Are romance and mental health at odds?

Illustration by Pruthvi Khilosia

Love can be difficult for students to find and even more difficult to maintain considering the inherent pressures of college life. According to experts in Flagstaff, relationships have the ability to deeply affect students’ mental health in many positive and negative ways.

Andrea Meronuck is a therapist at Northland Family Help Center, a Flagstaff organization dedicated to protecting and preventing victims of domestic violence. Meronuck said the effects of relationships on student’s mental health can be far reaching.

“I think all areas of our lives are affected by relationships, whether they’re healthy or unhealthy,” Meronuck said. “Relationships can also have negative and positive impacts on academic performance.”

Meronuck said, for many students, balancing school work with jobs, friendships and relationships can prove to be extremely challenging. When a relationship goes awry, it tends to affect other facets of a student’s life.

“Every part of life is affected by an unhealthy relationship,” Meronuck said. “The stress of something that’s harming you and the feeling of not being seen, heard or valued can impact your grades, work and self-efficacy.”

Meronuck said there’s a level of vulnerability that is vital in relationships. She also said that vulnerability doesn’t come naturally to everyone — it can be difficult to overcome the fear of emotional nakedness.

“In terms of changing bad habits, having awareness of everyone’s well-being and focusing on our own emotional health can really help our relationships,” Meronuck said. “Self-knowledge, mindfulness, self-compassion and exploration of emotions are all important.”

Meronuck said despite their challenges, romantic relationships have the potential to positively impact mental health depending on the fruitfulness of the relationship.

“Students are not school robots,” Meronuck said. “Sometimes students get excited and meet someone and it’s healthy. They feel seen and heard.”

Nora Timmerman, a lecturer at the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, said that love is not always joyous — it can sometimes be a double-edged sword. She also pointed out the presence of relationship stereotypes in much of today’s media entertainment. She said people sometimes look to examples given in media to understand what their role within a relationship should be. The subtle expectations placed upon viewers can be bad for their mental and relational health.

“There has been a sexualization of the media that doesn’t reflect the wholeness of human beings,” Timmerman said. “Women are often portrayed as objects to be consumed. There’s a lot of unhealthy depictions of relationships on film.”

Timmerman said that stereotypes surrounding gender roles cause internal struggles for many Americans today.

“Gender roles really hold us back from connecting with and living our fullest lives,” Meronuck said. “We get caught up in these gender stereotypes and reinforce them unconsciously.”

According to Meronuck, limited ideas of men and women’s roles within relationships make it difficult for some students to feel mentally safe.

“We have to find a balance between masculine and feminine needs because we all have them,” Meronuck said. “People joke about letting out your feminine side, but seriously, you should do it.”

Timmerman said that relationships have foundational requirements which must be met before they can be deemed healthy. Having a healthful relationship demands a great effort.

“An understanding of power dynamics, clear direct communication, having a sense of your own boundaries and needs as well as asking about your partner’s boundaries are all key in making good relationships,” Timmerman said.

Timmerman said people in toxic relationships are often unaware of the negativity inherent to their relationships. They remain in harmful situations longer than they should. While relationships do come with challenges, those challenges shouldn’t threaten a person’s mental well-being.

“A lot of people stay in relationships longer than they should,” Timmerman said. “It’s OK to have work in relationships as long as everyone’s needs are being met and boundaries aren’t being violated.”

She added that she encourages her students who are in distress because of a relationship to be transparent with about their issues.

“If someone is getting out of an abusive relationship or dealing with serious trauma, it could be grounds for rescheduling certain academic requirements,” Timmerman said.

Cassandra Dakan, a senior lecturer for the Honors College, worked for many years studying human relationships as an anthropologist. Dakan said she agrees that romance is a daunting endeavor.

“Relationships are supposed to be hard work,” Dakan said. “You have to care enough about yourself and love yourself enough to invest in a relationship and to feel good about it.”

With the growing popularity of hookup apps like Tinder and Bumble, Dakan said it has become increasingly difficult for students to find meaningful relationships.

“A lot of people on college campuses say hookup culture is a real thing, and that it diminishes those affirming experiences which contribute to improved mental health and closeness between people,” Dakan said. “I think that dating and hookup apps create this idea of shopping around and not taking the time to fully get to know people.”

These habits, Meronuck said, can lead to relationships that are engaging for a short period of time but are not conducive to long-term engagements.

“A shopping mentality can lead to a lack of fulfillment and a kind of perfectionism where we have to be good enough in order to be desired,” Meronuck said.

Relationships can be complex and strenuous. Finding a balance between the needs of the couple versus the needs of each individual involved can be a strain on mental health. However, this balance seems possible to attain with the suggestions of experts like Meronuck and Dakan, who say that self-evaluation and direct communication are the best strategies for fostering healthy relationships.