LAWRENCE — There is a tendency among both researchers and service providers to focus on the negatives when it comes to LGBTQ+ relationships: the unique challenges and stresses individuals face from society, families, peers and others. But a new University of Kansas research project is working with LGBTQ+ college students to document the positive aspects of their intimate relationships, to better understand how and why things go right, show other students successful relationships are possible and to help on-campus administrators better assist all students.
Amanda Mollet, assistant professor of educational leadership & policy studies at KU, is leading “Queer intimacies: A qualitative examination of LGBTQ+ college students’ experiences in healthy intimate relationships.” A two-year, $49,866 grant from the Spencer Foundation supports the work. The project is an expansion of a study Mollet conducted previously in which LGBTQ+ graduate students shared photos of their successful intimate relationships and described what they meant to them.
“We realized so much of the research focuses on domestic violence in LGBTQ+ relationships or the potential negative factors they face,” Mollet said. “But there are people in amazing relationships, and we wanted students to be able to hear about the positive experiences people have and ways people love each other.”
The original study examined the experiences of 14 LGBTQ+ college students in healthy intimate relationships. Subjects shared photos that were meaningful to them and chose two keywords such as love, communication or intimacy to describe them. That study, forthcoming in the Journal of College Student Development, included primarily graduate students. While their experiences are valuable and enlightening, Mollet said they are also often older than undergraduate students and more established in life. The grant will enable them to recruit a wider pool of students from across the country wishing to share their experiences.
“Interviews were originally scheduled for an hour but almost always went longer because they don’t get to have these conversations very often,” Mollet said. “People regularly told us they wanted to be able to share their stories about what is right and strong about their relationships. As a researcher, I think it has been such a beautiful experience. Being able to see the positives has been very reaffirming.”
In addition to better understanding the fluidity of relationships and how LGBTQ+ people successfully navigate factors such as disability, community awareness, anxiety or depression, the project will share those experiences with students across the country. Additionally, Mollet said the project will both add to the literature on healthy student relationships and help develop tools and understanding for campus service providers such as counselors and student affairs professionals to better support LGBTQ+ students’ development of healthy intimate relationships.
That is especially valuable as undergraduate students may experience intimate relationships for the first time, in addition to being away from home and experiencing many other new freedoms, all while navigating higher education. Research has long shown that happy, healthy students who feel supported are more likely to stay in school, graduate, have higher levels of well-being and experience fewer negative outcomes such as alcohol or substance abuse.
The project will use an asset-based approach, or focus on positive aspects of relationships, to understand how the population’s healthy intimate relationships challenge or resist normative relationship constructs and conceptions and determine what the characteristics are that the students attribute to healthy intimate relationships.
“The study will help expand the body of literature on LGBTQ+ relationships. College is when a lot of young people come to these experiences for the first time, and we hope this will help practitioners who serve them,” Mollet said. “Plus, a lot of the literature and understanding of college relationships is based on cis and heteronormative relationships. Creating possibility models in scholarship and tools for practice will help develop campus-based supports for students.”
Photo: Couple holding hands. Stock art (not part of the study) from Pixabay.