one woman. "Even when we are talking about feelings, some guys only want to know how I feel about them, not how I feel in general." Black women are hungry for relationships in which their men pay attention, express interest and concern, and encourage discussion. These efforts extend into the sexual arena -- Black women want it understood that they enjoy good sex and expect to have their needs met. "My man needs to realize the time we spend in bed is not just time for him to be taking care of himself," one woman told us. "He's got to know he is also there for my pleasure."
Self-Assessment Exercise: The Soul Mate of Your Dreams
While these generalizations are useful, it also helps to identify the characteristics that especially matter to you. Is your ideal lover a lady who operates smoothly in just about any social circle? A man who is the life of every party? Someone who is deeply involved with African-American causes? How important are education, financial achievement, and professional interests? What about family ties and a spiritual connection?
To establish your personal priorities, rank the importance of the following statements, giving each one a score between 1 and 10:
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Not important at all
We both have a strong sense of ethnic identity.
We share a common vision of the future.
We are emotionally intimate and can share feelings.
We are intellectually compatible.
We are faithful to each other.
The sex is really hot.
We have attained similar educational levels.
We are each willing to make sacrifices for the other.
We maintain independent friendships outside this relationship.
I am physically attracted to him/her.
He/she feels closely tied to the Black church.
He/she has strong spiritual values.
He/she tries to give something back to the Black community.
He/she is comfortable "switching up" in White circles.
He/she has a professionally satisfying career.
He/she makes a lot of money.
My family approves of the match.
We communicate openly and honestly.
He/she has a great body.
We explore new ways to please each other sexually.
He/she is romantic.
We share concerns and feelings.
He/she talks to me about the past and about hopes for the future.
He/she believes in family.
Now divide these statements in two, putting anything you ranked 6 or above in one group. These tell you a lot about the characteristics that really matter to you. Anything ranking below 5 is probably not very important and may even be a characteristic that makes you feel uncomfortable.
Review both groups to help you assess whether the person you are dating, or the one you are looking for, is right for you. Consider whether you are attracted by superficial or enduring qualities. Remember, relationships don't usually last if they are based solely on external factors -- good looks, lots of money, and hot sex can be real turn-ons but if these change, the basis of your compatibility may be gone. Internal emotional qualities, such as compassion, trustworthiness, and a strong sense of self-esteem, usually endure and provide the foundation for true intimacy.
About Healthy Struggle
Of course, there is a lot more to falling in love than meeting the man or woman who fits a fantasy profile. For one thing, there's an amorphous quality called "attraction" that cannot be ignored. We don't believe in the myths of real love without effort, mutual respect without sacrifice, or passion without balance, but we do think that relationships between Black men and women are too special to settle for a match that "makes sense" but lust doesn't feel right.
In one of our discussion groups, a financial consultant named Tanya talked about the good-looking architect she almost married. "He made a good salary and was eager to make a commitment. All the ingredients were right and my family was telling me I should go for it." Tanya felt that she was ready to settle down and tried to convince herself that the architect was a true soul mate, but she could not pretend to an excitement she did not really feel. "He was the right guy according to what society says is important but he just didn't make it for me. The chemistry wasn't there."
Tanya was content to remain single until she met the right partner, and she may well have been wise in allowing her heart to rule her head -- marriages based entirely on practical considerations are seldom happy. On the other hand, relationships that endure have to be grounded in realistic expectations. One reason so many Black men and women find it difficult to sustain lasting intimacy is that they are operating with many misconceptions about love. Thanks in part to Hollywood films and celebrity magazines, many of us still believe, perhaps at a less than fully conscious level, in fairy-tale encounters and magical connections. Perhaps you are expecting lightning to strike when Mr. Right walks through the door for the first time. Maybe you are waiting for a love connection so intense, so spontaneous, and so harmonious that no effort will ever be required to sustain it.
If so, we've got some startling news: Most soul-mate relationships aren't born that way and they certainly won't last unless attitudes change. The truth is that preserving a meaningful relationship takes effort, discipline, and sacrifice. Connections that last involve a commitment to "work on loving" through direct, assertive, conscious, and purposeful efforts.
