Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Don't Let Your Marriage Fail When Your Spouse Goes to Grad School

In two days, my wife finishes up her second master's degree. This one's in counseling. In some ways, I feel like I'm graduating on Friday. The past two years were downright hellacious at times, and stressful at others. But, through the exams, papers, class projects and reading assignments, we managed to make it as a couple.

To me, this is no small achievement. I've personally known of at least three marriages that didn't survive grad school for one reason or the other. Grad school wasn't necessarily the only thing to blame, but it doesn't make anything easier.

My marriage survived grad school. So can yours.

When one spouse is in grad school, the other feels like he or she is on the outside looking in. Someone they deeply love is (ideally) pursuing something they're passionate about, devoting time, money and energy into learning new skills or ideas in order to find employment that will help the couple maintain a certain standard of living for the next season of life. Likewise, the student is also changing. As they encounter new ideas and have new experiences, the spouse is often clueless, not knowing how this new knowledge is shaping or changing his or her spouse.

And then, before you know it, it's like you're married to someone else. The person you knew before school started may now have different perspectives, work habits, viewpoints, friends or goals. And unless you're clued in, you're in danger of not knowing who you're waking up to each morning.

Likewise, if the spouse is studying something that you're not interested in, something you can't help with, or something that's simply out of your league, you're generally of no use to them academically. If my wife were getting her MBA in marketing and had to come up with new brand campaigns, I'd be all over it, doing market research, staying up late, you name it. But because she instead had to write about the effects of childhood interaction when it comes to developing personality disorders in adolescents, I'm as useful as my cat (which usually curls up on my wife's lap when she's trying to write said paper).

So, what's a guy or girl to do when their loved one is studying away on an advanced degree? Below I share what worked for me and Lynnette, and hopefully you'll be able to weather the wretched storm that is higher education:

  • Learn how to cook. I made my wife's day a million times better by having a hot meal ready when she came home after a long day of class, clients and crises. Whether I simply heated up a frozen pizza or perfected my veggie quesadillas, a warm delicious meal made her happy and showed my concern for her day.
  • Change your schedule and get more done. As an entrepreneur, my schedule's flexible, so this may not apply to everyone. And, my wife's school schedule consisted mainly of evening classes, which again, may not apply to everyone. But, by moving my schedule around to work late when she was in class until 8, I was able to get more done, go more places, meet more people, work on more deals, and develop more ideas. This also meant I didn't spend chunks of time on the couch doing nothing, waiting for her to get home. I used that time on my business. For you, that may mean you can take up a new hobby or learn a new skill. Whatever you do, use the time wisely and be productive.
  • Make friends with a couple – preferably one where everyone likes everyone else (the students like the students; the spouses like the spouse; and vice versa). This one is tough, but I will tell you this on the onset, especially as someone who has started two different grad programs: the people you hang out with the first month are not the people who become your better friends. When school starts, everyone's trying to meet everyone else. Therefore, you'll go hang out with nearly anyone until you realize who you like and who you don't. For example, twice during the first month of my wife's program, we went to a bar and out bowling with people I haven't seen since. It took a while for everyone to find their appropriate social network, and once we all did, it was all gravy. Now, my wife and I have a few other couples that we hang with. When the students in each relationship are studying late or working on a special project, the guys (yes, we're all guys) will go to grab a drink or catch a game. And, all eight of us can also get together for dinner or Apples to Apples when needed. Everyone's happy, and it's a great way to take a load off. Also, while my wife's out making new friends, so am I, and that's important for each partner.
  • Take a load off. When your spouse goes to grad school, congratulations. Yo'’ve just become a concierge. Because I want my wife to succeed in school and in her job search, I handle all non-school related items. I grocery shop. I wash clothes. I pay bills. I take the cars in for oil changes. I feed the cat. I plan dinner. I'm not trying to baby my wife – I'm just happy to do those little things to make her stressful time a little less so. In a good relationship, you should be doing little things for the other person anyway, but when someone's in grad school, they've got enough on their plate. Besides, I kind of like going to the grocery store, anyway.
This list isn't comprehensive, and it's also not foolproof. It's what helped me and Lynnette make it, and hopefully there's at least one thing you can do to make sure that you stick together when your spouse goes back to school.

Marriages and degrees are both technically just sheets of paper. But good ones are treated like so much more.

