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Relationships 101: How to Have Strong College Relationships

Navigating relationships in the first year of college is tough. Science helps.

Key points

  • Long-distance relationships the first year of college may be healthy and viable and not as problematic and one may think.
  • Love is not enough for a healthy relationship. One must be a good communicator, avoid drama, and be with someone who is respectful.
  • A third of college relationships experience dating violence. To help see the signs, see what close friends or family think of a chosen partner.
Photo by Paloma A. on Unsplash
What does science say about common relationship experiences in the first year of college?
Source: Photo by Paloma A. on Unsplash

College is all about new experiences: starting a new life, new friends, new freedom, and new relationship experiences. Not surprisingly, romantic relationships are responsible for life’s happiest moments.1 For that reason, it’s important to avoid problematic relationships that could not only jeopardize your college education but your happiness as well. Here are several common relationship experiences that students encounter during their first year in college:

Long Distance Relationships

When you left for college, you brought your favorite pillow and best clothes, but did you also bring along your high school sweetheart? If not, and your partner is still back at home or another school, you’re in good company since 75% of college students have a long-distance relationship at some point during their college career.2

These relationships can be difficult because you don’t get to see your partner as much, and you may feel lonely.3 Don’t worry, though; long-distance relationships are generally no worse off than relationships with nearby partners.4 You should fight the urge to leave school to be near them (either at home or another school) because long-distance relationships also have some benefits such as viewing each other more positively and being more satisfied with the communication in the relationship.5 It may just take a bit of extra effort to maintain closeness with your partner (texting, FaceTime, Zoom).

Dealing With Break-up

For a variety of reasons, break-ups are common in the first year of college. Maybe your high school relationship didn’t work out, or a new college relationship fizzled out. Break-ups can result in negative emotions and feeling less sure of who you are.6 Yet, when college students predict how bad things will be after a break-up, they think it’ll be worse than it is.7 In fact, over 41% of college students view their break-ups as positive experiences, with this being even more likely if the former partner was holding them back.8 To get over a break-up, try writing about the positive aspects of the experience,9 relying on social support,10 and avoiding getting back together with your former partner.11 In fact, rather than jumping right back into a relationship, spend some time alone and focus on yourself because having a clear sense of who you are will lead to better relationships down the road.12

Starting a New Relationship

One of the quintessential college experiences may be the quest to form new relationships. But where should you look? A lot of times, attraction is a matter of convenience.13 Hello neighbor! However, living down the hall from someone may not be the best foundation for a healthy relationship. If there were a law of attraction, it would state that you should find someone as similar to you as possible.14

If you’re studious, like the beach, and enjoy binging Netflix, your partner should as well. When looking for a partner, you’ll want to detect whether the other person is interested. Did the object of your affection give you “the look,” or was there simply something in his or her eye? Here it is important to realize that men tend to see interest where it may not exist. A woman’s innocent “hi!” may be interpreted as “she wants to hook up.”15

Building a Healthy Relationship

Everyone wants to have a great relationship. To accomplish this goal, you should build your relationship around a solid friendship founded on trust, closeness, honesty, and a sense of openness that includes mutual self-disclosure.16 To achieve this, good communication is important, especially when discussing problems.

Many people (mistakenly) believe that disagreements are destructive in relationships. However, you should be secure enough in your relationship to discuss the small issues that inevitably arise so that they don’t turn into major drama. Most importantly, avoid negative forms of communication like criticizing partners, being overly defensive, refusing to talk/shutting them out, or lacking respect or contempt.17

The research shows that relationships with this type of communication are nearly certain to end. Ultimately, healthy relationships and good communication both rely on mutual respect and caring. Demonstrate these qualities to your partner by clearly and calmly discussing problems, stating how you feel without blaming or attacking, and taking the time to listen to your partner’s perspective truly.18

Love Is Important, but It Isn't Enough

Being in love is obviously a key feature of a romantic relationship. But it may not be the type of love that you think. There are two main types: companionate love, which is based on friendship, and passionate love, which is based on attraction and preoccupation with the partner.19 Although passion may get a relationship started, it fades. A romance with a partner who is also your best friend is more likely to stand the test of time.

