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Lily and Marshall - What is a Soulmate? (How I Met Your Mother)

How I Met Your Mother is a show about Ted Mosby’s search for true love, while right before his eyes is a perfect example of what love looks like in practice. Marshall and Lily have widely been hailed as one of the best couples on TV. But while Ted desperately tries to locate the girl of his dreams, he fails to grasp the secret to his best friends’ relationship success: that soulmates aren’t found, but made. Here’s our Take on what Marshall and Lily tell us about the reality of love, contrary to all the myths.

TRANSCRIPT

Lily Aldrin: “Lily and Marshall, Rocking it since ‘96!” - How I Met Your Mother, 2x21

Kids, sometimes the answer you’re looking for is right in front of you. How I Met Your Mother is a show about Ted Mosby’s search for true love, while right before his eyes (sharing an apartment with him) is a perfect example of what love looks like in practice. Marshall and Lily, Judge Fudge and Aldrin Justice, Marshmallow, and Lily Pad — this duo has widely been hailed as one of the best couples on TV, ever.

Ted Mosby: “You are an inspiration to the rest of us, how you’re so devoted and connected.” - 4x13

But while Ted desperately tries to locate the girl of his dreams, he fails to grasp the secret to his best friends’ relationship success: that soulmates aren’t found, but made.

Here’s our Take on what Marshall and Lily tell us about the reality of love, contrary to all the myths.

Marshall Eriksen: “Baby, did we just revolutionize modern marriage?”

Lily: “Damn straight!” - 5x21

Finding a Soulmate, or: love as unity

Marshall: “Lily and Marshall Awesome. Have you met the Awesomes? Marshall, Lily, their son, Totally and their daughter, Freakin’?” - 2x22

It’s highly unusual for a sitcom about 20-somethings to start off with two members of the main cast already firmly coupled up. Shows like Friends, Seinfeld, The Big Bang Theory, New Girl or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia all introduce their main characters as very single. There’s a practical explanation for this: unattached characters ensure opportunities for storylines: dating exploits, in-friend-group romances, and plenty of will they-won’t they tensions to be milked for seasons to come.

But at the time of the How I Met Your Mother pilot, Lily and Marshall have been a couple for over 8 years. They’re so firmly committed they’re at risk of boring themselves. On top of this, it’s pretty clear to the audience that they’re great together. So it’s not exactly like the average viewer is given much reason to want to watch this couple experience major romantic turbulence and drama.

What was the reasoning, then, behind this choice that seemingly limits the potential for classic sitcom romantic subplots and development?

When the show begins, Ted’s closest friends embody two opposite views on relationships: on one end of the spectrum is Barney, the commitment-phobic player; and on the other, are Lily and Marshall, the securely bonded duo-for-life.

Barney Stinson: (to Ted) “Do not pretend you’re not the kind of guy who keeps a list of all the girls he’s slept with.”

Marshall: “I have one. It’s called my marriage license.” - 3x14

This “perfect couple” embodies an ideal of sorts, hanging over the core story arc of the show: Ted’s search for his soulmate.

Ted: “What I know that Marshall and Lily have, I want that.” - 4x23

So what exactly is a soulmate? Generally, the term signifies one person who’s perfectly suited to another in temperament, beliefs, and attitude — a level of compatibility so intense that the connection is often painted as mystical or spiritual. One of the earliest documented uses of the term in English comes from poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who wrote in 1822, “To be happy in Married life … you must have a Soul-mate.” But this idea that there’s someone out there without whom you can’t be content — the missing piece in the puzzle of your life — goes back at least to antiquity. In The Symposium, written between 385 and 360 BC, Plato describes the playwright Aristophanes telling of an earlier time when humans had double bodies. But Zeus split each of them in two, leaving each half incomplete and wounded, perpetually searching for that missing part of themselves in order to feel whole again. This is where the idea of finding your “other half” comes from.

Jerry McGuire: “You complete me.” - Jerry McGuire

Ted’s ideas about love clearly descend from this outlook.

