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5 Life Lessons You’re Never Too Old to Learn

When it comes to relationship advice, it’s healthy to take conventional wisdom with a grain of salt. Here are five truths most of us only learn the hard way. 

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Life Lesson #1: Radical Acceptance Saves the Day

The idea that we can fix perceived flaws in our partners, friends, parents and grown children remains tantalizing. Decades ago, the musical Guys and Dolls lampooned this notion with the lyrics “Marry the man today and change his ways tomorrow.”

Ego often convinces us that our way of looking at things is right, but trying to “correct” someone else often backfires, says psychologist Paul Coleman, author of We Need to Talk: Tough Conversations With Your Spouse. “It implies that we’re coming from a more enlightened place, that we have a deeper knowledge of what’s best,” he says. The other person may get the message that he or she isn’t good enough and become resentful.

A healthier approach: “Look inward to fix the problem,” says Northwestern University psychology professor Eli Finkel. If your partner hates large gatherings, consider attending the next party solo so he doesn’t have to make forced conversation and you don’t have to leave early. Or if your son says he wants to forgo university for now, express enthusiasm for his budding career as a nature guide instead of bombarding him with school rankings. Recognize that you’ll never be in sync about some things. “You have to say, ‘We have this permanent difference, but we need to learn to live with each other,'” Coleman says.

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Life Lesson #2: Benign Neglect is Good For Kids

Parents who hover relentlessly provoke eye-rolling from developmental experts and teachers alike. You can see these moms and dads sprinting to the swings to right a playground injustice or emailing schools incessantly.

“There’s a huge distrust in society’s institutions that pushes people to over-parent,” says Hara Estroff Marano, author of A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting. “Parents also lack trust in children’s desire to be competent and don’t accept that nature will influence the course of development,” she says.

But regularly stepping in to protect kids from stress may hurt them in the long run. Michelle Givertz, assistant professor of communication studies at California State University, Chico, has studied hundreds of parent-young adult pairs and found that age-inappropriate over-parenting leads to depression-prone, aimless kids (and ultimately, adults) who lack the ability to achieve goals.

It’s better to let kids live with occasional disappointment and resolve their own problems as much as possible, while assuring them that their feelings are heard (even if you’re the one saying no) and that you’re available for moral support. Trust in their capability to tackle obstacles. “Our job as parents is to help kids become self-sufficient,” Givertz says.

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Life Lesson #3: Opposites Don’t Attract Forever

The key to a happy, healthy relationship is choosing someone who is, frankly, a lot like you-a person who validates your views and habits. Studies have repeatedly underscored the importance of shared values, personality traits, economic backgrounds and religion, as well as closeness in age.

Glenn Wilson, a psychologist and professor at Gresham College in London, England, developed a compatibility questionnaire covering lifestyle, politics, child rearing, morality and finances. He found that partners who answer comparably are more apt to report satisfaction. Still, Givertz says, “When couples are overly similar, it can be a bit of a brother-sister relationship-too predictable, without a lot of novelty.”

So what’s the happy medium? Seek a partner whose passions differ enough from yours to expand your experience, but with whom you’re aligned on big-picture issues: how to show affection, what constitutes a moral life and how to raise children.

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Lesson #4: Social Networks Matter

Tend to your friendships. “The higher the quantity and quality of your relationships, the longer you’ll live,” says Bert Uchino, a psychologist and professor at the University of Utah. One study found that a low level of social interaction has the same negative effect as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Psychology professor Sheldon Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University gave subjects nasal drops containing a cold virus; those who reported the greatest diversity of social ties were four times less likely to develop a cold than those reporting the least diversity. But the quality of your relationships is just as important, according to Uchino’s research. He recorded the blood pressure of 88 women in a stressful situation-preparing to give a speech-and found that readings spiked less when a close friend was there to offer encouragement. Researchers speculate that the stress associated with weak social support sets off a cascade of damaging reactions. Knowing your friends have your back can help prevent such responses, Cohen says.

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Lesson #5: Lust Wanes, Love Remains

Too often, couples assume a relationship is beyond repair when the intense romantic excitement ends and the fighting begins. But research doesn’t support this. University of Denver psychology professor Howard Markman, co-author of Fighting for Your Marriage, says successful couples argue-it’s how they do it that matters. Among other things, happy partners refrain from exchanging nasty zingers. Airing grievances lets both people speak their minds and take responsibility for their missteps.

It’s also normal for desire to wane. “Romantic love is when we have this consuming, emotional experience, and it usually lasts about a year and a half,” says Will Meek, psychologist and assistant director of counselling at the University of Portland. “Deep love comes after we see how imperfect the other is and commit to him or her anyway.”