Methods: This study utilized a qualitative descriptive approach to explore understandings of healthy relationships among male and female college students. The sample for this study consisted of 45 undergraduate and graduate students (25 female, 20 male) at a Southwestern university in the United States. Students participated in gendered individual and focus-group interviews, which were recorded, transcribed, and then coded and analyzed using qualitative thematic analysis.
Findings: Findings indicated that students understood healthy romantic relationships to be characterized by direct communication, respect, and mutual satisfaction. Students recognized however that achieving these standards could sometimes be difficult. The difficulty students experienced in behaving consistently with their understandings of healthy relationships may be explained by the influence of social norms, particularly around sexual behavior and gender role expectations. For example, participants in this study valued direct communication and mutual satisfaction; however, they also described situations where they had sex even when they did not want to because they were afraid that if they did not, their partner might leave, or react with anger and aggression.
Conclusion and Implications: Although the authors initially proposed that having a strong understanding of healthy relationships may be a protective factor against SA and IPV, the findings point to a different conclusion. Students already appeared to have fairly clear understandings of healthy relationships. Social norms, however, may have interfered with their ability to act on these understandings. These findings have important implications for social workers and counseling professionals in college settings. Professionals can help students challenge myths around gender roles, romance, and sexuality, such as by encouraging acceptance of behaviors in men that are not traditionally seen as “masculine,” and challenging the narrative that women are being “mean” when they are establishing boundaries. Self-reflection may also help students recognize disrespectful behavior, both in themselves and in their partners. Finally, communication skills can help students when they are in situations where they might be experiencing conflicting impulses – such as, when one partner wants to be assertive in establishing his or her boundaries, but also worries about driving the partner away, or giving the impression that he or she is not interested.