Illustration by Katie Ferreol.

Where is The joy? Battling Constant Negativity in College Relationships

My connections with many classmates almost always center around struggling, high expectations and a constant feeling of frustration. What are the results of this constant sharing of negative experiences? How can we build joy into relationships?

Apr 18, 2021

If we spend hours talking about how thermodynamics makes us want to combust or how the Hobbes reading makes us want to hop off the Highline, then why do I not feel a strong attachment to this person? Looking back on the past three semesters, in my time since coming to NYU Abu Dhabi, what can I say about most of my relationships here? When I ponder the connections I have made with many of my classmates, they almost always center around struggling, high expectations and a constant feeling of frustration. We meet on campus and the only points of discussion are often academics and assistantships, as if we cannot be individuals outside of NYUAD.
When I got a bad grade on a calculus quiz or lost marks for small errors on a lab report, my first response was to go to my friends in similar classes to voice my complaints about the professor’s teaching style or the structure of the class. Likewise, they came to me and did the same. It was not until the beginning of the pandemic, when classes first shifted to zoom and we ate every meal alone in our rooms, that I started to rethink my conversations with others. These conversations did not change how I felt about the situation I complained about; I would still feel disappointed, upset and defeated instead of refreshed and satisfied.
So of course, when I also think about these connections, I realize that none of them are meaningful. To be honest, I think that these relationships are only functioning to satisfy one thing: trauma sharing.
When I use the word trauma in this article, though, I am using it in a very broad context, in terms of what the word means in colloquial settings, rather than its technical, psychological meaning. Our university relationships that rely on negative, shared experiences parallel the same process as trauma bonding, just on a less intense level. Different from attachment bonds, trauma bonds are emotional bonds that arise from patterns of mistreatment that are reinforced by systems of rewards and punishments. Within our generation, we tend to seek support from our friends before anyone else, and there may exist a connection between adjusting to college and forming relationships that mimic the experience of trauma bonds.
When I share my own traumatic experiences with someone who has experienced something similar, I feel extremely validated. But, as psychotherapist Joseph Schwartz explains, a trauma bond actually causes harm. While it was important that I was validated, I did not realize that the connection I had made was through the normalization of something painful.
Trauma sharing can serve a purpose, however, I also realized that these types of relationships have a shelf life and can re-trigger one’s negative experiences and thought patterns. In parallel, how can I expect a relationship that is centered around a class and its workload to flourish after the term ends?
I’m no different than most people and I have made trauma bonds before. At the start of my first year spring, I was processing rejection from a romantic partner. What helped me through all of this was a friend that I made over January term. They had been through a similar situation their freshman year and became a beacon of advice and solace for me. Realizing that I had made a connection based on that experience was a process for me, but it essentially came down to the fact that when we hung out, we would almost always talk about processing that rejection and our romantic lives.
When we would talk about something else the conversation would dry up quickly and circle back to the same topics. Through telling the story, again and again, I simultaneously re-lived and normalized my damaging experiences, which I interpreted as healing when it was not. Hanging out no longer brought me joy because I was reminded of the rejection and the trauma. So I decided to distance myself from them.
Now looking back on how I handled that relationship, I feel horrible because I didn’t take a single moment to consider how they viewed the relationship or how ending the relationship affected them. If I could go back to do the right thing, I would have addressed how the relationship made me feel; I would have been honest because I believed that the person on the other side of this relationship cared about me, but they did not know how to express it outside of this negative topic.
This is also why addressing negative experience sharing is important because one person may see the relationship as having the potential to change, while the other person may just see it as an outlet. It is possible to repair these bonds and build them into more sustainable connections; one just has to be aware enough to break the pattern and create a new dynamic within the relationship.
To me, a healthy relationship is not just about sitting there, taking everything that comes with it. I go into spaces with others acknowledging that there are burdens in my life, but still wanting to smile and laugh. With this in mind, I actively make the distinction between vulnerability and trauma sharing. I do not believe that people should take on my burdens that I have not come to terms with yet. I see this as being honest with myself, recognizing my boundaries and being vulnerable. You’ve overcome obstacles, you got through another day dealing with whatever sh!t you’ve been dealing with and you read this entire article. You’re already a f*cking resilient person, and having healthy relationships can help you build your resilience even more. So we all need to go out there and try to spark some joy in our conversations and build healthy relationships.
Wilder Worrall is a Contributing Writer. Email him at
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