Ted: “She’s ‘The One.’” - 1x2

But the strengths of Lily and Marshall’s relationship (which Ted claims to admire so much) don’t align with Aristophanes’ picture of love.

Lily: “The honeymoon phase may be over, but now you can get down to real stuff. And honestly, it’s the best part.” - 5x6

Since he’s obsessed with this Symposium-like idea of finding his one pre-existing perfect match, Ted acts like a detective seeking clues in the mystery of tracking down his soulmate. He obsesses over minor details about potential mates - like whether they like Star Wars, or play bass guitar to decipher if these are signs of compatibility or incompatibility.

But in the very first episode, Lily and Marshall cast doubt on the idea that these seemingly symbolic details actually lead to any meaningful insight. From observing his friends, Ted has crafted a very thin theory that soulmates’ tastes should embody an ideal of balance:

Ted: “The olive theory is based on my friends, Marshall and Lily. He hates olives, she loves them. In a weird way that’s what makes them such a great couple. A perfect balance.” - 1x1

Later, though, it’s revealed that Marshall was lying about disliking olives:

Barney: “But you like olives!”

Marshall: “Well, I was eighteen, okay? I was a virgin. Been waiting for my whole life for a pretty girl to want my olives.” 1x1

So from the pilot, the show announces that a person’s preferences and affinities don’t dictate whether they’re the one for you — the question is just whether you accept those things about them (and in the end, the details don’t matter at all).

Marshall: “Lily, I like olives.”

Lily: “We’ll make it work.” - 1x1

Ted also believes, in keeping with Aristophanes’ idea, that when he meets his soulmate he should immediately know it’s her.

Ted: “When I saw you doing the chicken dance out there, I’m not gonna lie to you, big time thunderbolt.” - 1x13

To quote the Symposium, “And when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself … the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and one will not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment.” Thus Ted often insists on following his gut feeling, even when this feeling is not reflective of reality — he’s chasing the kind of ‘thunderbolt” feeling that reassures him a woman he meets is “the one.”

But the thing about gut feelings, otherwise known as intuition, is that they are actually our brains’ rapid guesses based on previous experience. So these intuitive feelings are more likely to be accurate when they are based on a wealth of information about the topic at hand. This explains why Marshall, early on in his relationship with Lily, has doubts, while later on (when he knows her better) he’s completely convinced she’s the one for him. At first, his gut feeling is based on his ideas of what life should be like, whereas later it’s based on years of actual experience being with Lily.

Marshall: “More and more each day, I love you, Lily.” - 4x13

Marshall and Lily’s secret — the one Ted fails to understand for a long time — is that they haven’t been together forever because they’re perfect for each other. It’s being together, loving each other through everything, and choosing to act in their mutual interests that make them become perfect for each other.

Marshall: “I vow to keep at least 80% of these vows.”

Lily: “That seems high.”

Marshall: “And I vow to keep updating them as we go.” - 9x22

Making A Soulmate, or: love as a journey

Marshall: “As we mature, the relationship matures with us.” 4x13

Where Aristophanes’ metaphor describes love as a blissful static destination, Lily and Marshall’s merits as a couple actually point to a second theory of partnership: love as a journey — defined not by a predestined compatibility, but by the choice to stay together.

Marshall: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” - 2x22

As a University of Toronto study outlines these two dominant theories: “Love can be metaphorically framed as perfect unity between two halves made for each other or as a journey with ups and downs.” It’s notable that traditional wedding vows typically warn the bride and groom that there will be good and bad times ahead - requiring them to accept this person “in sickness and in health, for better or worse, for richer or poorer.” And it’s adhering to this outlook on love that actually makes Lily and Marshall work.

