This story was originally published in the November 2021 Sexual Health and Safety issue of The DN.
College is stressful, and trying to find a healthy relationship amid responsibilities can only make things harder. For many college students, these relationships are their first experiences in interpersonal adult decisions and long-term goals.
Mariah Petersen, counselor and outreach coordinator at Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said one key factor of a healthy relationship between college students is open and direct communication with your partner.
“As you’re exploring dating, I think it’s really helpful to also look for what you want in a relationship and how you like to feel as far as what your role in the relationship looks like,” Petersen said.
She said one must decipher whether issues that come up in a relationship are actually red flags or differences in understanding what each person seeks in relationships and how each partner shows love. Petersen said it’s important to have direct conversations with your partner and ask yourself how you feel within the relationship before it becomes a serious pattern.
“What are you looking for and are those things feeling validated and reciprocated in those beginning conversations?” Petersen said. “A lot of the patterns we notice on first dates and kind of that beginning dating phase can continue.”
A red flag is a warning of danger or potential harm. There are a variety of red flags that are possible in relationships at all stages. Petersen said some effects of red flags can be a disconnection from partners, control, lack of communication and changes in mental health. Just because red flags are present though doesn’t mean they are always noticeable or easy to comprehend, according to Petersen.
One problem with noticing red flags is what Petersen likes to call a rose-colored filter. With this filter, according to Petersen, individuals may notice aspects that don’t feel consistent in the relationship, but they will ignore them to focus on the positive aspects and diminish the potential harm.
“It’s not a bad thing that we do that,” Petersen said. “However, we want to make sure we’re validating our experiences.”
Lanie Stutz, an advocate at the Center for Advocacy, Response & Education (CARE), said another excuse for ignoring red flags is substance abuse and stigmas around relationships.
“Unfortunately, a lot of times people use alcohol as something to kind of say, ‘Well they were just drunk,’ or ‘This only happens when they’re drinking,’ and I think that still is a behavioral red flag,” Stutz said. “Maybe it escalated because they’re drinking, but it still happens. I also think there’s kind of this stigma and idea of it’s not an abusive relationship unless you’re physically abused or unless it gets to a certain point of physical abuse.”
Like Petersen, Stutz said people often choose to ignore signs and dismiss it as a one-time offense.
It’s not always easy to notice red flags, but if something appears to be an unhealthy pattern forming, it should be explored. Petersen said red flags can be present when you’re not feeling heard or when you don’t feel physically or emotionally safe in a relationship. Bottom line, if you have a bad feeling about any aspect of a relationship, it shouldn’t be ignored.
Here are some common red flags that both Peterson and Stutz said to be particularly aware of:
Gerry Merck, psychotherapist in private practice at Monarch Counseling, said while college students may never find themselves in a critical emergency, there are opportunities for everyday situations to be disrespectful, harassing, controlling, coercive or harmful.
One common type of red flag is love bombing. Merck described it as an excessive amount of grand gestures, signs of affection and various acts to supposedly convey appreciation and gratitude, but often this behavior is indicative of ulterior motives.
Petersen said there’s a difference between showing affection and love bombing. Some partners use showers of gifts, abundant words of reassurance and physical connection to show how much their partner means to them. However, when these displays of affection become excessive, it can instead become a tactic to manipulate the victim into staying in a codependent relationship. Merck said love bombing appears to be flattering in the initial stages. The difference comes when these gifts are used in place of emotionally supporting the other person.
Merck defines gaslighting as deliberate psychological manipulation of a person over a period of time, causing the victim to question their own validity, perception of reality or memories. Merck said gaslighting often leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem and uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability.
“When that’s someone that’s supposed to love you and you’re supposed to love and trust, and they do that kind of thing, it’s troubling,” Merck said. “It really does a number on your self-esteem, but mostly, it keeps people from trusting their own instinct and from trusting other people.”
When some partners aren’t exactly sure about a relationship, Merck said they might choose to engage in benching.
“Benching is when you start dating someone you think is nice and who has potential, but you’re not crazy about them,” Merck said.
When benching occurs, Merck said you often put your date into the mental “maybe” folder and continue dating around to see what else is out there without necessarily letting the person go.
As online dating becomes more popular, benching has become easier to engage in.
As technology becomes more prevalent, ghosting has become a popular way to bench potential partners. Merck described this particular behavior as cutting off contact and disappearing without giving a reason. Petersen said ghosting can come out of fear and avoidance in relationships.
“That might be something where they learn a relationship isn’t what they want, but they haven’t learned how to communicate that,” Petersen said.
Although Petersen said the person participating in the ghosting aspect might not want to engage in unhealthy behavior, it can seem like the easier option when compared to engaging in what can be a difficult conversation.
Hoovering, on the other hand, is a dangerous and abusive manipulation technique that drags a person back into an abusive relationship, according to Merck.
“After a break-up from an abusive relationship, the abuser will try to entice the ex-partner back into the relationship through unexpected acts like random texts, apologies, declarations of undying love and ‘repentant’ gestures, which try to convince the ex-partner how much they have ‘changed’ and ‘care’ for them,” Merck said.
Petersen said she’s seen all of these red flags in her sessions. Due to college relationships tending to be in the dating phase, she said these can be more prevalent.
“People are starting to navigate the beginning of what we call the honeymoon phase and kind of transitioning into maintaining a relationship and maybe how differences come up,” Petersen said.
One resource that CARE utilizes for their education and presentations is the One Love Foundation. Stutz said this organization was created from a family whose college-aged daughter was murdered by her ex-boyfriend. Stutz said the website aims to educate college students about relationships.
Stutz suggested college students go through the website to understand signs of healthy and unhealthy relationships, as well as to learn more about possible red flags.
“In my opinion, so many college students come to campus never really having a background of a real significant other relationship and not necessarily having a lot of real romantic relationships,” Stutz said.
Due to the lack of relationship experience, she said students don’t always know what their own boundaries are and how to recognize red flags. To determine whether a relationship is right or not, Stutz recommends asking yourself a series of questions.
“Before you get into a serious relationship, have you thought about what kind of relationship you want to have?” Stutz said. “What are your deal breakers? What are the things that you’re really looking for? Does this person match those things? Have you talked about those things, or are you just jumping into a relationship right away?”
In addition to utilizing online resources, Stutz said it’s important to talk to friends about what ideal relationships look like, as well as family members with prior experience.
All three said one of the most important things someone can do in a relationship is trust their gut. Stutz said that, due to a lack of dating experience, students don’t always know what their gut is telling them.
“If you’re getting creepy vibes through texting or through Tinder or whatever, that should be a red flag,” Stutz said.
Merck said if she had a daughter in college, she would tell her to trust her gut instinct in a relationship or on a date.
“If you start feeling anxious and feeling like something is off, you should terminate the date as soon as you can and as carefully as you can,” she said. “And if possible, arrange another ride home.”