Communication, balance and trust are most important factors in healthy college relationships

Seniors Rachel Southmayd (left) and David Campbell like to spend their downtime together. But because of their busy schedules, that downtime doesn't usually come until the end of the day. Photo by Gabriela Szwecow.
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Senior Kara Frasca never thought she would find a boyfriend at Elon. She said she was more focused on academics and pursuing her dream career. So when she found her current boyfriend, senior John Moody, she was both surprised and happy.

Kara and her boyfriend John have been together a little less than a year. Their relationship, while still relatively new, fits most of the criteria of a healthy college relationship. They are both good at maintaining balance in their lives, they practice open and respectful communication and they trust one another.

“I feel like communication and trust are some of the most important factors of a healthy relationship,” Moody said.

Seniors David Campbell and Rachel Southmayd agree with Moody. They have been together for four and a half years.

Campbell said he and his girlfriend try to maintain contact throughout the day, but because they are both so busy and involved, that isn’t always a realistic goal for them.

“So we try to catch up every night at least a little bit – no matter how late it is,” he said. “Whether we’re in the same room, same city or same country.”

The couple spent a full semester apart while she was abroad in Isreal and he was abroad in Demark. Advances in technology allowed them to stay in touch with email and Skype. Now that they are in the same place again, Campbell said they use texting and calling to keep in touch during the day. Southmayd said communication is everything to her relationship with Campbell.

“We couldn’t be us if we didn’t communicate about everything,” she said.

Elizabeth Nelson, associate director for Health Promotions and coordinator for interpersonal relations and community well-being, said that maintaining open and respectful communication is the key to a healthy relationship.

Graphic by Gabriela Szwecow.

Graphic by Gabriela Szewcow.

“In the healthy relationships I have found [at Elon], they communicate even when it’s hard,” she said. “Even the ugly stuff.”

This is exactly the kind of communication that Campbell and Southmayd practice on a daily basis. They talk about even the most difficult of subjects because that communication is critical to both of them.

“It’s better to get things out than hold them in,” Campbell said.

Frasca said that she and Moody aren’t shy with one another about any subjects, but that wasn’t the case at the beginning of their relationship.

“At first, it was hard because we didn’t want to hurt each other’s feelings,” she said.

But now the two discuss everything freely and openly. Moody said he trusts himself and his girlfriend, and that trust has improved the level of communication throughout the course of the relationship. He also believes that flexibility is a key ingredient in a good relationship.

“Know what is important, but also don’t get caught up on things that really don’t have to be a big deal,” he said. “You’re going to get in disagreements, but you have to be flexible and look at things from their point of view and try to learn from what they say.”

Flexibility and balance are what Nelson thinks students should strive for in order to develop and maintain a healthy relationship. She said balance includes maintaining other friendships and your previous role as a student, athlete or any other place you may hold on campus.

“For most people, you need a friend group in addition to a romantic partner,” she said. “So those healthy relationships have good healthy friendships, they have friends that like each other and they have the ability to socialize in multiple ways. That’s relational flexibility.”

Nelson also said students at Elon in healthy relationships have a shared goal.

Whether the couple decides they are going to choose to be emotionally intimate with each other or they decide they are just going to hang out and be in a more casual relationship, having the same goal and communicating that goal is essential, Nelson said.

“There have to be some parameters that you’re both working within,” she said.

On the flip-side, Nelson said unhealthy college relationships lack good-quality communication.

“Its not that they’re necessarily doing something bad to each other, but they’re not necessarily doing good for each other either,” she said. “So they are not having good communication.”

Nelson said this general lack of communication around a relationships is problematic and also, unfortunately, very common on Elon’s campus.

Julie Anderson graduated from Elon last spring. She is currently in a healthy relationship but she only knows that because she has a previous unhealthy relationship to compare it to.

“My [former] boyfriend did not foster a healthy environment for open discussion,” she said. “He did not want to talk about sensitive issues or emotional dilemmas in our relationship.”

Anderson said the level of trust in her previous relationship was low and she slowly became dependent on him as he simultaneously alienated her from her friends.