Marshall: “When I married you, I married your problems too, the ones I knew about, and the ones I didn’t.” - 3x7

There’s actually lots about this supposedly “perfect couple” that’s far from perfect. None of the “big moments” in their relationship look like the fairytale, Hallmark-card images they’re supposed to. Their engagement is both banal and traumatic (when a champagne cork hits Lily in the eye). Their first apartment as a couple is a catastrophe. They cancel their first wedding (causing great public embarrassment to them both) and on their actual wedding day, everything that can go wrong, does. These are all the kinds of inauspicious “bad signs” that might make a Ted Mosby call it off. Yet for Lily and Marshall, the idiosyncratic imperfections of their courtship tend to bond them closer together.

Marshall: “Lily, our-our wedding vows, maybe they were just too perfect for real life. Real-life is messier than that.” - 9x22

Lily and Marshall also don’t measure up to their society’s ideas of an ideal couple in many ways. They’re not the picture of put-together, responsible adulthood, and can’t relate to the mature, “settled” other couples they know. But they demonstrate the relationship truth that — instead of getting hung up on others’ conventions — couples thrive when they let themselves be and act the way they feel most comfortable. And crucially, they put stock in their own made-up traditions — like putting notes in the other’s lunch, or telling each other what they eat each day. Their self-created rituals serve as souvenirs of the journey they’ve traveled together and how far they’ve come. So by being on this journey together, Marshall and Lily have become each other’s soulmates.

Perhaps the defining distinction between our two central theories of love is how they relate to the concept of fate. Many who believe in soulmates also implicitly trust the guiding force of destiny must somehow lead the two other halves back to each other. In fact, the unity-versus-journey theories of love have also been characterized as “destiny beliefs” vs “growth beliefs.”

Without any guarantee that fate will take the wheel, though, the prospect of the soulmate can become very sad and troubling. What if our perfect other halves are out there but we never even meet them?

Ted: “The chances of one person being another person’s “The one” are like six billion to one.” - 1x4

As Nick Hornby’s lyrics in the Ben Folds song “From Above” go, “Sure, we all have soulmates, but we walk past them every day.” This specter of the absent soulmate can breed dissatisfaction in all your actual relationships, if every time you’re with a person who’s not obviously perfect for you in every way, you can’t shake the feeling that there might be someone better out there.

How I Met Your Mother doesn’t wholly dismiss either of our two conflicting love theories. We see that the lightning-bolt, instantaneous soulmate connection does exist — for example, when Barney meets his baby daughter, and, of course, when Ted finally meets Tracy. Lily and Marshall also meet in a way that seems, to them, fateful.

Lily: “For some unknown reason, I felt drawn to room 110.” - 3x5

But it’s later revealed that Lily took fate into her own hands to engineer this perfect moment.

Lily: “I didn’t know which room you were in so I had to create a little destiny.” - 8x16

And crucially, from that point on, it’s not fate that makes their relationship work - it’s Marshall and Lily.

So the major takeaway is that — even if destiny does play a part — it can only get you as far as meeting someone you like. After that, it’s up to you.

Robin Scherbatsky: “Aren’t you tired of waiting for destiny, Ted? Isn’t it time to make your own destiny?” - 7x24

In fact, we witness several occasions where Marshall and Lily try to leave a difficult decision up to fate, only to end up doing what they know is right for them instead.

Lily: (about getting married suddenly in international waters) “We don’t want to do this.”

Marshall: “We don’t.” - 2x8

While it may sound like more work and less fun than lightning bolts, the journey mindset gives lovers agency — the freedom that comes with deciding that your love-life depends only on you and your partner, rather than on external signs or social cues. Meanwhile, the love-as-unity mindset can lead to the frustration of feeling totally powerless over your own life and happiness.

Ted: “I’ve been waiting for it to happen and waiting for it to happen…I’m tired of waiting” - 4x23

The Drawbacks of a Soulmate

Love stories onscreen frequently end at the moment when the lovers have overcome the obstacles keeping them apart and finally gotten together — again echoing the Symposium’s idea that the whole point is uniting with your missing piece. But anyone who’s ever been in a real long-term relationship understands that getting together is often the easiest part.

