College is typically thought of as one of those pivotal times in life when, before
we came, we were someone completely different than who we were when we left. People
often think of this time as a transition from late adolescence into early adulthood.
In addition to trying to figure out who we are and where we’re going, many of us are
also trying to figure out who’s going to go with us. In other words, we explore relationships
with other people, often with the intent of finding a partner with whom we can make
a serious or long-term commitment. Exploring relationships, whether romantic, sexual,
or neither, is an endeavor that will consist of emotional highs and lows. The information
below will hopefully make this exploration as rewarding as possible while minimizing
the inevitable difficulties that come with the territory, so to speak.
Finding the Middle Path
During the 1950s, psychologist John Bowlby, conducted famous research on attachment
styles in infants. What he found, and what was further developed by researcher Mary
Ainsworth, was that there were three types of “attachment styles:” anxious, avoidant,
Those of us with anxious attachment styles as adults are often thought of as the
“clingy” type. Though this word has taken on a derogatory intonation, it is important
to remember that this attachment style was developed for a reason, probably during
a time before the individual can even remember. In college students, these may be
the individuals who prioritize relationships over everything else including academics,
recreation, hobbies, and other interests. This individual might experience intense
anxiety or depressive symptoms when not in a relationship with a significant other.
Adults with a more avoidant attachment style are often thought of as distant or indifferent
about relationships. What the research would later find was that even though infants
appeared calm when the caregiver left and indifferent when they returned, the infant
was in fact experiencing physiological distress, but had learned to mask their distress.
These may be the college students who focus solely on academics and careers. As human
beings we are social animals and are hardwired in the direction of human connection.
Immersed in the culture of academia often encourages us to focus on achievement and
success while we often ignore our innate need for connection and belonging. Additionally,
a significant portion of what we consider interaction is through electronic devices
via social media or online gaming. While these may give us a sense of satisfaction
in the short term, they often leave us feeling isolated and anxious when it comes
to interactions in the real world.
It is important for us to understand our tendencies toward a particular attachment
style and find ways to work towards the middle path of secure attachment. If your
tendency towards the anxious attachment style, it might be helpful to find ways of
soothing yourself when you’re on your own. Conversely, if you’re of the avoidant
attachment style, finding ways of letting yourself get close to people, even when
it’s intensely uncomfortable, may be in order. This is often difficult to do on your
own so making your way to the counseling center is a great place to get started in
achieving more healthy and satisfying interpersonal relationships.
Signs of an Unhealthy Relationship
Sometimes our relational patterns can make it easy for people to take advantage of
us, while this is never your fault, there are some things you can look for to know
if this is happening. Alternatively, maybe your relational style tends to minimize
the individuality of your significant other. Given that our unhealthy interpersonal
styles are often difficult to detect, the following list of relational patterns can
be helpful clues in identifying whether or not you’re in an unhealthy relationship.
Feeling a sense of anxiety about upsetting your partner
Isolating yourself from your friends and family
Putting your wants, feelings, and needs on the “back burner” and prioritizing your
partner’s wants, feelings, and needs
Feeling as though you have to be someone else or do things you wouldn’t normally do
to make your partner happy
Keeping your partner away from friends/family or keeping them from trying new things
Experiencing jealousy or keeping your partner from hanging out with friends of opposite
Dealing with a Breakup
It is inevitable that at some point you are going to have to deal with a break up.
When that happens, you will probably experience a range of intense emotions. Our brains
are hardwired to grieve when we lose something that matters to us. You’re going to
feel hurt or sad when you experience a loss. Knowing this, it’s helpful to try to
not avoid our difficult feelings, but rather to work towards allowing ourselves to
experience grief. Allowing ourselves to have difficult feelings and observing those
experiences can help us to not attach an unhelpful story to those feelings. What we
tell ourselves about difficult situations can make them even more difficult. When
we do this, it’s sort of like turning our pain into suffering. So work on being proactive
about how you respond to difficult feelings and try to tell yourself a story about
the situation that leads to acceptance rather than anger or self-loathing. Being around
your friends can help be a reminder that we do matter and that others care about is
when it might feel as though the opposite were true. So try not to isolate yourself
too much when going through a breakup.
If you feel like you’re getting stuck in difficult feelings and having a hard time
bouncing back, it might be helpful to talk to a counselor. The ATU Counseling Center
is staffed with licensed counselors who have training to help in these situations
and they want to help you through it! Make an appointment by calling (479) 968-0329.