When thinking about love, avoid the mistaken belief that love conquers all. Love is a key ingredient, but it does not mean that you should tolerate disrespectful or abusive behavior. A person who truly loves you cares for you, makes you a priority, treats you with kindness and respect, and wants only what is best for you.

Relationship Abuse

Although most relationships don’t experience physical or verbal abuse, the prevalence of dating violence is growing and occurs in approximately 1 out of 3 college relationships.20 Yet, people in abusive relationships often believe that it must be normal and happening in most relationships because it happens to them.21

But look back at the statistics. Most college students are in happy, healthy relationships. Be sure to steer clear of factors that can promote relationship violence, such as high levels of dependency22 and alcohol use.23 If you or a friend experiences relationship abuse, seek help from your campus counseling center. The bottom line is that abuse should be an automatic deal-breaker because relationships should be one of the happiest and most fulfilling parts of your life.

Staying in a Bad Relationship

Obviously, no one aspires to be in a bad relationship, so why would anyone get stuck in one? First, people may stay because their expectations are too low or think they can’t do any better than the current partner.24 Second, we tend to prefer people who reinforce our self-views.25 If you have a negative self-view, you’ll tend to seek out others who also see you that way.

To make matters worse, a partner who views you negatively isn’t likely to treat you well, which may lower your relationship expectations and self-esteem even further. It is also important to avoid losing your own sense of identity by becoming too close to a romantic partner.26 To help recognize if you are in a bad relationship, you should turn to close others (roommates, friends, parents) who, research shows, are better judges of your relationship than you.27 If people close to you suggest that you get out of a relationship, it may be wise to consider their advice seriously.


A strong and healthy relationship will help make you a happier and better person without requiring you to forsake your friendships or educational goals. Learning these basics of healthy relationships will come in handy during your first year of college and will also benefit your future relationships in a way that will lead you to experience a happier and more fulfilling life.


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2 Merolla, A. J. (2010). Relational maintenance and noncopresence reconsidered: Conceptualizing geographic separation in close relationships. Communication Theory, 20(2), 169-193. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2885.2010.01359.x

3 Le, B., Loving, T. J., Lewandowski, G., Feinberg, E. G., Johnson, K. C., Fiorentino, R., & Ing, J. (2008). Missing a romantic partner: A prototype analysis. Personal Relationships, 15(4), 511-532. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2008.00213.x

4 Van Horn, K., Arnone, A., Nesbitt, K., Desilets, L., Sears, T., Giffin, M., & Brudi, R. (1997). Physical distance and interpersonal characteristics in college students’ romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 4(1), 25-34. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.1997.tb00128.x

5 Stafford, L., & Merolla, A. J. (2007). Idealization, reunions, and stability in long-distance dating relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 24(1), 37-54. doi:10.1177/0265407507072578

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7 Eastwick, P. W., Finkel, E. J., Krishnamurti, T., & Loewenstein, G. (2008). Mispredicting distress following romantic breakup: Revealing the time course of the affective forecasting error. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(3), 800-807. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2007.07.001

8 Lewandowski, G., & Bizzoco, N. (2007). Addition through subtraction: Growth following the dissolution of a low quality relationship. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2(1), 40-54. doi:10.1080/17439760601069234

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13 Berscheid, E., & Reis, H. T. (1998). Attraction and close relationships. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, G. Lindzey, D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, G. Lindzey (Eds.) , The handbook of social psychology, Vols. 1 and 2 (4th ed.) (pp. 193-281). New York, NY US: McGraw-Hill.

14 McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Cook, J. M. (2001). Birds of a feather: Homophily in social networks. Annual Review of Sociology, 27415-444. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.27.1.415

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17 Gottman, J. M., Coan, J., Carrere, S., & Swanson, C. (1998). Predicting marital happiness and stability from newlywed interactions. Journal of Marriage & the Family, 60(1), 5-22. doi:10.2307/353438

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20 Amar, A. F., & Gennaro, S. (2005). Dating violence in college women: Associated physical injury, healthcare usage, and mental health symptoms. Nursing Research, 54, 235-242. doi:10.1097/00006199-200507000-00005

21 Pipes, R. B., & LeBov-Keeler, K. (1997). Psychological abuse among college women in exclusive heterosexual dating relationships. Sex Roles, 36, 585-603. doi:10.1023/A:1025665907856

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