In healthy relationships, Black couples who stay together never stop growing emotionally, through struggle and commitment. As they grapple with the disappointments, the frustration, and sometimes the anguish that are a part of life, they strive not to displace anger onto those they love. They also search for the internal fortitude that helps them avoid being demoralized by racism or bogged down by the personal deficits that have their origins in unhappy childhood experiences and human frailty. They are available to each other both sensually and sexually, and their ability to display vulnerability to each other provides a special and splendid level of intimacy.
Learning to communicate effectively and to compromise fairly is a lifelong process. Even at moments when it feels safer to keep your thoughts to yourself, love demands candor. One element that all soul-mate relationships have in common is that they are not a place in which to hide; rather, they are a place in which to be revealed. If there is a single message we try to convey to our clients, our friends, and our colleagues, it is this: Intimacy is impossible when communication is blocked; intimacy flourishes when communication flows smoothly.
Genuine soul mates spend most of their energy engaged in productive struggle, not in hurtful battles. The challenge of sustaining any soul-mate relationship is to constantly replenish the reservoir of love with waters that soothe and invigorate. Occasionally, clients come into our office asking us, essentially, to "fix" them. Therapy, of course, can do no such thing. What we try to do instead, in our counseling practice, in group discussions, and in this book, is to encourage Black men and women to accept responsibility for their own growth. This involves working on their relationships with themselves, with each other, and with their community. We also try to instill hope and to serve as role models for people wondering whether to take the risk of making changes. In the process, we emphasize the need for soul mates to support each other -- the phrase we like is: "Don't criticize, energize."
As you strive for intimacy, remember the following commandments and honor them as best you can:
Do some work on yourself. The path toward intimacy begins with an honest look at yourself. It is easy to become so caught up in the struggles of daily life that you forget to reflect fully on who you are and how you got that way. Periods of introspection and self-assessment are crucial for personal development. The more you understand your own strengths and weaknesses, your likes and dislikes, your values and vision, the greater the insights you will gain into others. Keeping God first in your life allows you to love yourself and this will enable you to love others.
Keep your eyes on the prize. We are convinced that finding and sustaining a relationship is a worthwhile pursuit. Believe in yourself and your ability to control your own destiny and to resolve conflicts. Stay focused on your vision of a mutually nourishing bond when the waters in which you are sailing turn muddy, and soon enough you will move into clearer seas.
Try a little tenderness. Whether you are dating casually or celebrating a golden anniversary, never stop respecting your partner. Be gentle with each other. A soul-mate relationship is not the place to be adversarial. Believe in each other, offer a supporting hand, not a critical eye, and remember that African-Americans have always valued individual sacrifice in the interest of a collective vision. Seek to inspire those you love.
Look for common ground. Try to bend in your relationships. Flexibility and the willingness to emphasize similarities, rather than differences, are essential ingredients of conflict resolution. Learn to negotiate your differences. We struggle enough with issues of power and control in the workplace; keep the home an amicable place where compromise is not mistaken for defeat.
Let the flames bum on. At times the fire that fuels your love may die down to a spark. Be mindful about adding new logs from time to time so that the flame is not extinguished. Soul mates need to be more than business partners to each other. Although shared work can enrich intimacy, a committed relationship also involves bonds of friendship and romance. Take time to laugh and play together, to enjoy moments of passion, to exchange small gifts, and to discuss the week's events.
To thine own self be true. Although genuine love involves teamwork and sacrifice, it does not require either partner to shed a sense of self. To the contrary: Interdependence is bolstered when both partners also focus on their own development. By maintaining your individuality and nurturing your other friendships, you both have new experiences to share that keep a relationship fresh.
Keep the faith. Don't get caught up in Hollywood myths about perfect relationships, sex that is always intense, and communication that is never less than totally candid. There will be times when you are not at your best. Inevitably, you may sometimes become frustrated or angry with your mate. There's no such thing as lovers who don't quarrel. When times get rough, have confidence that things will improve. Be willing to make the first move to get your relationship moving in a positive direction. Have faith: The best may be yet to come.
Copyright © 1994 by Darlene Powell Hopson, Ph.D., and Derek S. Hopson, Ph.D.