Thursday, January 3, 2013

Relationship Issues

Maintaining relationships during the postacademic transition can be difficult. Your mother, your dissertation advisor, your priest, your dry-cleaner...heck, sometimes it feels like everybody and their crazy uncle will have an opinion on how you should be living your life after you leave academe. The multitude of "helpful" tips and tricks can quickly become overwhelming (and annoying!), and sometimes it can be best to just give yourself some healthful mental and physical distance from the madding crowd.

But what do you do about the folks in your life that it's hard to distance yourself from--partners, spouses, maybe even children? That guy or gal who lives with you day in and day out and knows about the days you spend crying in your pajamas, eating pints of icecream, and bemoaning your lack of future employability? The partner who accompanies you on life's emotional roller coaster of bill paying, child-rearing, house cleaning, and major decision making ? You know the one. That poor bastard who is caught in the postacademic cross-hairs with you.

I'll Give You All I Can... Brandon Warren via Compfight

After a commenter asked JC about this issue, both JC and I have addressed our experience with making romantic relationships work while in the process of leaving academia. Neither JC nor I are counselors, therapists, or licensed psychological professionals, so feel free to take what we say with a grain of salt. Yet, based on our situations, we shared a few common helpful tips.  First (and foremost) is communicating:
"At times, Paul and I both have hid bits of information from the other that we think might upset the other. Here, I'm not talking about stuff like infidelity or something wacky, I'm more talking, "He doesn't need to know about this nasty comment so and so made. It'll only hurt him." This happened recently when Paul, knowing how distraught I was about our finances, delayed telling me about a large surprise (!) bill he had coming due. When I found out, I got upset. Partly about the bill and partly that he hadn't told me about the situation immediately. So, yeah, more often than not I'd say that even when we think we're sparing our partner's feelings about a given issue, it's probably best to communicate openly, discuss problems as they arise, and try to listen and offer support. If there are kids in the mix, ones old enough to understand the situation, you can try and be honest and open with them too, letting them know that you're going through a temporary unemployment, that things might be a bit difficult right now, but that they should improve vastly in the not-too-distant future. You may want to consider setting aside "family meeting" times once or twice a week so that everyone can air their feelings in a safe space. In fact, I've often thought I should impose some kind of "worry" time for myself, so that I don't spend all day every day pouring my fears into Paul's ears."

We also advocate strategies like rethinking spending, staying positive and having fun, considering a "just for now" job to alleviate pressure, and working with a professional.

Ultimately, JC writes:
"Relationships don't always last forever, but you're stuck with your own life forever. There's no breaking up with your own life. So if your partner refuses to be supportive, you might need to do some careful thinking about if there's a way to keep them happy while also making sure that you get the life you want. And if there isn't? Well, it might be time for some hard decisions to be made. Because a good partner should love you no matter what - whether you're a professor or a janitor, and whether you continue down the same life path or take a slight detour. We all deserve to be happy with our own lives."

Jet's experience of postacademic transition while negotiating her relationship with a successful academic spouse and managing two school-aged children at home presents a whole different emphasis. In her case, the relationship stresses around leaving academia and entering unemployment were not particularly related to financial worries; her anxieties about the sense of loss and mourning of a valued identity added tensions in multiple areas of family life:
"When I was close to making my final decision to pull out of academia I found I constantly questioned whether my PhD study was a waste of time. I convinced myself that I probably could have progressed further in another career by this time in my life. As my husband was an academic at the peak of his successful career (in another field, luckily), I also continued to look back on the early days when he encouraged me to take on MA study when my son was just a baby. After three years of what felt like a sleepless, stressful, academic existence, but with the cheering on of my tutors and husband for my achievements, the PhD study soon followed when my daughter was 18 months old. I can’t claim that the study was not fulfilling in many ways, but during postacademic transition I could not let go of the residual feelings of resentment I had towards my husband for pushing ‘supporting’ me so much, and even later suggesting I just try moving into another academic field. As my last research contract ended and I had much time on my hands to mull over the possibilities of my new working life, I had many low days when my grudge would find a vehicle for expression when he talked about work or when the kids made their usual domestic demands on me. I eventually discovered, after spending much time in tears and venting my frustration and confusion around what I wanted to do with my life, that my husband was not always in a comfortable place with his own work issues and future. One evening as we were lying in bed and he was listening again to my replay of worries, he sat up, and said something like, ‘Okay, that’s it. You’re just going round and round all the time. Why don’t you read this book by this guy Po Bronson: What Should I Do With My Life? I bought it when I was completely fed up with it all and thought I’d just do something else.’ That night was like the turning point for me and for the way I perceived my husband’s apparent sense of a secure academic position. I realised that he could be vulnerable too. From that point I started to communicate in a different way about the ‘transition’ and he opened up with his own feelings about academia.”



  1. Don't forget the other side: My marriage improved so much after I left graduate school. I was relaxed, present, and the relative free time was like constantly being on vacation (despite working a 40 hour a week job!). My husband wasn't thrilled when I decided to quit, he had moved with me to the other side of the country to figure it out, but once he realized that there were a lot of ways academia was not going to be a great fit for our family, he got on my side. I think the fact that I was much more pleasant to be around helped that too.

    Leaving academia won't necessarily spell trouble for a relationship.

  2. My marriage is also so much better now. My family life improved immensely.


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