Maintaining Healthy Relationships in College

Freelance Writer

When Siobhan Pokorney looks back on her first dorm experience, she knows that speaking up about her roommate’s noisy ways could have made the year a lot easier. Pokorney, now a junior at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, says her roommate didn’t do anything glaringly wrong, but being woken up by her loud music or other random noises really grated on her nerves.

“It just made it uncomfortable,” says Pokorney, but talking about it seemed even harder. “We just let it sit there,” she admits. “I was nervous about what would happen, and I’m not good with confrontation. And we shared the same friends.”

The college years are a big transition for most students as they navigate new relationships on campus and try to maintain relationships with friends and family back home.

Sometimes the biggest challenges for a healthy relationship, whether it’s with a roommate, a romantic partner, a family member, or even a professor, are different communication styles and unclear expectations, says Melinda DuBois, Administrative Director for Student Health and Counseling at State University of New York at Geneseo. “Without the ability to communicate desires and set rules about relationships and communication styles, it is a set up for conflict,” she says.

Looking back, Pokorney realizes not establishing those rules made her life harder when it didn’t need to be. In hindsight, Pokorney says the year really showed her how improved communication could have made a difference. “It would have been better if I had brought up small things,” Pokorney says, so that her roommate didn’t feel attacked by a laundry list of complaints. And she would have been open to hearing her roommate’s complaints as well. “I am sure I was doing things that were annoying her,” she says. But had her roommate approached her in a respectful manner? “I would have appreciated that,” she says.

Use your emotional toolbox

According to Dorinda Lambert, Ph.D., Director of Counseling Services at Kansas State University, navigating new relationships is an opportunity to assess your own skills. “One of the things we try to emphasize is finding your inner compass,” she says. When you find yourself in a situation that is making you uncomfortable, you can target the problem area. Is it the other person’s words or is it the tone? Are their actions bothering you or is it because you aren’t sure what is expected of you?

But finding your inner comfort level and getting that point across is where many students stumble.

“For the vast majority of adults, the biggest danger is repressing or avoiding dealing with conflict,” says Gary Harper, conflict resolution expert and author of The Joy of Conflict Resolution. “Most of us are raised to not be assertive, to not rock the boat.” So when anger rears up, we tamp it down, but the anger still festers.

But you can get your message and your needs across without sounding mean and nasty. One of the keys to maintaining good, healthy relationships is to recognize when something upsets you and dealing with it appropriately. “Assertiveness is the ability to stand up for ourselves without knocking others down,” Harper says.

When you lose sleep because your roommate is up all night, your silent frustration isn’t going to prevent her from doing it again. But if you can have a conversation about it, you can take steps to finding an arrangement that works for the both of you.

Speaking up brings solutions

“Often people avoid asserting their needs for fear of damaging a relationship,” says Harper. “But what damages a relationship is when resentments are repressed and build up and poison the relationship.” Keeping silent about your roommate’s habits because you don’t want to make her angry (you have to live in very close quarters, after all!) solves nothing.

Remember, says Lambert, that a heartfelt desire to work things out doesn’t necessarily mean both sides have to agree. But you both have to be willing to ease towards a solution that works.

Experts point to the “I” statement as a great communication tool. For instance, if a professor graded you harshly, go to the office hours and respectfully say, “I feel this grade is unfair because I included everything on the rubric.” Saying how you feel is then not a personal attack, not so confrontational, and may help people change their behaviors, says DuBois.

Of course, you don’t want to point out every annoying habit, so how can you decide when to speak up? Well, your body will give you immediate feedback, says Harper, and in many cases, you don’t have to say something right away. You might feel that initial rush of irritation, but if you don’t find yourself dwelling on it or you don’t physically feel like your stomach is in knots, then you probably can let it slide. But if you can’t shake the feeling, then you are better off confronting the problem and not avoiding it.

Sometimes, forging sustaining relationships in a new place takes practice. Colleen Caty, a junior human physiology major/French minor at Boston University, says her freshman year crew team gave an instant group to belong to. But when Caty quit crew, she found herself without that buddy system and gravitated toward a high school friend who went to the school. But when the friend left for a semester abroad the next year, Caty again felt that same discord.

“I didn’t branch out as much as I should have,” Caty says. Looking back, Caty said she would have gotten out of her comfort zone and made a point to meet more people because she found that it changed how she felt about her school experience. “I wasn’t unhappy with school,” she says, “but I didn’t love it.” Now, Caty has a group of friends who share common interests, and she loves BU. “It helped to make a smaller community within a larger community setting,” she says.

Tread carefully with technology

With all the ease technology brings to communication, it poses its own problems. If your best friend says something sarcastic about your bad habit of leaving dirty dishes in the sink, you can tell by the smile on his face that he means it in fun. But if the exact same words were sent in a text, which lacks body language, physical posture, and voice inflection, you might have a tough time figuring out the intent, and that can lead to strife.

“Texts are good for keeping in touch, but when it comes to expressing emotional contexts well, it is not as good,” says Dr. John Grohol, founder of Psych Central, a leading online mental health social network. “When you are sarcastic, it gets lost in translation.” So if you don’t know how to take someone’s text, it’s better to call and ask, Grohol advises. If you try to do it with the same method that caused the initial confusion, you won’t have much luck.

Teens and young adults all appreciate the near instant communication abilities technology offers, Grohol says, and it helps students keep in touch easily. “But they don’t understand why some of their communication is being misunderstood,” he says.

What if your friend texts news and funny comments to you constantly, even while you are working or studying? Grohol says you have to speak up because texting preferences are so varied. “One friend might love to text every five minutes while another gets annoyed if it is more than every hour,” he explains. Just keep it on the light side and tell them you enjoy reading their texts, but it is overwhelming you and breaking your concentration.

Relationship red flags

One of the easiest ways to tell if you are relying on technology a little too much is to listen to the people around you, says Grohol. If your family and friends remark that they never see you, that your face is always buried in a screen, or that you never seem to go out any more, listen to their honest concerns. If you are using technology instead of interacting with your peers who are right in front of you that is a red flag that technology is interfering with your personal relationships.

And because it is such a time of transition, many students are looking for stability from friendships and romantic relationships alike, so pay attention if something makes you uncomfortable. Is your new boyfriend texting you constantly and then getting mad when you don’t send an immediate reply? Does he want to be around you all the time, even when you say you need time with your friends? If that makes you uncomfortable, then it is time to talk about rules and expectations, says DuBois.

Even high school romantic relationships can cause discord, says April Masini of the advice column. “Long-distance relationships are a lot more complicated and difficult to maintain than in-town relationships,” she says. Masini says she hears from new college students who say the college transition isn’t ideal for a successful long-distance relationship, but that students often find it tough to call it quits. If you find your relationship stalling or holding you back, it is a sign that it may not survive the shift.

Relationships at home

College is the tricky in-between time when you are fully independent at school but not so much when you go home for breaks. Even if you’re excited about your next trip home, there might be some disagreement about curfews.

Before you arrive home ready to argue, clear up a few things that could get in the way of a peaceful visit. Figure out why it is important for you to have no curfew—do you want to be able to continue on your own schedule? Do you just want to spend time with your friends? Then switch gears for a minute and figure out what might be going on at home. Curfews are often given for peace of mind and for security. “Frame this as a problem to be solved rather than a position to defend from being attacked,” says Harper.

Healthy relationships are not perfect relationships, but they are built on a solid base of good, open communication where each side is able to express their needs. Being open to new solutions to problems is the best way to have a stable, respectful, long-lasting relationship.

“Be forceful about what you need, but flexible about how you get it,” advises Harper.

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