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Tips for Graduate Student Couples

November 16, 2010

Divided Commitments

Of all the ways in which life is different in graduate school, an often-neglected area of attention is committed romantic relationships. As the semester comes to a close and we move toward the holiday season, there is usually some slowing of graduate school demands. This makes it a good time to re-examine the way you are approaching your relationship. At the most basic level, graduate school relationships involve living with divided commitments. Not only are you likely feeling divided between graduate school and your relationship, but your relationship itself presents a divisive dilemma: your relationship is simultaneously a source of support and a source of demanding responsibilities, which can create a nagging sense of ambivalence. Such tension can pose some significant threats to the thriving and surviving of your relationship. To minimize these threats and actually grow closer during the demanding years of study, it is important to keep five main goals in mind:

1. Engage in Open and Honest Communication and Planning. To minimize problems and enhance your relationship, communicate before and during challenging times.

2. Set Boundaries. Learn to recognize the appropriate times to set boundaries between yourself and your program of study. Without such boundaries, any program can present enough demands to usurp all of your time, doing so in a way that appears absolutely necessary. Also, remember to maintain some boundaries needed between yourself and your partner. Having each of you maintain some of your own friends, hobbies, and activities keeps the relationship from becoming too enmeshed. If you are “everything” to each other, this places a lot of pressure on the relationship to maintain each person’s sense of worth and competence.

3. Remember to Negotiate. Acknowledge and plan for the unique demands of being in graduate level training. Because your partner will often need to compromise times he or she expected you to invest in your relationship, it is best to discuss the situations that may require negotiation: irregular hours of school, abrupt or intense academic demands, sudden changes in priorities, and unscheduled social activity with school peers needing to maintain a cohesive bond to support each other. All of this is a lot to expect from a partner or spouse without offering something to balance things out. When asking for your partner to make a sacrifice, offer when, specifically, you will be able to give something back to your relationship to balance out the scales of compromise.

4. Keep the Partner’s Needs In Mind, Even When You’re Busy (Which is Always).
–Time to pay attention and provide support. Your partner may be having a hard time dealing with the many compromises made for the sake of your program demands. Acknowledge this aloud. Show an intentional and genuine interest in the emotions and activities of your partner’s life. Set time aside, with no material related to your program in sight, and ask about your partner’s day.
–Time to provide affection. However, affection in the context of a rushed pace or a momentary endearment can often feel like a token rather than a genuine investment back into a relationship that is running low on emotional fuel. If you have not enjoyed affection with your partner in quite some time, “plan” some spontaneous affection.
–Time to help with domestic needs and personal projects. There is often an imbalance in chores and household duties because the graduate student has such irregular demands. Rather than maintain the imbalance indefinitely, plan specific times when you can offer to assume the duties you often have to rely on your partner to assume. The semester break is an excellent time!

5. Recognize and Talk Through Fear and Insecurity. Question automatic assumptions that you do not have enough time to fulfill your relationship needs. Sometimes, fear and insecurity about being in a competitive program is disguised as an overly conscientious work ethic. Graduate programs are quite demanding, and a belief often emerges that seems to suggest that any time given to your relationship indicates lack of commitment. Talk to your faculty and advisors and explore suggestions offered by those who have already navigated these challenges.

As you push through the homestretch of this semester, plan some time to discuss these issues with your partner over the break. If you need support and want to attend to your relationship needs with professional guidance, feel free to contact Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS). CAPS offers assessment, individual or couples counseling, and relationship-enhancement workshops.