Relationships can be tricky to manage in college—you have more responsibilities on your plate, which can leave you with less time for friends or romantic partners. We spoke with Dr. Kristyn Neckles, Psychologist and Director of Behavioral Science Medical Education at OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital, for tips on navigating relationships.
Many things in life will change in college, including some relationships. You’re in a new environment and surrounded by new people, which can impact existing relationships from a more familiar space. Common relationship challenges can include miscommunication, disagreements and feeling unappreciated.
In addition to maintaining old relationships, you’ll also create new ones. New relationships involve some learning and problem-solving over time. Whether a new relationship is platonic (like a roommate, for example) or romantic, conflict can and will likely arise. Dr. Neckles says that good communication skills are especially important during your time at college.
What is “good” communication?
“In my experience as a psychologist and working at counseling centers, young adults tend to think that healthy communication is [to be] agreeable or just going with the flow and saying, ‘yes’—and that’s not what healthy communication is about,” she explains.
“Healthy communication can look slightly different for everyone. Generally, it’s about the ability to have a difficult conversation; to actively listen to others and respond with empathy, as well as communicate your own needs and establish boundaries, if necessary,” continues Dr. Neckles.
She also emphasizes the importance of healthy communication when you disagree with someone. One way to express your beliefs or needs with others in a healthy way is through “I” statements. “I” statements focus on how something affects you rather than assigning blame. For example: “I felt unappreciated when you ______,” rather than “You don’t appreciate me.” The message is similar, but the “I” statement is less likely to lead to a defensive response.
What to do if healthy communication isn’t reciprocated
Let’s say you’ve tried using “I” statements, active listening and setting boundaries, but the relationship still struggles—what now?
Try to write it out. “Sometimes, conversation breaks down quickly, and effective communication becomes difficult. I would recommend you describe the problem clearly in writing, whether it’s on paper or in a text. Give the person time to read it separately from you and respond afterward,” says Dr. Neckles.
Find another person to mediate between the two of you. “Whether it’s a mutual friend or a campus counselor, having someone who’s not biased to the situation mediate the conversation can be helpful,” she explains.
If healthy communication and other methods don’t seem to help the conflict in your relationship, it may be time to consider setting more serious boundaries. “I think we need to know when to walk away or let things go,” Dr. Neckles says. “There may come a time where you say, ‘I did my best. This person is not changing or investing in me emotionally, and it’s impacting my well-being.’ So, you must consider whether you’re able or want to invest anymore emotionally in the situation.”
Tips for building healthy relationships
Dr. Neckles says the key to building a healthy relationship is to, “look at your own values, interests, hobbies and aspirations.” She explains that you can better decide who you want to welcome into your life by understanding what you want. This might be people with similar interests or values. You may also seek out people who can practice healthy communication, active listening, empathy and respecting boundaries.
There are countless ways to meet new people, especially on a college campus—attend events, join organizations and speak up if you’re interested in something. You never know who you’ll meet from it!
Finally, learn from your past relationships and know that the end of one doesn’t dictate the rest. College is a place to learn, so look at relationships as an opportunity to grow. “There’s an awesome book called This is Me Letting You Go by Heidi Priebe that helped me shift my focus off the other person and onto myself. That’s hard sometimes,” shares Dr. Neckles. “When we find ourselves chasing something that we know isn’t healthy for us, I think that’s a good time to pause and look inward. Sometimes, it’s easier to ask the other person to change than it is to focus on yourself.”
Dr. Kristyn Neckles is also the founder and creator of Resilience in Becoming… Wellness Center, LLC, her private practice in Athens, OH. She offers both telehealth and in-person sessions to help clients live life authentically and fully.
About the author
College 101 is a collaborative series between OhioHealth Marketing and Communications Interns. This article was written by our 2022-2023 intern, The Ohio State University Graduate, Erica Wetzler.