Love Q & A w/ the Counseling Center

The Towerlight asked Towson Counseling Center staff to pool together their expertise to give Towerlight readers advice on how to maintain a healthy relationship, how to deal with pressure people may feel during the Valentine’s Day season, and how to stay safe and get help if needed.

Questions answered by Coordinator of Sexual Assault Services Maria Wydra, Doctoral Intern Emily Brown, Doctoral Intern Michael Marquez, Staff Psychologist Chrissy Walsh, Coordinator of Eating Disorder Services Jaime Kaplan, Doctoral Intern Alex Pieraccini, and Counseling Center Associate Director Mollie Herman.

What are some healthy ways people can show their affection to others? Are there unhealthy ways to show affection? What do they look like?

There are many healthy ways of showing affection and everyone has personal preferences regarding how they like to show and receive affection, but healthy affection is always consensual, non-coercive, and nonviolent. To determine what works best for your own relationships, it can be helpful to consider Love Languages. Love Languages refer to how individuals tend to show and receive love, whether from romantic partners, friends or family.  They include gift giving, words of affection, quality time, acts of service and physical touch. More information on Love Languages, including quizzes to determine your own Love Language, can be found online.

Some unhealthy ways of showing affection can include behaviors such as stalking, jealousy and controlling behavior, which can include keeping constant tabs on a partner or controlling who they can and cannot spend time with. Generally, anything that makes a member of the relationship feel uncomfortable or unsafe can be considered an unhealthy form of affection. It is important that all members of a relationship agree on what feels safe and comfortable to them.

Do you have any Valentine’s Day date ideas for college students? Gift ideas?

When we think about Valentine’s Day, there is often a lot of pressure to be in a relationship and to celebrate the love of another. This is a good day to remind yourself about self-love, too! So it could be a good idea to do something nice for yourself. Whether you are buying a gift for yourself or someone else, experiences (dinner, ice skating, hiking) are always better (and more memorable) than material items that may lose its value/meaning after a few months.

What are some first date red flags?

Someone who monopolizes the conversation and doesn’t ask questions about you or seem interested in your life/stories. Pay attention to your gut feelings. Got a bad vibe? Text a friend to call/message you to give you an excuse to leave.

What advice would you give a busy, stressed-out college student who is trying to manage school work, friendships, and also a romantic relationship?

Think about how much energy and time you truly have to devote to a relationship and then be honest with the person you’re dating about how much you can invest. Occasionally check in with yourself to see if you need to reduce the amount of time you’re spending in one area or if you need to devote more time to another.

What are some common mistakes you see college students make in relationships? Any tips on how to overcome or avoid them?

Mistaking chemistry for compatibility. A great physical relationship, while important, is not a substitute for genuine affection and friendship. Be honest with yourself about what you’re looking for in a relationship. Do you want something short-term and physical? If so, be open about that with yourself and with partners. If you genuinely want more emotional intimacy and connection, then don’t settle for a great, but shallow hook-up. Another common mistake is staying in an unhealthy or unsatisfying relationship because it’s easier to stay than to end things. If your relationship is making you miserable more often than making you happy, it’s probably not worth staying in it. And if the majority of your trusted friends and family members are telling you that your relationship is unhealthy, listen to them. They may be able to see something clearly that you’re missing. Relationships are about mutual happiness, growth, and companionship, and if you’re not getting those things from your relationship, it’s probably time move on.     

What does a healthy relationship look like?

Healthy relationships can take many forms, but are always characterized by mutual respect and valuing of one another’s perspectives. Good communication is a cornerstone of healthy relationships and involves speaking honestly and openly with your partner, even (and maybe especially), around topics that are difficult to discuss. Fight fair. This involves listening openly to one another and sharing your viewpoint without needing to assign blame to your partner. Healthy relationships also involve admitting to your own mistakes and being forgiving toward your partner for their inevitable mistakes. Be willing to compromise, but healthy relationships also involve both partners seeking ways to get both of their needs met.

What does an unhealthy relationship look like?

Unhealthy relationships can take many forms with some characteristics more subtle and others harder to ignore. Some more subtle signs of unhealthy relationships include being critical of your partner or refusing to communicate openly and without blame during times of conflict. Failure to take responsibility for one’s actions are another sign of an unhealthy relationship. In unhealthy relationships, one partner may try to control the behaviors and interactions of the other, perhaps attempting to isolate them from other people in their lives or stop them from engaging in activities that do not involve that partner. Less subtle signs of an unhealthy relationship include any threats to hurt a partner or the partner’s family or friends in any way.  Attempts to control the partner through intimidation or threatening suicide if the partner leaves are also major red flags. Violence of any sort is also indicative of an unhealthy relationship, whether it be violence toward the partner, other people, or property.  Manipulative or forceful behavior around sex is also indicative of a seriously problematic relationship.  

If someone is in an unhealthy relationship, what would you recommend that person do? Where can someone go if they don’t feel safe in a relationship?

Tell that friend to go to the Counseling Center or Turnaround, a domestic violence help center. Let that friend know that you support them, that there’s nothing to be ashamed of, and that it’s important to get support from a professional in order to get help and figure out next steps.

How would you recommend starting a healthy conversation about sex with a partner?

First, it’s important to think about what YOU really like and are down for, then think about what is off-limits for you, and then about the things you might like to try. Then think about what you’re willing to do with your sweetheart, because that might be slightly different from what you’re into in general. Then, before you hook up, talk to your valentine about it. Discuss a way to maintain communication when you’re fooling around. You can try this one: Green is, “Yes, I like it. Keep going;” Yellow is, “Let’s take a break and see if I want to continue;” and Red is, “Let’s come to a full stop of everything.” When your partner needs a break or isn’t seeming into it, STOP. Check in. And only continue if they say they’re ready and feel comfortable doing so. NEVER pressure someone to do anything they don’t want to do.  

You can never communicate too much when it comes to conversations about sex with partners. Talking about sex can be most helpful prior to engaging in sexual activity so that all parties have discussed what feels safe and comfortable for them. It is recommended that partners practice sexual assertiveness and make time to discuss healthy boundaries, pleasure and sexual history with one another. Often people operate under the assumption that these kinds of conversations are not “sexy,” when they can actually serve to make sex more intimate, comfortable and fun. While it can be uncomfortable to have these conversations, it can generally result in a more satisfying sexual experience for all members. The more you practice having these conversations, the more comfortable you will become having them.

What advice do you have for someone who is feeling pressure to have sex on Valentine’s Day?

An individual is never obligated to have sex with someone else any day of the year, including Valentine’s Day. If someone does not want to have sex on this day, they have every right to communicate this to potential sexual partners. Sex is not something that is owed to another individual. Asserting yourself and expressing your desire to not engage in sexual activity is your right and one that should be respected by any sexual partner. Valentine’s Day is no different than any other day in that nobody has the right to your body. Turning down sex is perfectly acceptable. If an individual continues to feel pressured despite having continuously expressed a disinterest in sex, this could be indicative of a problematic relationship.

– Compiled by Bailey Hendricks


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