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Taking Care of Your Personal Relationships during Graduate School

By Julie Choe Kim and Kate Shaw

November 20, 2015

Beginning a graduate program involves many new experiences and adjustments, but many students do not consider how graduate school will affect their personal relationships.  Stress, time constraints, financial issues, and other distractions can put a strain on relationships and lead to negative feelings and interactions. On Friday, Oct. 30, Anchal Khanna, Assistant Director for Counseling and Psychological Services, presented a workshop on how to balance relationships with life as a graduate student and provided strategies to keep conflicts from damaging your personal relationships.

In navigating difficult conversations in relationships, Khanna discussed a concept by J. M. Gottman, which he called “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” when it comes to relationships. These are negative responses that often cause turmoil and can be destructive in relationships:

  • Criticism: comments that imply that there is something wrong about your partner. For example, “You are very self-centered.”
  • Defensiveness: responses that attempt to deny responsibility and ward off a perceived attack. For example, “Have you forgotten the good things I’ve done?”
  • Contempt: A statement that implies that the sender is more powerful or superior than the other. For example: imitating the tone of your partner.
  • Stonewalling: This occurs when the listener checks out or withdraws from the conversation or interaction. An example would be giving minimal responses or looking away frequently during the conversation.

Knowing how to respond can be tricky, but Khanna gave these suggestions for how to stop the “Four Horsemen.”

  • Instead of criticism, try starting the conversation in a “soft” and “gentle” manner, such as beginning with words of appreciation.
  • Instead of being defensive, consider taking responsibility for your actions that may have been perceived as negative in some way.
  • Instead of contempt, try describing your needs in that moment without making the other person feel inferior.
  • Instead of stonewalling, take time to calm yourself and self-soothe. Walk away from the conversation until you are ready to speak honestly and freely.

The negative reactions usually stem from stress. By being aware of stress and its emotional effect on you, you can then see what you need, ask for support, and communicate and in a direct and clear way.

In order to repair negative feelings or relationships, Khanna gave several suggestions for ways to respond when feeling that your friend, partner, or another individual has hurt you.  For example, she suggested letting the other person know how you feel with complete honesty; apologizing or starting the conversation over; taking a short break from the conversation and coming back to it; showing appreciation for the other person; or letting the person know that you understand their point of view and are willing to consider new opinions.

Khanna encouraged workshop attendees to know your limits when it comes to stress and to express your needs to those close to you.  Good self-care is about knowing when to give yourself a break, avoid juggling tasks, and take time to relax. Khanna ended with a quotation from Victor Frankl to remind us of the power we have to choose our reactions: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lie our growth and our freedom.”

If you are facing challenges balancing your personal relationships with graduate school commitments and would like to talk to a counselor, contact Counseling and Psychological Services at 703-993-2380 or visit http://caps.gmu.edu/making-an-appointment/.

Julie Choe Kim is Director of Graduate Student Life.  Kate Shaw is a graduate assistant with Graduate Student Life.

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