Common Questions About Relationships, And Some Answers

I've never been very good at relationships, of any kind. I don't even know how or where to begin.

Relationships begin with you, because you are half of any relationship you join. So start with yourself! Don't count on a relationship to "cure" a poor self-image. It won't work. But here are some measures that can:

  • Make an inventory of your best, most attractive qualities and affirm them to yourself often.
  • Avoid unrealistic standards and all-or-nothing thinking: "If I don't make an A on every test, I'm a total failure."
  • Challenge yourself to accept and absorb compliments: a simple "thank you" raises self-esteem; negations, such as, "You like this outfit? I think it makes me look dumpy," lower self-esteem.
  • Remember that there are no guarantees. Making gains requires taking risks. Seek out new experiences and people; then approach them with openness and curiosity. Each is an opportunity.
  • Don't expect overnight success. Close friendships and intimate love relationships both take time to develop.

I don't think I have a poor self-concept. I feel pretty good about myself. But this is a big university, and it's easy to get lost in the crowd. How do I go about meeting people?

Your question implies that you see meeting people as something which requires effort, and you're right! No matter how stunningly attractive you may be, passively waiting for others to throw themselves your way not only doesn't work very reliably, it doesn't allow you to be very choosy. Here are some common-sense approaches which you may find helpful:

  • The best way to meet people is to put yourself in places where there are likely to be other people who share your interests and values: classes, ticket lines at sporting or cultural events, or cashier lines at stores and restaurants. And join an organization! Check with the Office of Student Life for information on groups based on religion, athletics, academics, political/special interests, ethnicity/culture, and service or charity.
  • Once you're with people, initiate a conversation by: asking a question, commenting on the situation, asking for or offering an opinion, expressing some interest, showing some concern, or offering or requesting help.
  • Once you've engaged someone in conversation, let him or her know you're listening and interested. Make eye contact, adopt an open posture, reflect the feelings you hear, paraphrase what he or she is saying, and ask for clarification if you don't understand.
  • And, again, remember: no risks, no gains. Don't be discouraged if you and the other person don`t "click" first and every time.

One thing that's difficult for me in relationships is "hanging on to myself." It seems that once I get close to someone -- roommate, friend, or lover -- I give in and accommodate so much that there's nothing left of me.

It's hard to experience fulfillment in a relationship which is not equal and reciprocal. The best way to avoid "giving yourself up" in a relationship is to develop some assertiveness skills. Learn how to express your feelings, beliefs, opinions, and needs openly and honestly. Here are some guidelines:

  • When stating your feelings, use "I-statements." Avoid accusatory or blaming "you-statements." They usually only result in defensiveness and counterattacks.
  • You have a right to have feelings and to make requests. State them directly and firmly and without apology.
  • Acknowledge the other person's point of view, but repeat your request as many times as necessary.
  • Learn to say "no" to unreasonable requests. Offer a reason -- not an excuse -- if you choose, but your feelings are reason enough. Trust them.

Won't I lose my friends and lover if I always insist on getting my own way?

Assertiveness is not about always getting your way. Nor is it about coercing or manipulating. Those are acts of aggression. An assertion does not violate another's rights, and it does not preclude compromise. But a compromise, by definition, meets the needs of both people as much as possible. If your friend or lover is unwilling to compromise or has no respect for your feelings, maybe there's not so much to lose.

My romantic partner and I seem to be coming from different worlds sometimes. It's pretty frustrating. What can we do about it?

It's normal for relationship partners to have different needs in at least few areas, such as: spending time with others vs. spending time with each other, wanting "quality time" together vs. needing time to be alone, going out dancing vs. going to a ballgame, etc. Differing needs don't mean your relationship is coming apart, but it is important to communicate about them to avoid misunderstandings.

  • Tell your partner directly what you want or need ("I would really like to spend time alone with you tonight"), rather than expecting them to know already ("If you really cared for me, you would know what I want").
  • Set aside time to discuss unresolved issues: "I'm feeling uncomfortable about...and would like to talk about it. What time is agreeable to you?" Pouting, sulking, and the "silent treatment" don't make matters any better.
  • Inevitably you and your partner will have conflicts, but they needn't be nasty. Here are some tips for "Fair Fighting":
    • Use assertive language (see above for a reminder).
    • Avoid name calling, or intentionally calling attention to known weaknesses or sensitive issues ("hitting below the belt").
    • Stay in the present, don't dwell on past grievances.
    • Listen actively - express back to your partner what you understand his/her thoughts and feelings to be.
    • No "gunnysacking" (saving up hurts and hostilities and dumping them on your partner all at once).
    • If you are wrong, admit it!

Even when we're communicating well in other areas, my partner and I often get bogged down when it comes to talking about sex. I often feel we have very different expectations in this area.

First of all, it is important to be aware of your own feelings: how you feel about your partner, how comfortable you feel in his or her presence, what does and doesn't feel comfortable or desirable in terms of physical closeness or sexual contact. Trust your gut feelings.

