Americans will exchange close to $20 billion worth of flowers, jewelry, candy, stuffed-animals and cards this Valentine’s Day as an expression of romance and love. But Valentine’s Day is actually a double-edged sword. On the surface, we celebrate how committed, secure and passionately in love we are.
The very fact of this holiday, and that we feel so much pressure to be romantic, reveals a deeper, more challenging truth. Our love for each other is always far more unstable, unpredictable, and fragile than we’re ready to admit. (For instance, four out of ten couples break up between Jan. 1 and Feb. 14.)
As Valentine’s Day approaches, we often hear talk about having found our soul mate. But contrary to conventional wisdom, we don’t find our soul mate – we co-create our soul mate. “Soul mate” is a verb hiding out as a noun, and over the course of our relationship we engage in soul-mating.
When we say we found our soul mate, we’re not expressing a fact, but an aspiration.
It turns out that the initial reasons we fall in love are not the reasons we stay in love. The first phase of love is about self-affirmation (narcissism in drag); soon enough we discover each other’s differences, flaws and weaknesses. That’s when our love becomes intentional, when intimacy begins, and we start to soul-mate. Only at the end of our relationship, after we’ve successfully helped each other seek the truth about ourselves and become the best people we can be, do we actually know whether we’ve found our soul mate.
When we say we found our soul mate, or our perfect match, we’re not expressing a fact but an aspiration – a yearning. Because the truth about love is its uncertainty, vulnerability, and fragility. We promise each other “until death do us part” (which is actually not said in Jewish weddings), we create illusions of permanence and safety in order to mitigate the frightening truth that love is unpredictable and that we can never fully know each other – and therefore, we can never be totally certain about where we’re going together. We give each other cards proclaiming, “You are Mine, and I am Yours,” imagining we possess each other. We even create a habit out of our love, e.g. sleeping on the same side of the bed, going on the same walks, eating at the same restaurants, and routinizing our lovemaking, all ways we unconsciously defend against the lurking truth that love – our love – is always vulnerable and unstable.
The paradox of love is that the fantasy of permanence we imagine and try to create erodes the security of the very passion and romance for which we yearn. It is precisely the impermanence of love that generates our longing and desire for greater intimacy. This insight is captured at the end of the Jewish wedding ceremony when a glass is shattered under the chuppa (the marriage canopy), inviting fragility and vulnerability right into the moment we make our “unbreakable” commitment. Love is indeed too hot to handle.
Intimacy, passion, romance – it’s the risky soul-mating dance between closeness and distance, happiness and disappointment, gratitude and resentment, loyalty and betrayal, control and surrender, spontaneity and boredom, trust and doubt, tenderness and aggression – between living inside and outside the Garden.
Our romantic commitments require not devotion to stability and security, but dedication to living together in the face of uncertainty and unpredictability. If we want Valentine’s Day to really work, we have to do more than give our lover roses. We fearlessly have to hold the thorns: the insecurity of love. We need to embrace the sacred messiness of love.
Rabbi Irwin Kula is a 7th generation rabbi and a disruptive spiritual innovator. A rogue thinker, author of the award-winning book, Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, and President-Emeritus of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, he works at the intersection of religion, innovation, and human flourishing. A popular commentator in both new and traditional media, he is co-founder with Craig Hatkoff and the late Professor Clay Christensen of The Disruptor Foundation whose mission is to advance disruptive innovation theory and its application in societal critical domains. He serves as a consultant to a wide range of foundations, organizations, think tanks, and businesses and is on the leadership team of Coburn Ventures, where he offers uncommon inputs on cultural and societal change to institutional investors across sectors and companies worldwide.