Sharon Hoefer, MSSW works with college students to create healthy, caring campus communities. She has previously worked in interpersonal violence research and program evaluation, as well as directly with survivors as a case manager and support group facilitator. Sharon has worked with young people in a variety of settings, including academic and social skills mentoring and interpersonal violence prevention. She is passionate about helping people recognize, respect, and communicate about boundaries. She is also passionate about aerial arts, jigsaw puzzles, and her poorly-behaved dog Benny. You can connect with her on Instagram.
Content warning: this post contains information about dating violence. If you would like to talk to someone about emotional or physical safety concerns in a relationship, you can always call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
Dating, whether for the first time or with someone new, can bring up a wide variety of feelings, questions, and thoughts. Feeling nervous, unsure, and excited are all normal. Within an existing relationship, it can also be helpful to pause and reflect on the nature of the relationship and make sure everyone involved feels comfortable and heard.
Dating should be an opportunity to explore what you want from romantic relationships and to develop the skills you need for healthy connections. Both you and the people you date deserve to feel safe as you discover and communicate your boundaries, wants, and needs. The following four characteristics will support you in taking responsibility for your dating process and developing healthy relationships.
Building Blocks of a Healthy Dating Relationships
In healthy dating relationships, everyone has a say. You should feel comfortable voicing your opinions and trust that the other person will take those opinions into account. Shared power can look different as a relationship progresses. Early on, it might mean making mutual decisions about movies to watch or date activities. Later, mutual decisions might involve shared finances or living arrangements.
Respect for Boundaries
Boundaries can be set for almost anything – time spent together, physical or sexual intimacy, digital communication (like texting or social media), sharing clothes, eating off each other’s plates. Partners should respect each other’s boundaries and not try to convince the other to change their mind or feel guilty.
When starting dating relationships, each person should consider their own boundaries and communicate them with the other person. Boundaries might change over time, so it is important to check in regularly. To start a conversation, you could say something like “I realized it’s been awhile since we talked about [topic], and wanted to see how you were feeling about it?” If one of your boundaries has shifted, try to communicate it kindly and directly, like: “I’ve got a really big test at the end of the week, so I won’t have as much time to hang out as I usually do. I’m looking forward to our date on Friday!” Sometimes respecting a boundary means not getting what we want. This can bring up difficult or challenging emotions. Even though it doesn’t always feel that way, boundaries allow us to better support each other and build stronger relationships.
Respect for Individuality
Every person has a right to their own opinions, interests, goals, and friendships – that doesn’t change because someone begins a relationship. Healthy relationships support each partner’s unique qualities.
Accountability means taking responsibility for our actions and changing our behavior when we have caused harm. Although these conversations might feel awkward or uncomfortable, it’s important that everyone in a relationship feels emotionally and physically safe to bring up concerns or needs. Using “I statements,” where you focus on sharing your own feelings and needs rather than blaming or accusing the other person, can be helpful. For example, “I was really hurt by what you said” instead of “you shouldn’t say things like that, what’s wrong with you?”
If one person feels harmed by a behavior and the other isn’t able or willing to change the behavior, the healthiest thing might be for the relationship to end – that’s okay.
Warning Signs of an Unhealthy or Abusive Dating Relationships
Below are indications that a relationship might not be based on the foundations discussed above. If these dynamics are present, the relationship probably isn’t healthy and may, in fact, be causing harm.
Power imbalances may occur when one person has tangible power over another (like a boss or teacher), and also situations with a significant difference in age, income, or influence. Additionally, it is never okay to use a person’s identities or qualities against them (e.g. threatening to “out” someone, making racist or sexist comments, constraining them to a specific role based on gender).
Pushing Against or Crossing Boundaries
Not respecting boundaries might look like rushing someone into commitment (e.g. saying “I love you” after one date), invading privacy (e.g. going through someone’s phone or belongings), or violating boundaries around physical or sexual intimacy. Making someone feel responsible for another’s well-being (e.g. statements like “my life would be meaningless without you”) is also a red flag. No matter how much you care, you can’t be responsible for someone else’s mental health. The best way for you to support them is to tell a parent or other trusted adult about the situation.
Isolation or Sabotage
Isolating someone means trying to keep them away from friends or family. Sometimes, people use their feelings of jealousy to isolate a partner (i.e. “I get lonely when you’re with your friends, make time for me!”). Sabotage means getting in the way of a partner’s goals. This might look like interfering with schoolwork by picking a fight before a test, causing a scene at a partner’s job, or guilting someone into giving up activities they care about.
Feeling Afraid or Bad About Yourself
No person should feel afraid of their partner or be unsure if they can express themselves in a relationship. If anyone puts you down or says mean things to you, tries to control you, or acts like you are always in the wrong, they are not treating you with respect. Similarly, if asserting your needs or boundaries causes a disproportionately negative or unpredictable reaction, your relationship may not be healthy or safe.
If you are concerned about your safety or the health of your relationship, or if you’re worried that you are using power or causing harm in your relationship, you can always call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. If you have a trusted adult in your life– a counselor, coach, parent, teacher, or any one else you feel safe with, consider talking with them.
I share these building blocks and warning signs so that all teens and young adults feel empowered to create and maintain healthy relationships. We all deserve healthy relationships based in respect. Together, we have the power to build them. If you’d like to hear more about this topic, I invite you to check out this podcast episode where I dive in deeper. Finally, if you are a parent reading this article, you might like to explore these tools for talking with your teenager about romantic relationships.