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Home U Rising Focus on student mental health, Ep. 4: Relationships


In episode 4 of the series, Roberto Martinez talks about navigating the complexities of college relationships. From identifying signs of unhealthy dynamics to building healthy connections, explore how relationships impact student well-being. Martinez, associate director for clinical services and a therapist at the University Counseling Center, walks us through how to set boundaries, engage in effective communication and nurture positive interactions. This five-part series, Focus on Student Mental Health, is hosted and produced by Scot Singpiel of at University of Utah Health and was created in collaboration with Student Affairs and the University Counseling Center at the University of Utah.

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Chris Nelson: This is Chris Nelson, co-host of the U Rising Podcast. For the next few episodes, we are sharing a five-episode series about student mental health produced by at University of Utah Health.

It will examine the top mental health challenges faced by college students and explore what causes them and suggest basic strategy to manage each one.

You'll also learn about the resources available at the University of Utah. Because in the end, it's not just about understanding the issues, it's about empowering you, our students, with the tools to thrive.

So, as we dive into this series, I invite you to join us in our shared journey toward a healthier future.


Scot Singpiel: Anxiety and depression might be one of the first mental health concerns that come to mind when thinking about college students. But relationships top many students' mental health worries, and it really makes sense. Consider how your well-being is affected when connections with friends, classmates, family or partners aren't going well. Our relationships significantly affect our mental health and also influence our own self-perception.

Today, I'm joined by Roberto Martinez, associate director for clinical services and a therapist at University of Utah's Counseling Center. We're going to talk about recognizing the signs of unhealthy relationships, how to respond to them and then identifying signs of healthy relationships and accessing resources for lifelong relationship well-being.

So, my first question is, do most of us truly grasp what constitutes healthy and unhealthy relationships?

Roberto Martinez: I want to say that most folks have an understanding of what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like, at least in a general perspective. I think the challenging part that I've noticed is that particularly when I'm . . .

So, one of my previous jobs at the Counseling Center was a crisis counselor. And so I would see a lot of students coming in reporting some type of abusive, emotional, verbal, sometimes physical abuse by their partners.

And so, because of the complicated nature of a relationship, sometimes it's easy to overlook behaviors that seem weird. One by one it seems kind of weird, maybe unsafe, maybe even uncomfortable. And then you realize that, "Oh, wow, I'm actually in a pretty unhealthy, maybe even toxic relationship."

Roberto Martinez of the  University Counseling Center.

And sometimes, I meet with those students and they get really disappointed and really fearful, really a lot of shame, like, "Why didn't I see this earlier?" And that's what's kind of hard, is that it doesn't often happen all at once. It's kind of small steps.

And when I start doing my own safety assessment with students and I start asking my questions, they start saying, “Whoa, that's considered abusive?” And I say, “Yeah. Well, at some point, somebody, even if they're . . .”

I'm going to give an example. So, somebody might joke about, “If you leave me, I'm going to do this to myself." And so when you're in the middle of it, that may seem kind of weird or uncomfortable, but really that could be a coercive tactic to continue to have control over you. And you really can't figure it out because you're in the middle of it. You're in the middle of the storm.

Scot Singpiel: I want to get to talking about, a little bit later, healthy relationships and how we can form those. Because I think with a lot of mental health stuff, we spend a lot of time talking about the bad, where it goes bad, the red flags you should look out for, what you should avoid, which are all good things. But we don't really talk about how we can optimize our relationships for our mental health and I want to be sure to get to that.

But I do want to talk about . . . When you said what is an unhealthy relationship, are there some red flags that somebody could look out for to help us because we aren't as objective as we need to be sometimes?

Roberto Martinez: Yeah, I think red flags are . . . Let's start off kind of big. So, to define really what intimate partner violence might be, intimate partner violence is defined as a series of behaviors used by one person to take control or really control the other person.

So, these behaviors can be emotionally coercive behaviors, emotionally manipulative behaviors. It could be verbal aggression, verbal putdowns. And then on the more extreme level, they can be physical violence or aggression. The purpose of those behaviors is really to control the other person.

