28. Academic Marriage and Divorce
When people get married they generally see the union of the two lives as being beneficial to themselves as individuals. They may derive some pleasure from the achievements of their spouse and in having a part in those achievements, but their highest satisfactions will come from their own successes. Graduate school complicates this.
Your job as a graduate student is to focus your time and attention on your course of study. This means you have less to offer your spouse. They may resent this. Further, you are growing and changing with your education. You are becoming a different person. They may also resent that. And finally, all this educational effort is being expended in the hopes that you will be a “success” with your graduate degree. Should that “success” be unlike your shared imaginings the mutual deprivations of graduate school will be thought a waste and you will be resented as a failure, whatever your personal satisfactions might be.
For a single person, graduate school happens in three possible ways. First, the student lives completely focused on the course of study with no love life distractions (except for loneliness) at all. Second, the student endures (or enjoys) a romantic roller coaster of temporary loves and losses, less lonely than solitude, but considerably more distracting and time-consuming. Third, the student maintains a single partner in a relationship similar to marriage or ultimately leading to marriage.
Married graduate students have a much wider range of general realities, each with their own benefits and hazards. All the variations relate to two factors. What is the graduate student’s spouse doing during the years of the degree program? And does the graduate student continue to respect and admire the spouse?
Spouse activity typically ranges all the way from enrollment in the same graduate program to staying in the home full time attending to small children. Each variation has predictable benefits and problems.
A married couple enrolled in the same course of study share everything; hopes, dreams, schedules, irritations, opportunities, excitements, and disappointments. If they are borrowing money to go to school they may be borrowing twice as much as other couples. They may be in competition for professorial praise, assistantships, awards, and ultimately, jobs. They can offer to share a single teaching position and be very valuable to an employer in that way, but their shared advancement will be limited by the qualifications of the weaker individual.
A married couple enrolled at the same level but in different fields will not be competing head-to-head for specific honors or positions. Unfortunately, one babbling about “X” may not mix well with the other babbling about “Y”. Further, as difficult as job hunting can be, getting two teaching jobs in the same metropolitan area, much less on the same campus, will be statistically unlikely. The career of the less employable spouse will therefore suffer and may require a creative adaptation of skills, and a re-invention of ‘self’.
A couple working at different academic levels, regardless of discipline, may share a mutual respect for their endeavors but will suffer timing problems. Either the person who completes their degree first waits around, losing professional momentum, or the “junior” spouse is torn away from their program and must re-establish themselves as a degree candidate wherever the “senior” spouse finds employment.
For graduate students with non-student spouses the challenges can be even greater. For some, the spouse is fully employed in their chosen profession and relatively independent in their satisfactions. Nonetheless, they may still resent the student’s many absences and fail to express respect and concern for the dramas in the student’s life.
More often the spouse is merely slaving away at the best job they can find among the limited opportunities available to them in a college town. On top of the resentments they carry for the “fun” the graduate student is having, they may resent the conditions of their own employment. Even if they embrace the graduate student’s new stories and friendships, it may be very difficult for the graduate student to do the same. The partnership of the marriage will become inherently unbalanced. The student gets excitement and personal growth and the spouse gets drudgery, loneliness, and inadequacy. One of the most common stereotypes of academic culture is the spouse who slaves away for years supporting a degree candidate only to be divorced by that new doctor, lawyer, engineer, or teacher in the months following graduation.
A variation on this example, though far less common in our current culture, is the spouse in the home full time with the children. In this case all the other resentments are joined by the home parent’s lack of adult contact and the student’s increased responsibility for financial stability. The student resents not being able to study sufficiently and the stay-at-home resents being abandoned.
In all cases, subsequent professional achievement and financial rewards may serve to heal the rifts, but it will always be difficult for one person to endure in order for another person to thrive. Be careful not to ask your spouse to do too much for too little. Take the time to be respectful, and attentive, and grateful. Do not make too much of your new status and the elitism your achievements may encourage. Do not allow higher education’s rewards to include bitterness and divorce.
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