UTSA professor shares tips on how to foster healthy relationships
(Feb. 14, 2017) -- Each Valentine’s Day, thousands of couples get together to celebrate their love. But how can you tell if the relationship you’re in is good for you?
UTSA professor Heidi A. Rueda, Ph.D. is an expert in adolescent dating and relationships, particularly among Mexican American couples, teens with disabilities and teens who are parenting.
Rueda has been working to curb potential intimate partner violence since her time as a social worker advocating for women seeking help from domestic violence. Since 2011, Rueda and her colleague, Lela Rankin Williams of Arizona State University, have published 12 studies on the causes and unique cultural contexts of dating violence among Hispanic teens, including a 2014 study exploring the relationships of teens age 15-17. Her research interests lay in helping young people understand how to foster healthy, loving relationships and avoid toxic entanglements.
According to Rueda, while cultural values can often determine what someone might consider a “good” relationship, there are a few tenets that all healthy relationships hold.
“The number one thing is that a person should be able to feel safe in a relationship,” Rueda said. “People must be able to balance their need for autonomy with intimacy. It’s important for the two people in the relationship to be on the same page or working to be on the same page regarding what's important to them, their goals and plans for the future.”
To fully enjoy being with one another, Rueda says that respectful and open communication is key. It is important to take time to build a friendship, and to practice communicating in an honest, respectful and calm way that reflects your needs and desires in the relationship.
“Love isn’t just about feeling attracted to someone,” Rueda said. “It’s also about developing friendship and deciding whether you want to offer a commitment to that person. How do you do that? Respectful communication goes a long way.”
In the past, creating open channels of communication could be a challenge for young people because it meant discussing sensitive issues face-to-face. Social media, however, has provided new ways to help them connect.
“Teens and young adults experience much of their communication online or through social media platforms,” Rueda said. “This can help create open dialogue more easily, but, of course, it can also lead to new types of conflict. Teens are negotiating new types of boundaries and relationship rule-setting within online spaces.”
An unhealthy relationship can make a person feel unsafe and uneasy about their life and partner, Rueda says. Excessive jealousy, cheating and physical and emotional violence are reoccurring themes in such relationships.
“Not every unhealthy relationship escalates to physical or emotional violence,” Rueda said. “However both unhealthy and violent relationships often demonstrate issues with communication of conflict, such as putting the other person down or blaming them for issues. Couples can learn to communicate in new and healthier ways that demonstrate respect for one another. Relationships become abusive when a person is threatening to hurt you or people you care about, becomes violent toward you, forces you to do things sexually that you don’t want to do or tries to control what you do.”
What should a young person do if they suspect they’re in an unhealthy or toxic relationship? Rueda says that there’s no one size fits all answer to this, but that the first step is seeking support.
“If you suspect that you’re in an unhealthy or toxic relationship, or if you are in a relationship in which violence is present, know that you are not alone,” Rueda said. “Seeking help from a professional who understands the importance of prioritizing safety can make all the difference. You and your partner should also make the decision that you will not enact violence in your relationship, whether emotional, sexual, or physical; nor will you accept it.”
Valentine’s Day is just one day in which to examine your relationship and whether you feel safe and respected, Rueda says.
“On Valentine’s Day and every other day, it’s important to remember that rather than simply ‘falling in love,’ we all have a choice about who we spend our time with and who we offer commitment,” Rueda said. “Always remember that the most important relationship is the one you have with yourself. If you’re in a relationship that isn’t a safe one for your heart, body, mind or soul, there are people to help you to create a future that you deserve.”
Currently, Rueda is working on a community-based research study with Seton Home, a residential foster care facility for girls 12 and up who are pregnant and parenting, and who have experienced trauma, often interpersonal. She is also working on an international study analyzing data from high school students in San Antonio, Phoenix and Michoacán, Mexico.
Rueda received her Ph.D. in social work and her Master of Social Work with a concentration in planning, administration and community practice from Arizona State University. She earned her bachelor's degrees in psychology and Spanish from the University of Nebraska, Omaha.
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