  • Communicate what YOU really want sexually. Express what you enjoy and also what you are not comfortable with.
  • Communicate clearly to your partner/date what your limits are. Be prepared to defend your limits. If you mean No, then say "No," and don't give mixed messages. You have the right to be respected and you are NOT responsible for your partner/date's feelings or reactions.
  • Both partners have a responsibility in preventing unwanted sexual contact. Men must recognize that no means no, regardless when she says it, and regardless whether you think she is saying "yes" nonverbally. If a person says "no" and is still coerced or forced into having sex, then a rape has occurred.
  • If you feel unsafe, leave the situation immediately - fifty to seventy percent of rapes are perpetrated by an acquaintance of the victim.

I hear a lot about "co-dependency" in relationships. What exactly is that?

Co-dependency originally referred to the spouses or partners of alcoholics and the ways they attempt to control the effects of the other person's dependency on alcohol or drugs. More recently, the term has been used to refer to any relationship in which one person feels incomplete without the other and thus tries to control him/her. Some characteristics of co-dependency are:

  • Fear of change or growth in the other person.
  • Looking to the other person for affirmation and self-esteem.
  • Feeling unsure where you end and the other person begins.
  • Exaggerated fear of abandonment.
  • Psychological games and manipulation.

A healthy relationship is one that allows for the individuality and growth of both persons, is open to change, and allows both individuals to express their feelings and needs.

A lot of your answers seem to assume we're talking about heterosexual relationships. What about same-sex relationships? Do the same principles apply?

All humans have the same needs for love, safety, and commitment. Gays, lesbians, and bisexuals are no different. All evidence suggests that same-sex attraction, while rarer than other-sex attraction, is simply a different orientation, not a "perversion," anymore than being blue-eyed or left-handed (also relatively rare) are "perversions." But there are some differences:

  • Since both partners are of the same sex, the characteristics of that gender may be exaggerated in the relationship. Sometimes that can be very nice. Other times it can be experienced as a problem.
  • Partners in same-sex relationships must deal with the stress of homophobia, society's widespread fear and condemnation of their sexual orientation. Feeling unable to be open about one's relationship with friends, colleagues, and family can leave the same-sex couple isolated and deprived of a support network.
  • Homophobia can also affect the self-esteem of same-sex partners, making the normal ups and downs of a relationship all the more difficult.
  • Finally, homophobia can affect non-romantic same-sex relationships. For instance, two female friends, two brothers, or even fathers and sons, may feel reluctant to express their affection and caring for each other for fear of being thought gay.

Why do gays and lesbians stay hidden so much? One of my friends didn't tell me he was gay until after I had known him a full year.

  • Many gays and lesbians do stay hidden for much or all of their lives, and given the prevalence of homophobia, it's easy to see why. But other same-sex oriented people, on this campus and all over the world, have made the decision to be themselves boldly and openly, in the belief that that is the best way to counteract stereotypes and discrimination.
  • Your friend may not have felt certain of his sexual orientation when he first met you, or he may have just decided to do you the honor of trusting you to be a part of his "coming out," or his process of acknowledging, accepting, and disclosing his gayness. Ask him about it. He'll probably appreciate your sincere interest.

What about bisexuals? Are they for real, or just very confused?

For a long time, bisexuals were thought to be confused, "half-and-half" people. But there is growing recognition that while some people who think of themselves as bisexual may be in transition towards one orientation or the other, many genuinely feel strong attraction towards people of both genders. They're not so much "half" as "both" - they feel no confusion, and have no desire to change.

I hate ending relationships. Even though I look forward to summer vacation, saying goodbye to friends in May is miserable. And breaking up with romantic partners never seems to go well.

Saying goodbye is one the most avoided and feared human experiences. As a culture, we have no clear-cut rituals for ending relationships or saying goodbye to valued others. So we are often unprepared for the variety of feelings we experience in the process. Here are some guidelines many people find helpful:

  • Allow yourself to feel the sadness, anger, fear, and pain associated with an ending. Denying those feelings or keeping them inside will only prolong them.
  • Recognize that guilt, self-blame, and bargaining are our defenses against feeling out of control, feeling unable to stop the other person from leaving us. But there are some endings we can't control because we can't control another person's behavior.
  • Give yourself time to heal, and be kind to yourself for the duration: pamper yourself, ask for support from others, and allow yourself new experiences and friends.

I seem to get into the same pattern in all my relationships. I get afraid of losing my partner; then we get into a big argument and break up in anger. Sometimes I even think I may have picked a fight just because I'm scared to keep the relationship going. Does this make any sense?

Yes, it makes a lot of sense, and congratulations on recognizing a pattern. That's the first step towards change. People get into a variety of painful or "dysfunctional" patterns in relationships. Often, those patterns are based on old fears and "unfinished business" from childhood.

If you feel "stuck" in a pattern and unable to change it, talking to a professional counselor may help. Counseling Services offers a variety of individual and group services for all currently enrolled students. All services are free, voluntary, and confidential. Call 856-225-6005 or drop by Student Health Services in the Campus Center to schedule an initial appointment.