With some notable exceptions, I do not often write about my own thoughts or personal life. I prefer to let the science speak for itself. Nevertheless, I do practice what I preach. And in that respect, this year has been particularly challenging and inspiring. I have lost connections dear to me, rekindled relationships I thought had ended, and once again entered the dating market myself. Through it all, I have been finishing my first book and looking at my old writing with a fresh perspective.
Jeremy Nicholson M.S.W., Ph.D. is a social and personality psychologist, with a research and writing focus on influence, persuasion, and interpersonal relationships. He also holds master's degrees in industrial/organizational psychology and social work. He currently lives in Western Massachusetts. Since 2001, Dr. Nicholson has worked in education, research, and training.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
Given all that, I thought it fitting to end the year with 3 major lessons I have learned about relationships and love:
1. Be proud and share your unique self.
Looking at summarized research data, or even public opinion, it seems like everybody wants the same general features in a partner. Sure, there are trade-offs among each of our general preferences for a mate. Nevertheless, unique characteristics that make a person desirable to someone else often get missed in the discussion. So we often forget to think about what makes us distinctive and special to someone else, too.
Further, sharing the unique aspects of ourselves can also make us feel more vulnerable. This can cause us to mistakenly take rejection more personally. Fearing that potential "punishment" can make someone afraid to put themselves out there, or to date altogether.
In my own case, I tended to primarily focus on those generic, desirable features in myself: What I looked like, how I acted, what resources I had to offer, etc. For the most part, it was a successful approach. I had mutually-satisfying relationships with people who desired me, and limited rejection. Nevertheless, while re-establishing old and dear connections, I made a discovery: When someone deeply cared about me over the years, it was usually for my unique features and our shared "quirks." (Yes, the fact that I took regular showers and was generally pleasant helped.) Nevertheless, the relationships that were truly special were the ones in which we shared unique, distinctive, and personal things, beyond the general trade and exchange.
Therefore, as you connect with others, be courageous and share what's unique about yourself. Manage your anxiety by being curious about them in return. Cherish the odd and even peculiar traits you have in common, or the similar dreams that you hope to accomplish.
Those connections will be the ones that mean the most and last a lifetime.
2. Pay attention to connection and commitment.
When we think about relationships and love, the more passionate aspects most often come to mind. We think about someone who excites us physically, has a charming personality, and perhaps touches us the right way. In short, we think about attraction. Given that I named this blog "The Attraction Doctor," clearly I had the same focus myself. Nevertheless, as relationships mature (and we do ourselves), other aspects gain importance. Love and connections may grow to become more about a changing and evolving exchange to meet specific needs, as well as emotional support to help us through the tough times.
Personally, I recovered from a long illness this year, which put a whole new perspective on what I valued in a mate. I learned to focus more on the emotional connection and commitment aspects of a relationship—having pleasant and productive conversations;building greater understanding, genuineness, and rapport; and developing relationship exchanges with longevity and commitment.
Don't get me wrong: Attraction still matters. But it is not all that is required to see you through tough times, or the long haul. A deep emotional connection with a committed partner, though, can be flexible enough to meet your needs (and those of your partner) over time.
3. Know when to mend things—and when to end things.
Some people quit when the going gets tough. Perhaps they don't quite know how to work through an argument. Maybe they don't speak up about a partner's bad habit. Sometimes, they may just not know how to forgive. In any case, they give up on relationships that could have given them what they wanted, with a little work—and regret it later.
Other people hang on to relationships too long. Even when a relationship is unfair, they continue to feel a connection by investing themselves into it. As a result, they get manipulated, stressed, and drawn thin. They too face regret—over time wasted and missed opportunities with more satisfying partners.
This year, I learned that it is important to find a balance between those two approaches. When things get tough, give relationships your full investment. Work on problems. Do not leave anything unsaid. Then, if you have to walk away and end things, you can do so with no regrets. And if you do have to end things, break up respectfully and compassionately. Chances are, the relationship isn't really meeting either of your needs and you both may be better off elsewhere. In that case, being free to pursue more satisfying connections could be best. The trick is to truly decide what you will regret more—losing your current partner, or missing out on someone else.