TV dramas and movies today bombard us with what unhealthy and even abusive relationships look like: the never-ending Amber vs. Gary saga on Teen Mom, outrageously adulterous couples on Maury, and the phenomenon of duplicitous cyber relationships on Catfish. The focus is so often placed on the bad things that we can forget what we’re supposed to be seeing in a healthy relationship.
While pursuing a post-doctoral degree in developmental psychology at University of Pittsburgh, Candice Feiring started following a group of infants. She was given the opportunity to study these infants and the relationships they developed as they grew, starting with their parents, then as they grew older with their friendships, but then they hit adolescence.
She began studying the romantic relationships that came about in the lives of the young participants in her sample. “This area in the field of developmental psychology was still growing in 1999,” says Dr. Feiring. “We started realizing that this was not just puppy love. These relationships set the stage for future relationships.”
Dr. Feiring was intrigued by the shift that occurs once relationships become voluntary. She went on to concentrate on research on sexual abuse and how sex abuse effects development. Today, she is Editor-in-Chief of Child Maltreatment, The Journal of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, as well as the Director of the Center for Youth Relationship Development at The College of New Jersey. Give your relationship a check-up with some sound advice she offers on what every girl needs to know.
What are some of the most surprising findings on youth relationship development?
One thing that we have found is how common conflict is in a healthy relationship. It’s challenging for a young adult to fully understand what their partner is going through when you’re angry because you’re focused on your own emotions and a sense of being accused that you are “wrong”.
There has also been new research showing that when young couples are asked about how much they negotiate, they’ll say “yes yes yes, we negotiate all the time on everything,” but when we ask them to give examples, they really don’t do it so much. It’s easier to talk about times when your partner has hurt you as opposed to talking about times when you have hurt your partner. We’ve also found that people who have been routinely less satisfied in their past relationships are less likely to have the skills to negotiate. The more you’ve experienced being unappreciated in your relationships, the less apt you are to negotiate on things with a partner.
What characteristics definitely need to be present for a relationship to be considered healthy?
Healthy relationships need to be reciprocal. Partners should feel like they mutually influence each other. Your partner should be respectful and responsive to your needs and vice versa. Instead of a tit-for-tat mentality, where it’s about “I’ll do this for you, you do this for me,” there needs to be more focus on the relationship’s importance. When there isn’t a balance, that’s when people can lash out and call their partner names and blame their partner. People in healthy relationships show support to each other especially during times of stress. This means that when you are stressed about courses and exams, for example, your partner is listening to your anxieties or helping you study.
How can you determine whether you really have a reason to be angry with your partner or if you should just let it go?
If your partner, for example, is going out with other people and not telling you, this will undoubtedly be experienced as betrayal. You’ll naturally start to develop strong negative emotions towards your partner, feeling as though your needs are not being met. Another example may be making a date with someone and they don’t show up. If this happens over and over, the destructive feelings of hurt and rejection will progress to a point where you will naturally feel insecure and threatened in your relationship. It’s important to feel a sense of commitment; that your partner is willing to make time for you and wants to be with you.
Sometimes it’s difficult to let your guard down. Just how open with your partner are you supposed to be?
Being able to talk about your vulnerabilities, things you worry about, or would like to change about yourself, builds intimacy. One very important aspect of this that a lot of people don’t want to talk about is sexuality. You should be able to talk about your desires, anxieties, and about your sexuality. An important aspect of a healthy relationship is security. You should feel that you can go to your partner with anything and you should feel safe doing this.
What do you think is the most important thing college students should know about what it means to have a healthy relationship?
During the time of young adulthood, the amount of conflict goes up. Your relationships prior to college were probably more about status and the focus was not the relationship itself. Once the shift occurs that puts more importance on the relationship, more factors are involved and more conflict will naturally result. And there has to be conflict, otherwise it’s probably a superficial relationship. Conflict needs to be understood as a way of becoming closer to your partner. The most telling predictor of whether a relationship is going to last is how the couple handles conflict.
What’s the best way to handle conflict?
The constructive way to deal with conflict is to recognize the negative emotions, and try to take your partner’s point of view. Try to come up with an understanding of what each other is going through. On the flip side, conflict can be beneficial in the way that it can teach you whether you really want to stay in the relationship. This is where relationships can teach you about who you are and what you really want.
For information on dating violence, check out The Teen Dating Violence Awareness Project at http://www.liveyourdream.org/volunteeropportunities/teendatingviolence/teendatingviolence.html?gclid=CNL65cyqg7cCFcXe4AodjRIA1g
If you or someone you know is experiencing teen dating violence, call the Love is Respect Dating Abuse Hotline at 1-866-331-9474 for immediate assistance. You can talk to a representative 24 hours a day, seven days a week.