Leave a comment! Is your spouse in grad school? What do you do to make sure your marriage succeeds?

Comments (17)

First of all - I dig the new look of the blog, very nice sir.

Now Sam, let's be honest, was this article just something you wrote up and posted to get women to go tell their significant others, "You should be more like Sam Davidson"? Because I can already see that coming. I'm just waiting for the "Well Sam Davidson always cooks dinner for his wife" speech tonight while I'm playing XBox NOT cooking dinner. LOL

In all seriousness - this is great. Love is about support, and you are doing just that for Lynette. This is likely something that I am going to go through with Lierin at some point, and supporting the person you're with while they pursue their passions is what a relationship is really all about. Great post Sam, I guess I'll be preparing dinner and a foot rub for milady this eve.

I learned at a young age that I have no control over what women say about me to other men.

You said it - "love is about support." So I say, do whatever it takes to make that happen in your most meaningful relationships.

But, I didn't say anything about foot rubs. You're on your own with that one.

I too am graduating from grad school this week. Congrats to you and your wife.

I have been in a long distance relationship during the past two years, and it is stressful and hellacious because for us, when I was stressed from school, my partner wasn't always at home to talk me off the ledge...

And we totally needed to rearrange parts of our lives so that we could still see each other regularly and talk everyday. Two things have worked well for us. 1. Making sure my partner knows my classmates. At least when I start talking about something someone said, she knows who I'm talking about. 2. Make time to together time and alone time. My partner would come visit me sometimes during weekends when I had papers due. During those weekends I would take an hour or two to work on school if I HAD too, but our weekends together were sacred. I had all week to get my schoolwork done so that I could relax and enjoy my weekends with my honey.


You make a great point about the long distance thing. During my wife's first graduate degree, we too were long-distance. Which made it extra hard.

But, as you said, making sure that time together is really time together helps ease the stress and the burden, so good for you two for making that commitment.

Great suggestions!

Great Article Sam.

My fiancee and I are going through this right now. She is a PhD student in Behavioral Neuroscience and I just left my PhD program so that I could basically support us financially by working 2 full time jobs and some other part time ones.

I pretty much echo what you do for your lady. I cook dinner (even though she hates to cook anyway, so I would), but I also take care of everything non-essential so that she can relax.

One of the hardest things to do is to throw in another full time job when you are already working one. The most important advice that I can give is to enjoy and embrace the moments you spend together. Do something different, (we always go to Barnes and Noble and look at travel books), go out and do something.

If you sit in, chances are you will just watch TV or something, and not really take advantage of that time together.

Great post though!

This is a great and timely post. I've been thinking of getting my MBA for years now and the thought of the strain (financial and otherwise) on my marriage has been the thing holding me back. Your advise is wonderful. Congrats to both you and your wife for your accomplishments. I love your last statement - it is all in how you treat that piece of paper....have a great day!

I got married 2 weeks after I got my master's. I don't know if I could have handled marriage AND graduate school at the same time. I'm impressed with your wife!

Your point about how the one in grad school changes so much due to grad school is sooo important. If you aren't careful you can become really caught off-guard.

One thing I love to do when in "temporary" situations (like grad school) is remind myself to really experience this time and ENJOY it. You're never going to get a chance to be a young couple, no kids, fighting through grad school again... and in it's own weird way it's a cool adventure to be on.

Great stuff!

@Ryan - Great point about doing something different and meaningful together! I agree that the TV thing may not really 'feel' like time together since you're not talking to or looking at each other. Great idea with the BN trips.

@Angie - It's tough, but if you can make it work, go for it. I don't think anyone should sacrifice their marriage for a degree, so think carefully about it. And, make sure everyone's in it together.

@Marie - Good call on doing the degree BEFORE getting married. I'm glad it worked out for you that way. And, you have a similar degree as my wife, so I know you're right on about the changes that one goes through while in a grad program. You should organize a workshop at the marriage studio about this topic and you and I can tag-team lecture.

My fiancee and I are both in school and working (I'm school full time, work part time; he's work full time, school part time). We are both about to finish our theses and this fall we'll both only be taking one class. We got engaged last December, and planning the wedding has surely been an added stress.

We do a lot of the things you suggest, although since we're both tight on time/energy, one of us can't be in charge of groceries, dinner. But usually, when one of us has a big assignment or project, the other one picks up slack without being asked.

