Women in Academia: When Your Significant Other Isn’t in Academia

Sometimes, you just need to talk to someone who understands what you’re going through. When your significant other/partner isn’t in graduate school, there can be some, well, some tension in and strain on the relationship. But having a significant other outside of academia can be a truly wonderful thing.

To start out, let me preface by saying that dating someone in academia can also be a wonderful thing, with its own unique set of challenges. People shared some of their experiences with the challenges of the two-body problem in an earlier post, so let me briefly run down some of the wonderful parts: they get your life; they’re in about the same place as you are (in their lives, not necessarily geographically); if you’re in the same field, they can sometimes give really great advice on work, research ideas, and manuscripts. It can be a beautiful thing. But this post isn’t about those relationships.

I will be upfront about my personal experiences: I have never seriously dated anyone who was in academia. Everything I know about the beauty of having two grad students lovin’ each other is what I’ve heard from my peers. But I know firsthand what it’s like to be with someone who is not in academia and doesn’t have much experience with it.

Relationships with people outside of academia can be frustrating because one’s partner might not really get all of the stresses that come along with, let’s say, grant applications, or being asked to teach a class last minute and working overtime to get the syllabus right. The thing is, though, that this is an issue with every relationship. I don’t know the ins and outs of my partner’s job, but I make an effort to understand what he’s dealing with and he does the same for me. That’s what matters in the end ““ those reciprocal attempts to understand where the other person is coming from.

This doesn’t mean that people don’t need those around them who are living the same bullshit they are ““ my friends in academia are treasures and I am so glad I have some lovely people I can drink coffee and commiserate with. But someone doesn’t have to know every aspect of your life to make a good friend, companion, or partner. It’s not always about knowing from experience where you’re coming from, but about a willingness to listen and an attempt to put themselves in your shoes (and vice versa). It’s about making you a priority and working to be supportive (and vice versa). It’s about having genuine love and respect for each other.

Personally, I love the differences in perspective that come from being with someone with completely different career and academic interests. I like being pushed outside of my science-bubble. I like learning about aspects of various jobs that I will probably never hold.  I like the differences between us because it is a motivator to keep us both open to talking and learning about each other.

None of these things I’ve mentioned are specific to academic/non-academic relationships, but they are generally hallmarks of good relationships. All relationships require work, and relationships with people outside of your area, field, or hell, entire career area, requires work on the part of both people to bridge the gap.

7 replies on “Women in Academia: When Your Significant Other Isn’t in Academia”

I think school would drive me even more insane if I didn’t have my husband’s non-graduate student perspective to bring me back down to earth sometimes.

The only problem is he can’t bear going to social gatherings full of only law school folks who either treat him like a curiosity or (more commonly) ignore him altogether and just “talk shop” to one another. It’s very hard to bridge those two worlds, particularly since he and I moved to this city together so I could go to school he hasn’t yet found a satisfactory social group ,which can be frustrating.

My partner has the same issue with my group of creative writing folks. He just won’t come out to school functions or social events because he doesn’t like eing ignored (and I don’t blame him).

Luckily he found a few friends in this city through his warhammer hobby. Otherwise it would have been a very tough move for him.

For me dating a non-academic (after several intense but deeply flawed in-department relationships, sigh) has been a challenge. I think my boyfriend of about a year is intimidated by the academic side of my life, and feels frustrated that he’s not the one I go to for advice about my work. Anyone have suggestions for how I can include him better?

Part of the difficulty for me and my partner is that his job is 10+ hours a day, 5 days a week (but not always weekdays) and sometimes requires night shifts. It seems like we rarely see each other. And now that I’m at crunch time for my thesis, I’m constantly asking him to trade chores, which bugs him when he’s come home from a long shift, or has a day off. And I understand, but I also need to keep working when I’ve got momentum going. It’s been a bit of an awkward year, but I’m almost done.

When I started my program, he was thinking of doing his masters after me, but now he seems to have put aside that idea. I worry that my difficulties dealing with grad school (I got depressed, I made some bad decisions about coursework, I took on too much; not atypical, to be sure) have influenced that decision more than they should have.

When I was still in grad school, my relationship with a non-academic was something of a mixed blessing. On one hand, it was so nice to have a break from being completely submerged in school all the time. On the other, it was sometimes difficult for him to understand that my being in school was just as much a job as his 9-5 office gig was. At the time some of the conflicts did feel a bit like we would never agree on anything because we were in two completely different worlds, but in retrospect I completely agree with you in that these things are more about dealing with a significant other in general, and not so much something endemic to an academic/non-academic couple.

I love dating a non-academic, but our situation may be a little unusual. We live in a small town which basically has three industries – the university, publishing, and high-tech – so all our friends are either academics or graduates who work in the other two fields. My uni is also a college system, meaning that our friends are largely drawn from disciplines other than my own (most of our friends here are ‘mine’ in the sense that they’re in my college, though obviously it’s been long enough now that they’re friends with us both equally). Our group is a good mix of different types. Many of the other academics are scientist-types like RahBoy, so in some senses he relates to them better than I do, but in other ways – like when I want to just vent about the writing process – I’ve got the other PhDs around for a bit of understanding.

I think the one thing I’ve learned over the years is not to let RahBoy read my work for ‘critical’ reasons. Because actually, I don’t want criticism from him. I want him to tell me how awesome I am, how spectacular my work, how clever I must be. I don’t want him to be all science-y and pedantic, pointing out typos on page 37 – which is exactly what he’ll do, because that’s what he knows how to do. Then I get all resentful because he’s not a proper academic and he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about, obvi. So in short… criticism from the non-academic partner is a very sensitive area, don’t go there unless you’re totally sure it won’t end in tears!!

I love having a side of my social life (boyfriend’s side) where we never ever discuss literature. It’s a much-needed break pretty often. Also the idea of us both trying to get teaching jobs at the same school/in the same area seems worse than our alternative, trying to get two other hard-to-find jobs (one in teaching and one not) in the same area. I don’t know why it seems easier, because it’s probably not, but somehow it SEEMS easier.

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