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Panelists promote awareness of unhealthy relationships

| Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Gender Relations Center hosted a panel Wednesday night in DeBartolo Hall entitled, “What would YOU do?: When a relationship may not be healthy.” The panel, which featured four main speakers and interactive dialogue with audience members, closely analyzed several concerning situations within relationships and how to handle them appropriately.

Panelists gather in DeBartolo Hall on Wednesday night to teach students how to identify and cope with unhealthy relationships. The speakers confronted issues such as stalking and emotional abuse.Rosie LoVoi | The Observer
Panelists gather in DeBartolo Hall on Wednesday night to teach students how to identify and cope with unhealthy relationships. The speakers confronted issues such as stalking and emotional abuse.

The panel was comprised of Heather Ryan, an on-campus Deputy Title IX Coordinator; Maggie Skoch, a senior resident assistant (RA) and former president of National Alliance of Mental Illness at Notre Dame (NAMI-ND); Maureen Lafferty, a psychologist at the University Counseling Center; and Ben Brockman, a senior RA.

Throughout the panel, audience members were presented with specific scenarios involving various types of concerning behavior. They were then asked to text in opinions on how they would handle the situation based on options presented in a follow-up poll. Both panel members and audience members examined the poll results together and went on to engage in open discussions on the situations, behaviors and solutions presented. Audience members were able to freely ask questions, offer insight and disagree with panel members.

The first scenario presented described a college-aged boy, “Robert,” who has recently started dating a new girlfriend and finds himself being contacted continually and aggressively by an ex-girlfriend over text, Facebook and email. The ex-girlfriend’s reactions range from angry to nostalgic to desperate. Audience members were presented with three options for how to handle the situation: confront the ex-girlfriend forcefully, give her a chance to explain herself or ignore her.

Led by the panelists, audience members picked apart the scenario, considering, for instance, if they knew definitely that Robert did not want to get back together with his ex-girlfriend, and if confronting her would take the form of a fight or a conversation. Rather than choose a ‘right’ answer, the short-term and long-term benefits and disadvantages of each method of reaction were weighed by both the audience and panel members.

“I would say the most important thing is to understand the breadth of the situation,” Brockman said, “So that’s asking more questions. You may feel like you’re prying, you may feel like you’re being blunt with so many questions, but that’s what you have to do in order to get answers. So most important is to understand what’s going through their head, how they’re feeling and going from there to make decisions.”

After discussing the situation thoroughly, audience members were asked how their reactions would differ if certain aspects were different. When presented with the question of how the situation would differ if the genders of Robert and his ex-girlfriend were reversed, panel members stressed the behavior described is equally concerning regardless of gender and regardless of if the couple had been homosexual instead of heterosexual.

Panelists and audience members then shared opinions on when the situation could begin to be considered stalking, noting that there isn’t always a clear set of guidelines to defining such behavior.

The second scenario presented described a hypothetical friend, “Laura,” approaching audience members and confiding that she was recently sexually assaulted but is now seeking counseling. Audience members answered a poll which offered three different ways of handling the situation: to keep an eye on Laura but not mention the issue with her; to continually press her to talk more about the assault; and to tell an RA that Laura may need help without describing her specific situation.

Panel members discussed the importance of respecting someone’s privacy and comfort levels, while walking the line between intrusion and providing necessary help.

“I understand that it’s [important] to respect their privacy, but maybe more important, before you walk away from the situation, is to express both love and also let her know that this is absolutely not her fault by any means,” Brockman said.

“I think when we’re working with someone who has experienced this, we are hoping to give back their agency,” Lafferty said, “And so I think it’s really important to consider how the decisions that you’re making could impact that agency.”

RAs were noted as a useful resource to go to when one is confronted with a friend facing sexual assault. The importance of assessing a friend’s wishes in such a situation was also emphasized.

“I think affirming their decision to seek help at a counseling center was really important,” Skoch said, “Asking permission to ask questions is OK, too. ‘Do you mind if I ask a couple questions about this?’ If they say no, that’s OK. It’s OK to be present to what the person is experiencing without being fully able to fix or address what they’re going through.”

Various methods of appropriately approaching a friend with concern were discussed as well.

“You might start with, ‘I’m worried about your mental health,’ ” Skoch said, “I say that with a slight chuckle, but very sincerely, it’s OK to say the words that you’re trying to get across. You don’t have to necessarily beat around the bush, you don’t have to be blunt in an insensitive way, but it’s OK to ask that question itself, because I think it names what’s going on, perhaps in a way that ‘Laura’ hasn’t thought about it yet.”

The third scenario presented described a roommate, “Ashley,” whose new boyfriend has caused her to become cut off from friends. Additionally, Ashley’s self-esteem has visibly suffered due to her boyfriend’s constantly belittling comments. Audience members were once again presented with three options: confronting Ashley with a group of friends; trusting Ashley’s insistence that her relationship is a healthy one; and suggesting that Ashley makes an appointment with the counseling center to get a second opinion.

Confronting Ashley as a group was generally disavowed by audience members, who came to the consensus that such a method would come off as too adversarial and ‘ganging up’ on her. Audience members were advised to ‘be careful, not confrontational,’ and to approach friends in similar situations from a place of concern and care.

“They may very well say, ‘Yeah, I’ve noticed these things too, but it’s just who they are, that’s how our relationship works,’ “ Brockman said, “At that point, there’s cause for concern simply in the fact that a lot of times our gut opinions aren’t wrong. It may be that you need to go talk to another friend about this, or that you can have not a confrontation, but a conversation.”

The “Ashley” situation was particularly interesting because it bordered on the line between simple devotion to a significant other and a significant other acting controlling. Audience and panel members discussed how to notice signs for concern amidst typically normal behavior within a relationship.

The fourth and final scenario described an argument between two platonic best friends and roommates, “Carlos” and “Mark,” escalating into physical violence. After Carlos receives a black eye from Mark, Carlos has reservations about continuing to live with him, but brushes the punch off as a “kind of thing” that “happens between the guys all the time.”

Panel members pointed out that physical violence should never be justified as simply typical, ‘boys will be boys’ behavior among males, and that physical escalation in an argument is never acceptable.

While audience members were informed on the difference between domestic violence and Carlos and Mark’s situation — which would not qualify as domestic violence due to their platonic relationship — they also discussed how the situation would be different if the two were boyfriends instead of best friends, noting the intensification of emotional impact that situation would bring.

Throughout the panel, Gender Relations Center (GRC) members stood at the back of the room to offer support for audience members who might become emotionally upset at the scenarios being discussed. Additionally, multiple sources were cited as resources to turn to in cases of various types of emotional and physical violence.

Above all, bystander interaction was stressed in all situations.

“Often an early intervention is not going to get a whole lot of play,” Lafferty said while describing “Ashley’s” hypothetical boyfriend. “She’s not letting (herself) hear this. I think as a friend, if you’re sensing that, you back off and say, ‘OK, just checking, concerned, but love you,’ and then you stay in her life. You make sure that you’re there if and when she starts to get scared or worried that this is a problem. Because sometimes we get frustrated with friends like this, when we see them doing something self-destructive, and then we just back down.

“Then, when they need someone, there’s no one around.”

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About Andrea Vale

Andrea Vale is a freshman at Notre Dame who has previously written for both the Sun Chronicle and the Huffington Post. She plans to major in English with a Creative Writing concentration and a minor in Journalism.

Contact Andrea