couple having fun on vacation at the lake

I was shaped significantly, as we all are, by my parents’ relationship. Their marriage, although not perfect, seemed to be filled with love, commitment, and a deep abiding respect for each other as individuals. My parents would often refer to themselves as soul mates. With my young, simplistic view of the world, I made it my life’s mission to find my soul mate. Now, after thirteen years of marriage, a Masters degree in counselling and sitting in the crucible of marriage counselling with countless couples I firmly believe that soul mates are not found…they are made.

A guiding principle in my work as a Marriage and Sex Therapist is my belief that relationships change us; that they are the ultimate source of personal and spiritual growth. I believe that long-term relationships, such as marriage, provide an opportunity for us to learn about ourselves, increase our compassion and grow. It is through this process that we become soul mates.

The age of instant gratification has taken a toll on how we think about committed relationships. One thing we are committed to as a culture is the Hollywood version of love: We believe we will find one person, our soul mate, like a needle in a haystack. THE ONE will understand us, meet all of our needs, and even anticipate those needs before we ask.

It is a great story, but it is just that, a story. All too often when relationships get tough people reflect on that myth and think “Wow, I just married the wrong person, I just need to go find my true soul mate.” I can tell you that rarely has a happy ending for anyone.

So what if we viewed relationships differently – as an opportunity for our personal and spiritual growth – a chance to be transformed, instead of something that will ‘make us happy?’ What if we spent more energy becoming soul mates instead of finding a soul mate? I believe if we could change what we expect out of relationships we may just end up with the happiness we seek.

We spend countless hours (and dollars) planning a beautiful wedding day. But after that big day so many of us put our marriage on autopilot and hope for the best. When relationships are left on autopilot things often veer off-course. When things do get off-course most of us don’t do a thing but sit and wait. In his book The New Rules of Marriage, author Terry Real describes it this way:

“Our relationship to our relationship tends to be passive. We get what we get from our partners and then react after being disappointed.”

Unfortunately many people believe there are only two choices – stay in an unhappy marriage or get divorced. Often couples consider divorce before they consider marriage counseling. We are so drawn to be married and yet avoid marriage counseling like it is somehow going to hurt us. Why is this?

We will hire a personal trainer to get more out of our workouts, we will hire a tennis or golf pro to improve our game, and we will meet with a financial planner to make sure we’re on the right track with our money. But marriage…cue the crickets…we keep chugging along hoping someday things will get better. Or even worse, we wait for the kids to leave for college when we can cut our losses and move on.

Think of your relationship like a house. Have you ever watched one of those shows on TV about a hoarder? Just imagine if someone had intervened and given that hoarder the tools they needed when the issue started to become a problem. Instead, those shows depict what has happened years later – when there are dead cats buried under piles of junk.

When it comes to relationships, it’s easy for a painful experience (a disappointment, an emotional injury, a rejection) to become that dead cat(s). And it is very easy for resentment to become all of the junk piled on top. And too often couples think it is easier to move out of the house (get a divorce) than it is to go through and clean out the house (learn, grow, apologize, forgive).

So, what if we started sooner, before the resentments pile up, before little hurts become lasting painful experiences? What if we approached relationships like our health – and took a preventive approach where the whole idea is to stay healthy – to not give disease a chance to set in?

Marriage, or any long-term committed relationship, is a journey. This journey is different for each and every couple. I often hear from clients, “It shouldn’t be this hard!” However, sometimes it just is. But, that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Amazing things can happen if we stick with it.

What if the real gift of our marriage is not a sack full of happily ever after, but a completely unique opportunity to grow and change – to become more accepting, more compassionate? I truly believe through that growth we can find the joy we are seeking in the Hollywood ending.

By no means am I claiming that I know what the secret is to your best relationship. But I believe that you know. Don’t let fear keep you from looking under the hood. Ask yourself and your partner the important questions. When you open yourself up, the possibility of creating a great relationship is there waiting for you.

Focus on keeping your relationship well, and not letting resentments compound. You don’t have to figure this out on your own. Let others support you. If you’re interested in finding a Marriage Counselor or a Certified Sex Therapist please use We Want More’s Find A Therapist tool. You don’t have to settle for mediocre, create the relationship you truly want.

By Hilary Phillips, MS, LPC 
Connections Counseling & Development Center – Atlanta, GA

Originally written for and featured on We Want More. The author named has provided permission to print this article to The Love Compass. Questions or concerns about this article can be directed to the author.