“I became separated from my friends,” she explained. “But he, however, maintained all of his friendships.”

She developed new friendships with her boyfriend’s group, and that wasn’t a problem. The problem was that she left her own friends behind.

Isolation from family and friends is a sign of an unhealthy relationship. Nelson said she has dealt with about eight instances on Elon’s campus in which one partner in the relationship has become isolated from her friends or family.  She said in almost all cases, she never speaks to the actual individual, but rather to her friend or family member.

“Friends and family see this person getting quieter, retreating, organizing their lives around the controlling partner,” she said. “Usually, the friend reaches out to her but she doesn’t listen.”

Nelson said at Elon, it has always been a male-female relationship that she deals with.

“There are certainly same-sex relationships that [are unhealthy] but I haven’t dealt with that on this campus,” she said.

Abuse, unwanted sexual activity and demeaning speech are glaring red flags that signify an unhealthy relationship. But there are less noticeable signifiers as well. Nelson said controlling behavior can often be masked as chivalrous, and she referred to this as “grooming.” It can include demeaning or controlling speech and the “suggestion” for the partner to dress a certain way, talk a certain way and to check in with them a certain amount of times daily. This is when friends and family start to see the individual organizing their schedule around their significant other.

“What is challenging is that in this highly-connected technology-structure, how to know the difference between people who are really connected and people who are keeping tabs on each other in a problematic way,” Nelson said.

Technology can help two people in a relationship to stay connected while they are apart. But it can also hinder the relationship when it becomes a distraction. Campbell and Southmayd try to carve out “no phone” time for just the two of them every day.

“We use that 15 or 20 minutes a night just to talk,” Southmayd said.

This is one way that the couple maintains balance between their relationship and all of the other classes and activities that fill up their days. It’s easy to lose sight of what’s important in a relationship, especially at the college level. Schedules fill up quickly and sometimes significant others become less of a priority. But there are resources on Elon’s campus that are here to help students in relationships, whether they are healthy or unhealthy.

Nelson’s colleague, Becca Bishopric, is in the process of solidifying her role on campus. Bishopric is the Coordinator for Violence Prevention and Response. She describes herself  as a “confidential responder” to students seeking help with relationships on Elon’s campus.

Graphic by Gabriela Szewcow.

Graphic by Gabriela Szewcow.

Bishopric wants students to know that anyone can come to her with questions about any situation, and she is there to give them advice on how to handle it. She can also point students in the right direction in terms of getting more help, especially in the case of an unhealthy or violent relationship.

“I can give a student a brochure about healthy relationships, and they can give it to a friend who may be in a bad relationship,” she said. “That friend may blow you off now, but two months down the road, they might be happy that they have that information.”

Having this information may have helped Anderson escape her unhealthy relationship sooner. She said that while her former boyfriend never laid a hand on her, he did exhibit violent and angry behavior during their relationship.

“Verbal abuse occurred on a regular basis,” she said. “He called me fat and stupid and he would punch things near me to scare me.”

Her boyfriend used his large size to physically intimidate her, forcing her into a quiet, stereotypical feminine gender role. Anderson felt controlled, but she couldn’t leave him because she was worried about how her boyfriend would react.

“I felt like I had to be passive and quiet to avoid verbal disputes,” she said.

Luckily, Anderson and her ex-boyfriend parted ways when they went off to different schools. But her unhealthy relationship could have escalated into a much worse situation if she hadn’t escaped it.

Nelson tells students that they need to have a safety plan in case a relationship turns violent. Both Nelson and Bishopric act as resources for students, but they do not actively seek out those who are in unhealthy relationships.

“You cannot help someone against their will,” Nelson said. “And it is the hardest thing to witness someone inside of that relationship because they really do perceive that they cannot get out of it – or they don’t want to.”

Nelson offers support to students who are seeking help for their friends, and she encourages them to tell their friends that she is there to help. But the students in the unhealthy relationships have to make the decision to get help on their own.

“If someone rejects your help, all you can do is tell them you are here when they’re ready,” she said.

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