We also try to find time to go hiking or do half-day trips together, just to break the routine and have fun together.

I guess we should be proud that we've done so well!! :)

Good Article. I'm currently in Law School, and can attest to the truthfulness of everything you've said here. When my wife makes dinner (which she almost always does) it's incredible. She does the laundry, pays the bills, does the shopping, cleans the house, and does pretty much everything else that needs to be done.

I would add that it's really important to reciprocate on that when possible. Even though we're talking about doctoral and masters programs here, there are actually times that are lighter than others. I think it's important that during these times one should pick up as many of those tasks as possible to even things out.

I know my wife appreciates it when I take the time to make dinner, do a few loads of laundry, or clean the whole house on those days when class gets canceled. It's important for me not to forget that my wife is working just as hard as I am, and I should help her out for the exact same reasons that she's bending over backwards to make my life easier.

When Phil was in grad school and we had first one and then two kids we had to think not only about how I could take up the slack and help him (by cooking and grocery shopping for example--those had been his jobs), but also how he could do his best without neglecting both his wife and his kids. I think that you can do anything if you know its not going to be forever so for me it helped for us to make the commitment to see him through grad school and then reevaluate where our focus would be. We've actually had more stress in our marriage in trying to figure out how to balance his ambitions with my ambitions post-grad school for him. Someone has to take care of the kids. Within the next few years we'll have to rebalance again to see how I can go to grad school. So I guess you all are lucky to be going pre-kids.

@Joanna - thanks for commenting. I can only imagine that having both people in grad school makes things much different, but I'm very glad to hear that you two have found something that works, and that's the key to it all, I think. And, you can never underestimate having fun together.

@Mike - sounds like you and your wife are doing well, and good for you on stepping it up when you have a lighter load. Those are all great suggestions, and I'm sure it makes your marriage better and happier.

@Indie - I agree that adding kids into the mix definitely changes things. But, I trust that you and Phil are each able to communicate the difficulties of that, as well as the hopes and dreams you both have for your family. As I, too, and thinking about grad school at some point in the future, Lynnette and I have had to think hard about her goals post-grad and mine pre-grad. Plus, our hopes for a family some day. These conversations are always challenging, but well worth it.

Hi, I found this blog tonight after a hellish 8 months. I left my husband 6 weeks ago- he and I were married this past November and we were together for 6 years prior to that (living together for 4 of them). My husband started his doctoral program in Fall 2006- I'll never forget all the late nights staying up with him to help finish those grad school applications. When he was accepted, it certainly felt like an accomplishment for "both" of us, as a couple, and I supported him 110% as a Ph.D. student.

Unfortunately, there are no other words to describe what happened to our relationship- my husband CHANGED. He had new friends from the program (who were all quite young, and many single) and even when we would go out as a couple with the other students, I was definitely always "out of the loop." Inside jokes about professors, discussing the work load, knowing the stresses....I felt helpless when it came to "understanding" my husband and what he was experiencing every single day.

His office mate from day 1 was a younger female who had no relatives or friends in town. She and my husband became instant friends. I was never jealous in the beginning (never had a reason to be!), but as the years went on, my gut would tell me I was entering dangerous territory. As he changed, I noticed his views changed (he would say the strangest things at times!) and I started to wonder what was happening to him...and to us.

Their friendship became much more serious right before our wedding, and I believed him when he said they were just friends. I'm not sure what it was- the stresses of grad school, all the time spent together- that made him start his emotional and sexual affair. He says he didn't and doesn't love her. He lied to me for months and months....and all the while I was doing all those things to make his life easier (paying all the bills, cooking, cleaning). He was always TOO BUSY for anything other than school...well, look where that got me.

It's a shame, but my husband became a completely different person than the man I met years ago. A cheater, a liar, a man who thought he was better than everyone else. It was a complete 180 from the loving, modest, caring man that I met.

I wish we could have made it work like you were able to- but it takes two to make a marriage, and my husband was 110% committed to his Ph.D. program (and his Ph.D. program girlfriend) and I found out the hard way. He continued to lie and cheat (and my health is suffering because of their choice to have unprotected sex). It's a hard lesson- but leaving was the only option after trying to fix things through marriage counseling over and over again.

That's right, you guessed it- my husband was always TOO BUSY to do the homework :) In the end, it was a waste of time, money, and my broken heart.

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