I once had a (very brave) student ask me if I was familiar with the old saying about teachers. You know the one, it goes a little something like…Those who can’t do, teach. I begrudgingly admitted having heard the saying. Before I could even begin mounting a defense or rebuttal, she continued on with her playful, but oddly poignant, musing: “And Dr. Leder, you teach about relationships. What does that say about you?” Ouch. I put on a brave face and bantered back about how it made me the master of her classroom destiny for that semester. However, her off-hand teasing really got me thinking. Upon reflection, I realized that her jesting about my relationship prowess was surprisingly insightful.
I have to admit that at that time I was a relationship expert only as it pertained to my teaching and research. Don’t get me wrong, I could start and end a relationship with relative ease and swiftness. It’s just that for me, the parts of class related to intimacy, commitment, and relationship maintenance were more a matter of theoretical rather than practical understanding.
How could it be that with all my relationship knowledge, I lacked the wisdom to sustain an actual relationship? Didn’t I owe it to myself, my mentors, and even and my parents (who footed the bill for my seemingly never-ending graduate studies) to utilize my relationship training? Well, I am proud to report that at long last, I have accomplished the seemingly impossible. I have not only fallen in love, but I’ve also gotten engaged!
Although I know you cannot glean sound relationship advice solely from personal experience, and I would not dare to imagine that my recent transition from girlfriend to fiancé makes me all-knowing, there are a few things that my many, many years of dating have taught me. In hopes that it may be helpful to others, I would like to share three revelations that just so happen to be supported by research.
1. Love should feel special. Even for those of us who long ago cast aside the belief in destiny or soul mates, preferring instead more pragmatic growth beliefs,1 you need to know that love should feel special. At the core of a growth orientation is the idea that relationships take effort and that you have to work to overcome challenges. Unlike destiny beliefs, it’s not about finding your one, heaven-sent, perfectly compatible partner, but rather that love may develop between almost anyone. Unfortunately, I think that I (and potentially others) have interpreted this to mean that if I’m not happy, then I should try harder. At times, I have even questioned whether my grown-up, sensible self would be capable of recognizing something special should it ever present itself. Years of feeling “fine” about my relationships and knowing that I could probably “make it work” diminished my confidence in the ability to experience real love. However, to my great surprise and delight, when real love presented itself to me, it was easy to recognize. Have no fear, even for the most practical among us, something that is right feels different than something that is maybe, sorta, under the right circumstances, if I only tried harder possible!
2. Some people are not worth dating. I’ll make this point short, because unless you are ready to hear this advice, it won’t make any difference. Some people are not worth dating, even if you are really, really attracted to them. There are “bad” guys and girls out there who will use, take, and complicate. They do not have your best interest at heart, and you should be wary of them. Trust your family, and particularly your friends, to let you know when you are being taken for granted or undervalued.2 They care about you and often have a more objective vantage point to evaluate whether partners are treating your appropriately. Quite likely, you won’t want to hear what they have to say, but weeks, months, or years later you’ll thank them for it. Remember that relationships are supposed to be rewarding and that you owe it to yourself to walk – or better yet, run – away from a bad partner.
3. Be yourself. It sounds cliché, but it will ultimately save you a great deal of time and relationship trouble to figure out who you are and what you want. Once you have this very valuable information, try to find a partner that allows you to celebrate your uniqueness. Of course, there will likely be some level of self-monitoring,3 or adherence to acceptable or appropriate behavior, in any relationship, but presenting only the version of yourself that your partner wants to see will lead to confusion and turmoil later. Let’s be honest, you can only camouflage your own craziness for so long. True, waiting to find someone who genuinely gets and appreciates you can take time and remaining single rather than settling takes both courage and strength. However, I ask you, if someone doesn’t value the real you, then (without moving to Stepford) what hope is there for sustaining the relationship long-term?
Although free advice is often worth exactly what you paid for it (i.e., nothing), my hope is that the lessons of my past are useful to someone. This is what I would have told my younger sister had she asked for dating or relationship advice. Interestingly, she rarely asks; she doesn’t need to. Even without a Ph.D. in close relationships, she’s managed to sustain her relationship for over a decade. Hum, maybe there is something to the old saying after all!
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1Knee, C. R. (1998). Implicit theories of relationships: Assessment and prediction of romantic relationship initiation, coping, and longevity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 360-370.
2Agnew, C. R., Loving, T. J., & Drigotas, S. M. (2001). Substituting the forest for the trees: Social networks and the prediction of romantic relationship state and fate. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 1042-1057.
3Snyder, M. (1974). Self monitoring of expressive behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30, 526-537.
Dr. Sadie Leder - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Leder's research focuses on how people balance their desires for closeness and protection against rejection, specifically during partner selection, goal negotiation within established romantic relationships, and the experience of romantic love, hurt feelings, and relationship rekindling.