And so if we were to kind of take that definition, seeing a student that talks about how they are not allowed to talk to anybody else but their partner. If your partner is telling you, “Why are you always hanging out with their friends? You can't talk to them. You shouldn't talk to them. You can't talk to your family” and kind of makes you feel bad for reaching out to family, that may be a red flag. That may be an attempt to control you.

Really intense jealousy is a red flag. A lot of folks that engage in these behaviors that are aggressive have a very low sense of self. And so they really can become maybe extremely jealous.

And I'm not saying jealous like . . . I think jealousy is a pretty common experience. But what I'm talking about is, “Don't look at that person. Who were you with? What were you doing?” Kind of questioning your own friendships, that may be a red flag.

Any type of putdowns, any type of coercive behaviors that make you do things that you're not comfortable with, pressuring you to do things that you're not comfortable with, whether it be in the sexual nature or physical nature, that's definitely a red flag.

An inability to take responsibility for your actions, that is definitely a red flag.

One of the things . . . we can go more into what a healthy relationship is. I believe that a healthy relationship actually involves some conflict. I think that's totally a normal part of a healthy relationship. To have the ability to disagree and have conflict and talk it out and come to some resolution is a great sign of a good relationship.

Scot Singpiel: So, in a way, no conflict might be a red flag that this might not be a great relationship, which that's a little against what a lot of us would think, right? We would think that you want it to go all perfectly, but maybe that's not a good thing.

Roberto Martinez: No. I actually don't believe that. I think if we're talking about a couple, right, two people from very different perspectives, different ways of thinking, different values, come together. There's going to be conflict. There are going to be disagreements. And part of working on a good relationship is being able to communicate those disagreements in an open, genuine and safe way, right?

In an unhealthy relationship, there is not that safety, because if I say something, you might get offended or mad or angry. You might lash out at me. And that is something else.

Scot Singpiel: What impact do bad relationships have on our mental health? What's going on there that's impacting our mental health then?

Roberto Martinez: That's a really good question. I often see clients or students that are going through really unhealthy and maybe even dangerous relationships. It definitely impacts your sense of self, right? This is the challenging part.

You have a person that you care about, maybe you love. Maybe you find a lot of great things in them. Maybe they provide really important things for you. And at the same time, this person may be really affecting your sense of self, your self-esteem. They make you feel ashamed. They make you feel not wanted. They're doing you a favor for being with you. That can really mess with your head, mess with your sense of self, cause depression, cause anxiety.

On the more extreme levels, cause trauma, that complex trauma, right? So, it's not that I was in a car crash and it was really scary, but more of, “Hey, this person that I really care about is hurting me.” That's something that our brains, is really hard for us to understand. And that's what, I think, makes it a little more challenging for people to notice the red flags.

Scot Singpiel: Sense of self and that challenge to sense of self seems so important.

What relationships do college students tend to have struggles with? And why, at this point in somebody's life, do they have these struggles? What do you kind of tend to see?

Roberto Martinez: I'm focusing a lot on intimate relationships or romantic relationships. And that's a good question because what I often see with students is kind of conflicts with roommates and conflicts with peers or friends.

And I actually think that that's a pretty common experience with college students, is, “I'm coming from my high school. I was a certain way in high school. I was known to be a certain way and act a certain way and value certain things. And now in college, I have this opportunity to be a different person, new values to develop, new perspectives, to be open to opinions.”

I think sometimes students struggle with that if they're trying to develop new friendships, especially, coming to college, because not only are you trying to develop friendships, you're also learning about yourself, right?

Learning about who you are, what you love, what you don't like, your values, what's important to you. I think those are very important things that students learn in college.

And as they're learning that, they're going to have some struggles because maybe the friendships that were important for them in high school may not be as important for them anymore. Maybe the things that they valued in high school may not be the things they value anymore.

And so there's kind of an identity crisis, and I don't know if that's a great term, that happens to students that come to college. I think that really affects their ability to make friends and to find people who are friends, but people that share our values. If I'm still trying to figure out what my values are, that might be a little bit challenging for me.

And as far as roommates go, I mean, that is one of the biggest sources of conflict that I see from students that are not romantic relationships. You're living with a person that, again, shares different values from you, different ways of living, and you're sharing a space with them where I let my hair down, I kind of let the mask down a little bit. And sometimes that creates conflict.

