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Control and Responsibility: A Discursive Exploration of Unhealthy Romantic Relationships

Katherine Storck, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Women in college are at particular risk of being in harmful romantic relationships and potentially suffering long term consequences from physically or emotionally abusive relationships. Framed in the interpretive and feminist paradigms and guided by Relational Dialectics Theory (RDT), the goal in the present study was to explore how young women in college communicate discursive understanding of experiences in self-identified past unhealthy romantic relationships. Data consisted of thirty-two in-depth interviews with young women in college who had been in what they described as an unhealthy romantic relationship. A contrapuntal analysis of interview transcripts centered in RDT revealed how participants animated discourses to articulate their lived experiences in unhealthy relationships, and how resulting discursive interplay created new meaning for participants. As participants talked about their experiences in unhealthy romantic relationships, distal discourses of control and proximal discourses of responsibility were animated and interplayed. Distal discourses of control, or discourses reflective of circulating cultural systems of meaning, were animated by participants to articulate the important role that different forms of control had in participants’ coming to understand their relationship as unhealthy. Specifically, the discourses of overt and covert control interplayed diachronically to create new meanings. The result of the interplay of discourses of control was transformative as participants found voice retelling their stories. Proximal discourses of responsibility, or discourses reflective of relationship-based systems of meaning, were animated when participants received messages from their social network members, particularly family, peers, and former significant others, regarding who should be held accountable for the health of a romantic relationship. Discourses of personal and communal responsibility interplayed synchronically to entertain, negate, and counter one another in participant talk. The interplay of discourses of control and the interplay of discourses of responsibility were significant in how participants of this study came to understand their experiences. Results of the present study present opportunities for future research and translational applications including working with university women’s centers to enlighten and reflect the experience of women in unhealthy romantic relationships.

Subject Area

Communication|Social psychology

Recommended Citation

Storck, Katherine, "Control and Responsibility: A Discursive Exploration of Unhealthy Romantic Relationships" (2021). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI28770301.