illustration of two overlapping silhouettes of people
Getty Images

Study reveals how interpersonal trauma can influence whether college students form romantic relationships

The study found that those exposed to interpersonal trauma before coming to college were more likely to be in a romantic relationship during college. Those exposed to trauma during college were less likely to be in a relationship.

Share this story

Exposure to interpersonal trauma, and the timing of that exposure, can influence whether college students form romantic relationships and also the types of relationships into which they enter, according to a new study by Virginia Commonwealth University researchers.

The study found that individuals exposed to interpersonal trauma — such as physical assault, sexual assault, or unwanted sexual experiences — before coming to college were more likely to be in a romantic relationship during college than those without a history of trauma. Those who were exposed to interpersonal trauma during college, meanwhile, were less likely to be in a relationship than those without trauma histories.

The study also found that among those in romantic relationships, individuals exposed to interpersonal trauma before or during college were less satisfied in their relationships. And individuals exposed to trauma in college were more likely to be involved with partners who engage in heavy alcohol use.

“These findings are important because our results suggest that certain things in life that we may be exposed to, depending on when we’re exposed to them, can affect our lives in unexpected ways,” said Rebecca Smith, lead author and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “Unfortunately, exposure to interpersonal trauma is a common experience for many, and these findings elucidate the ways in which trauma exposure can affect a normative developmental task, such as romantic relationship formation.”

The study, which will be published in the journal Development and Psychopathology, was based on data collected through VCU’s Spit for Science project, a universitywide longitudinal study focused on substance use and behavioral health in which all incoming VCU students over age 18 are invited to participate.

It builds on a previous study, also based on Spit for Science data and led by Smith, that found evidence that college students who have been exposed to interpersonal trauma prior to college are more likely to engage in risky alcohol use, but also that being in satisfying, prosocial romantic relationships mitigates the effects of trauma on a student’s drinking behavior.

“What we sought to understand in this paper was whether and how trauma exposure might be associated with relationship outcomes in and of themselves,” she said. “In particular, it has been hypothesized that trauma exposure may disrupt the resolution of key developmental tasks, and among emerging adults, an especially salient developmental task is involvement in romantic relationships.”

Jessica E. Salvatore, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Rutgers University and senior author on the study, said the results provide important insights into the influence of interpersonal trauma exposure on college relationships.

“College is the first time many young adults form their first serious romantic relationships — and these relationships are serious in terms of the levels of emotional intimacy and trust that partners share,” said Salvatore, who was previously at VCU. “And while these college-aged relationships themselves may not last forever, they are an important training ground for lifelong relationship skills such as conflict resolution and balancing one’s own goals and needs with the goals and needs of someone else and the relationship. The results from this work indicate that individuals exposed to interpersonal trauma may benefit from some extra support to navigate involvement in college relationships.”

Smith said the study’s findings could be applied on college campuses, where relationship problems are among the most common reasons students seek counseling services. 

“Clinicians on college campuses can use this information to educate clients on the range of potential consequences they may experience following interpersonal trauma exposure,” Smith said. “For example, clinicians can educate clients on the potential long-term effects of precollege [interpersonal trauma] on social relationships, including emotional regulation, attachment formation and stress responses. They can also teach clients about the potential effects of college-onset [interpersonal trauma], including challenges it poses to forming relationships with prosocial partners, and healthy ways to cope with such challenges.”

In addition to Smith and Salvatore, the study’s authors include Danielle Dick, Ph.D., Distinguished Commonwealth Professor in the Departments of Psychology and Human and Molecular Genetics at VCU; Ananda Amstadter, Ph.D., associate professor in the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics at VCU; Nathaniel Thomas, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology; and the Spit for Science Working Group.