Scot Singpiel: Right.

Roberto Martinez: Yeah, it can create conflict. And I see that often with students and roommates. There's just a lot of conflict and not just conflict, but a difficult time expressing and communicating the conflict in a way that leads to resolution.

Scot Singpiel: So, yeah, I think that leads nicely into this notion of what is a healthy relationship? How can you build those relationships and maintain those relationships, right?

So, I'm thinking back to what you said earlier, even with the roommate, about conflict. We have to be able to address it in a healthy way, not only as the person addressing it, but as the person being addressed, right? We have to be able to have a certain level of respect, I'd imagine, for that other person, or we need to at least consider what they're saying.

What does that look like? How can we have healthy relationships, and what are some tips for maintaining those?

Roberto Martinez: Yeah, this is a great question, and I think my answer is not going to be very popular. I think one of the ways that we can develop healthy, open, honest, relationships is by letting go.

And what I mean by that is that in a relationship, for a two-person relationship to work, there has to be some type of mutual collaboration and really understanding, "What's my responsibility in this relationship and what's the other person's responsibility?"

So, I'll give you an example, and I've seen this often with students. One of the ways that I've learned to navigate this world is to people-please, right? And so, for me to have a healthy sense of self, I have to have people like me and not be mad at me.

And so that seems like a pretty interesting strategy, right, that maybe was helpful at some point. But when you're in college and you're kind of bending over backwards for somebody and not receiving reciprocity, you might develop some anger or some sadness or some regret. And so then you might kind of push people away. And I actually see this a lot with students.

And so, to me, I think that developing healthy relationships is being okay with knowing that I am actually not responsible for other people's emotions or feelings or even behaviors. And I'm open to sharing and being okay with expressing feedback to them that they might not find comfortable. They might not like that feedback, right?

But to me, that's essential in creating healthy relationships, whether it be with peers, whether it be with friends, romantic. Yeah, that to me is very important, is being able to communicate and being okay with the person's reaction, whether it be positive or negative.

Scot Singpiel: Is that a learnable skill? Is that something anybody can learn?

Roberto Martinez: Yes.

Scot Singpiel: Okay. So that's good because . . .

Roberto Martinez: One hundred percent. We at the Counseling Center have so many workshops around interpersonal effectiveness.

And I think what I'm talking about is boundaries, right? Promises that we keep to ourselves. Not to control other people's behavior, right? I think maybe some of us have an idea of a boundary, and I did before, where a boundary is something that you do to control people's behavior. Actually, a boundary is really a promise to yourself, right?

So if you, Scot, talk to me in a hurtful and condescending way, I'm going to leave this interview, right? A boundary is not, “Scot, don't talk to me that way.” That's not a boundary. That's an attempt to control your behavior. That is not a boundary. That is a controlling behavior. A boundary is, “This is what I'm going to do if you do this.”

Scot Singpiel: So, it's good to hear that these are learnable skills, and I'd imagine that a lot of students are surprised to find out that a lot of relationship skills that seem to elude us are all learnable. Maybe we just haven't learned them yet.

Roberto Martinez: Oh, yeah. Definitely. Let's think about where we learn how to be in relationships. It's often as kids, right? It's often with our siblings, maybe our parents. And the things that we learn in our families, some of it is great, wonderful, lifelong lessons. Some of it is not as helpful, right?

And so college is a great time to really establish, “Hey, these are some things I learned as a kid. I learned A, B and C. A is helpful. B is also helpful. C, you know what? I don't think that's helpful anymore. I don't think my people-pleasing thing that I do is actually that helpful. I think I want to try something different.” And that is 100% okay. That's 100% learnable and it's something that you can learn and practice.

Scot Singpiel: Do you have other tips for maintaining healthy relationships that you'd like to share?

Roberto Martinez: Emotional intelligence, 100% very important to have. What does that mean? It means that I'm able to recognize what I'm feeling and take accountability for it, that I develop awareness around my own emotions. I am able to soothe and be present for that person and not allow my emotions to make decisions for me. Very easy to say and a little challenging to practice, but I believe that having good emotional intelligence is very important.

