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WSJ Column: What is a soulmate?

Below is the full text of this column, republished with permission of the Wall Street Journal.

Recently I was chatting with a thoughtful young woman about love. She asked: ‘What is a soulmate? Do you get just one?’

You become soulmates

I do not believe that the universe prepares one perfect person who is your destiny, whom you need to go out to find, after which your lives will be forever happy.

I believe the world contains multiple people with whom you could fall in love. You choose one (of course, he needs to choose you too). You and he decide to build a life together. Together, you go through life’s ups and downs.

Then over time, your bond becomes symbiotic, like yin and yang. Over time, you become soulmates.

What about destiny?

Some of my readers protest at the whole idea of choosing or headhunting! – a mate. They think it’s unromantic. On my Weibo they ask: But what about yuanfen (destiny)?

For those of us who have fallen in, and out, of love, more than once, we know from experience that falling in love is easy.

But those early tidal waves of emotion are not enough to sustain a lifetime.

This can be really confusing, because no other experience is quite as exhilarating as falling in love.

Marriage is nothing like dating

Some couples are so busy gazing into each other’s eyes that they don’t realize it’s more important that as they face the future, they’re looking out in the same direction.

Here’s a typical modern marriage scenario: Date someone you happen to know who happens to like you. After a period of time, marry him.Then make a lot of compromises and work really hard to try to make it work. When it doesn’t work, get divorced or drift apart living separate lives.

What was different about the mountain lovers Xu Chaoqing and Liu Guojiang?

They knew HOW to love

It’s easy to fall in love. Even the term ‘fall in love’ makes it seem like an accident. ‘Oops! Fell in love again!’Teenagers can fall in love with passion and abandon. But stay in love for a lifetime? That’s a different matter.

Love is a skill. In fact, I’ve come to believe that learning to truly connect with another human being is life’s hardest but most important skill. It requires learning respect, empathy and kindness, for both oneself and others.

And having to live beside and cooperate every single day with another human being is the ultimate test of one’s emotional skills. Xu and Liu passed that test. Without nannies or outside childcare, they survived on the land and successfully raised seven children together. That took a huge amount of cooperation.

They wanted the same things out of life

If at any point, either Xu or Liu had decided to opt for a life with electricity, hot water, great restaurants, a busy social life, and a career in the big city, then we now would not have 6,000 steps to ponder on.

But even after their children went off into the world, they both were devoted to their beautiful, rustic life. And that was crucial to their ability to stay together over half a century.

Human beings are diverse in our values, and that diversity is what makes society interesting.

But a soulmate shares the same basic values as you. He wants the same things out of life that you do. You love and cherish his friends and family. He loves and cherishes yours.

They were true partners

We now revel in the romance of the mountain lovers, but their daily lives were not all about candle-lit dinners with violins playing in the background. They planted their own vegetables, caught their own fish, ground their own flour, fended off wild beasts, lived by the light of one kerosene lamp, and got soaked when it rained. With a family of nine.

Marriage is nothing like dating. Marriage is more like a mundane small business in which you and he are co-partners and co-employees for life. For your little company to succeed, you must believe in each other, and trust in each other’s good judgment. You must agree on who does what. You must agree on the direction of your company and the values by which it will run.

Those values will be especially tested if you choose to produce offspring. Because children learn by example, and they’ll start off their lives with the emotional skills and values that you model.

All this talk of small businesses may make marriage sound boring, but when you get it right, it can be really really nice, and something worth fighting for.

And that’s why the story of the mountain-top soulmates makes all of our hearts skip a beat.

This column was originally written by the author in English. Hear her reading it aloud by clicking here.