Marshall: “Being in a couple is hard, and committing, making sacrifices, it’s hard.” - 1x12

And Lily and Marshall’s relationship is one of the few sitcom romances that delves into the complexity of what happens after happily ever after.

Interestingly, while this couple’s strengths stem mostly from the love-as-a-journey mindset, a number of their problems arise from slipping into a love-as-“unity” mindset. Throughout the show, these two have to fight their tendency to become too bonded. They struggle to function without each other, to an extreme that borders on codependency.

Robin: “I mean, you have been preoccupied with Marshall all weekend.”

Lily: “I have not!”

Robin: “You have been sleeping with a doll made of cushions that you named after him!” - 9x13

At one point, Ted even accuses Lily and Marshall of basically becoming one of the androgynous creatures from Aristophanes’ myth.

Ted: “You and Marshall have basically melded into one big hermaphroditic blob. some of us want a partner who challenges us to grow and evolve.” - 6x20

So, in practice, this lovely-sounding idea of merging with another and acting like one organism puts both people at risk of losing themselves. We see this when Lily takes the drastic step of breaking up with Marshall because she’s terrified she has no individual identity anymore.

Lily: “I just need to go to San Francisco and do this art program and figure out who I am outside of us.” - 2x1

Meanwhile, the couple can be guilty of the kind of moral complacency that occurs when you spend most of your time with someone who almost always thinks you’re right. Bridget Jones even gave this phenomenon of self-satisfied superiority among couples a name: “smug marrieds.” Their smugness can lead Marshall and Lily to invasively criticize and interfere in their friends’ lives.

Ted: “You broke me and Karen up? Are you insane? What gives you the right to do that?”

Lily: “I did it for your own good.” - 4x17

Whenever they fall into these negative patterns, though, Lily and Marshall find their way back on track by recognizing the need for separateness — like when Lily sees that Marshall has been sacrificing too much of his personal dreams for their family plans, and needs to put his idealistic ambitions first for a change.

Lily: “Once you’ve cleaned up all the oceans and saved the planet… you know, like, a year from now… then we’ll start a family.” - 6x17

Some notable other positive relationship models in sitcoms also showcase the health of the love-as-journey mindset over a love-as-unity one and likewise posit that soulmates must be made instead of found.

Michael: “If soulmates do exist, they’re not found, they’re made.” - The Good Place, 4x9

And finally, in the universe of How I Met Your Mother, the controversial finale delivers two final nails in the coffin of the unity theory of love — through Tracy’s abrupt demise and Ted’s decision to try his luck, for the umpteenth time, with Robin. With Tracy’s death, the writers almost seem to be punishing Ted for his obsession with surrendering to fate — as if sending the message, don’t put all of your chips on destiny, because destiny has no obligation to come through for you. Meanwhile, the show suggests that all those years by each other’s side have made Robin Ted’s soulmate — and that their bond is deeper than the more ideal soulmate connection he “found” in Tracy.

Ted: “The point of the story is that…”

Penny Mosby: “Is that you totally, totally, totally have the hots for Aunt Robin.” - 9x24

Throughout the course of the show, the gang spends a lot of time theorizing about the rules of dating and relationships, but Marshall and Lily are often the ones who prove these theories wrong. After Barney and Ted explain their “crazy eyes” theory to Marshall, Lily ends up acting far more irrationally than any girl in Barney or Ted’s life yet it makes no difference to the man who loves her.

So despite the gang’s best efforts to figure out the inner workings of relationships, they can’t. Love is a journey without a roadmap. Still, in Lily and Marshall’s relationship, we find the key to the show’s overall philosophy on this central mystery.

Marshall: “Because one set of vows, it can’t cover a lifetime of growing and changing with you.” - 9x22

It’s never completely perfect, even with the perfect person by your side. But if you make your own destiny together, whatever challenges fate throws at you, you’ll never have to face them alone.

Marshall: “Us? Uh, we’re adorable.”

Lily: “We’re Marshmallow and Lilypad, bitch.” - 9x22