Scot Singpiel: Another very important skill. And a learnable skill?

Roberto Martinez: One hundred percent learnable.

Scot Singpiel: That's fantastic. What advice do you have for somebody who thinks they might be in an unhealthy relationship? And again, it's a continuum, right? There are some instances where physical violence is involved. That would be one thing. You'd give probably one piece of advice for that, versus you're starting to know signs that this person is trying to control you. Help talk us through that. What should somebody do?

Roberto Martinez: Yeah, I think the first suggestion would be to kind of reflect a little bit. Is what I'm experiencing uncomfortable or is it unsafe?

And I think in a lot of our relationships, we have conflict, and sometimes we feel uncomfortable because we've been called out about something we've done. And that is okay. That is a great learning experience.

However, a relationship should never feel unsafe, right? Am I being asked to do things? Am I being made to feel a certain way? Am I being controlled in some way? That might be a good kind of reflection question.

If you feel that you are in an unhealthy relationship, there are tons of resources on campus. The Counseling Center is one resource where you can kind of talk it over with a counselor, get a new perspective.

For folks with more immediate and more safety concerns, the Center for Campus Wellness has their victim survivor advocates who can also be a great consultation source.

Another resource from the Counseling Center is we actually have an upcoming green flag/red flag event in which we actually kind of take this conversation to the community.

Scot Singpiel: And for somebody that wants to get better at their interpersonal relationships, whether it's with somebody really close in their life, a family member, a classmate, an instructor, what are some resources you'd recommend for them?

Roberto Martinez: Well, the Counseling Center has interpersonal effectiveness workshops that we talk about relationships, interpersonal skills, emotional awareness, vulnerability, communication. That would be a great start.

And another one, which to me is actually one of the best ways of working through these interpersonal relationship skills, would be an interpersonal process group where, with a trained clinician and a group of your peers, in real time you can actually work on your interpersonal skills and get real-time feedback in an empathetic, honest and genuine way with the help of a trained clinician.

Scot Singpiel: It's kind of like a simulator.

Robert Martinez: Oh, yeah.

Scot Singpiel: You get to practice the skills that you learn. It sounds terrifying and wonderful at the same time.

Roberto Martinez: Yeah, we like to use the term kind of a lab. A lab where you can kind of, “Did I come across this way?” “Well, actually, yeah, you kind of did." "Great insight.” Or, “No, this worry that you're having about us not liking you, that's not true, actually. We really enjoy having you here.” And, “Whoa, that's cool information.”

Scot Singpiel: Yeah, that's great feedback. Something that could be useful for the rest of your life.

Roberto Martinez: Yeah.

Scot Singpiel: As we wrap this up, what would you want somebody to take away from this conversation?

Roberto Martinez: I'd want them to know that regardless of how you grew up and your own assessment of your relationship skills, there's help to improve them, to make them better.

I'm thinking about students that I work with that are often mistrusting of other people on one hand, and on the other hand, really crave relationships, connection, understanding. And that's really challenging because there are both of these parts that are showing up for you.

Counseling is a great way to work on those things. Groups are a great way to learn more about those skills and workshops as well. We're not born with these skills. We're kind of taught. And so, if college shows us anything, it's that we can learn new skills.

Scot Singpiel: We're not born with the skills. Sometimes we're not even taught. Sometimes we just trial and error it, right? And what we end up with might not be the most productive thing in our lives.

Roberto Martinez: Exactly. Yeah. Some of us, you're right, are not taught.

Scot Singpiel: We just figured out that if we do this, we get that and that's what we want. Maybe it's not the best way to go about that. Maybe there's a better way that's respectful not only to one's self, but to the other people in our lives.

Roberto Martinez: Yeah. The way that we relate to others, the way that we relate to people that we love, is often a reflection of our own kind of relationship with ourselves, right? If we are mistrusting and closed off, defensive, put walls on for other people, it's often a sign or a reflection of the way that you treat yourself, most likely for some reason.

And so, I think in that same way, if you're noticing somebody that's a certain way, that can often be good information about how they may be feeling inside, what may be happening for them. And that's actually really helpful if I'm in conflict with somebody, to know that maybe the things that they're bringing up may not always be about me.