A Message On Making Relationships Work

Attentive or smothering. Flattering or conditioning. Caring or controlling. Easy-going or disrespectful.

These are the distinctions between a healthy and harmful relationship, according to a campus talk led Emily Rothman, Sc.D., an associate professor in the department of community health sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health.

As part of the Concerned About Rape Education Week, Rothman was invited to Boston College to discuss the implication of dating and sexual relationships on one’s happiness. The event was sponsored by BC’s Women’s and Gender Studies Program and Rallying Efforts Against Contemporary Trafficking (R.E.A.C.T.).

Rothman led a discussion about domestic violence and relationships, and how those problems have been dealt with over the past few years. Referencing the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey from 2011, Rothman demonstrated that approximately one in five women and one in seven men have experienced severe physical violence in their lives. These rates are slightly elevated for people of interracial descent as well as people who self-identify as bisexual, she said.

Rothman also highlighted that one in three women experience dating violence during their college careers. She then told the students a story about domestic violence in college relationships.
“No one knows that they are victims of domestic violence until they go through the process of acknowledgement,” Rothman said. “No one wants to see themselves in that way. Justification and self-blame allows them to continue on in situations that aren’t healthy.”

According to Rothman, these moments of violence can sometimes bring couples closer together. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, she said these incidents of traumatic bonding can pull people together rather than pushing them apart.

“When something really bad happens between two people, it can bring them closer together because they suddenly feel heightened and primed,” Rothman said. “They have a lot of adrenaline and it feels like an intimate moment, leading to bonding. This doesn’t make intuitive sense, but it’s a real thing.”

Rothman highlighted four major disparities between healthy and unhealthy relationships: attentive or smothering, flattering or conditioning, caring or controlling, and easy-going or disrespectful.

Rothman explained some of the differences between attentive and smothering, which she believes mainly relies on the “wait and see” approach. The major schism between these endpoints relies on the comfort levels of those involved.

The flattering or conditioning category is much more broad and difficult to pinpoint.

“If a partner only reinforces you with positive comments when you’re behaving in a certain way that he wants to reward and it doesn’t align with who you want to be as a person, it’s not being flattering or kind,” Rothman explained. “This behavior serves to condition and groom you, just like you would act with a dog.”

Many of these differences can be difficult to identify, but by doing so, people can verify not only that they are in healthy relationships but that they are happy.

In reference to the caring or controlling identity of relationships, Rothman made it very clear as to what is and is not acceptable in a healthy relationship.

“If you have a partner that expresses interest in your wellbeing, that’s good and healthy,” Rothman said. “But people can dress things up as caring or concern. Manipulating and controlling who you are around is different and should not be tolerated.”

The last identifying factor is the difference between being easy-going and disrespectful. Although these actions may not seem abusive in nature, Rothman said, they do leave a strong psychological effect on those involved.

“By ignoring someone who clearly has feelings for you is another way that people can hurt you,” Rothman said. “If it’s too casual and they are blowing you off despite the fact that you’ve put yourself out there, it’s not a healthy relationship.”

In an effort to demonstrate what a healthy relationship is, Rothman asked students what they believed were some qualities of a functioning relationship. A healthy relationship will help people reach their best selves, she said.

“What should a healthy relationship feel like?” Rothman asked. “A healthy relationship is happy, confident, free, proud, respected, and unashamed 100 percent of the time.”

Featured Image by Alex Stanley / Heights Staff

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