Why Does Graduate School Kill So Many Marriages?

Full vitae broken marriages

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By Kathryn R. Wedemeyer-Strombel

The longer I have been in my Ph.D. program, and the more colleagues I have met, the more frustrated I have become with the fact that so many of my friends have lost their marriages to graduate school.

My nearly 6.5 years of doctoral study have included two labs, two departments, and two universities. I have connected with graduate students from other campuses at the usual places: cohort gatherings, workshops, Twitter, conferences. We have a variety of things in common, but the one I wish we didn’t share is the negative effect of graduate school on our partnerships.

Doctoral training is hard. And relationships are hard. They’re both long-term, serious pursuits. But the quest for knowledge should not mean sacrificing your relationship.

Certainly some people have had great marriages through graduate school and beyond. I truly love to hear the success stories — specifically, how they made it work. But I know many other doctoral students — of different backgrounds and genders — whose relationships fell apart or struggled to survive as a direct result of their doctoral study. When my own marriage nearly collapsed, graduate school was a main factor. We have had to fight hard to stay together, and I have had to unapologetically realign my priorities to what works better for both of us, and not just for my work.

Clearly we are not alone. When I posted these thoughts on Twitter last month, I received dozens of responses like these:

  • One Ph.D. tweeted that she had "underestimated" the "psychological investment necessary for grad school. Academic ability is not enough. Grad school is a crucible that strengthens relationships and can expose unknown cracks in [the] foundation."
  • Another academic wrote: "Doing a Ph.D. nearly destroyed my marriage — luckily we are tenacious and pulled out of the nose dive."
  • And yet another: "Mine was a neverending feedback loop of grad school causing marriage issues and marriage causing grad-school issues."

I have heard many accounts from women who got married in graduate school and said they were told not to change their names since the relationship wouldn’t last, anyway. I have been told myself — by multiple senior professors — that my work should outweigh my marriage when making decisions about our lives.

Marital hardships are easily traced to academe’s toxic work culture — one in which your research must be everything, you are praised for working 17 hours a day in a lab, and you are reprimanded and told you’re not dedicated enough for visiting your long-distance partner or (gasp!) taking a vacation.

For many overachievers — i.e., most graduate students — the work-is-everything environment becomes a trap that bleeds you of your emotional capacity. You stop being present in your daily personal life. You live to get through this one class, this one semester, this one grant proposal, this one field season, this one short course, this degree. Only when you get through those accomplishments can you start your life. Even then, you are encouraged to chase the next goal. It’s a never-ending cycle.

Trouble is, your life is happening — even as you push through all the work. When you stop being present in your own life, however, it is easy to lose connections to those who matter most to you. And you may not even notice for a while because graduate school has depleted your emotional reservoir.

Most of the graduate students and Ph.D.s who have shared their stories with me say that they didn’t realize they were neglecting their partners. How did we not notice? Why didn’t anyone talk about this until crisis struck? Why wasn’t this covered in our "welcome to grad school" orientation? Why don’t doctoral programs give you all of the information when you sign up about what a Ph.D. may truly cost you, besides money? Most important, why aren’t academics more transparent with each other about these struggles?

In talking with a friend and fellow graduate student — who has received prestigious grants and accolades in a science field — we both agreed that had we known we would have to put up our marriages as collateral, we would have reconsidered our decision to pursue a doctorate.

My partner was a successful professional chef for several years, until we really saw what longevity in that profession looked like for marital, and family, success. We decided together that he would pursue a different path because what we knew, saw, and were told about that industry did not match with sacrifices we were willing to make. Little did we know — because nobody talked about it — that my pursuit of a Ph.D. would provide pressures and work-life imbalances similar to those in my partner’s previous career path.

As a community, we need to do better. We need to be transparent about work-life challenges in doctoral study — and not just talk about it but provide concrete support and actual suggestions. I do not have exact answers, either. I am not a marriage counselor or a marriage researcher. I am just a married graduate student who has struggled on this front. But I can share some realizations and strategies that have helped me be more present in my personal life in the hope that they may prove useful to you, too.

  • Only you can decide how to prioritize your time, and which comes first: your doctoral program or your relationship. I realized before it was too late that the only correct answer for me was that work had to depend on what was right for my partner and me.
  • A marital crisis, in whatever form, does not have to be an end. It can be a new beginning.
  • Therapy works. My partner and I did individual therapy to work on ourselves, and then used those skills to work on us. We are considering couples therapy, and many have said this has greatly helped them, others has said it did not. Here, too, you must decide what is best for you.
  • If your marriage does not work out, you are not a failure. Leaving does not equal failure, whether the departure is from academe or marriage. Sometimes things don’t work out as you’d hoped. That is OK.
  • It’s also OK to say no to things — to wait a day to respond to emails, to go a day without checking messages, to do less. I decided to do less and work less and be more diligent with my time when I am working. Seriously, say "no" more often to unnecessary extra "opportunities." It is so freeing.
  • You are not alone in experiencing a relationship crises. Talk to other partnered friends in your field. Knowing it is not "just us" can be so powerful.
  • Talk with your spouse/partner. Reallytalk. Most important: Listen. Check in, ask how your partner is doing, then listen and allow the information to sink in. If necessary, designate a meeting time during the week where you do this, so you know you have a protected time and space to have these conversations.
  • Reinstate date night. The first five years of my Ph.D. program, my husband and I went on maybe four dates. For much of that time we had a long-distance relationship but, even when we were in the same city, we didn’t set aside enough time or energy to actually be together. Now, we make it a point to have designated date nights where we don’t text, scroll, call, or be present with anyone but each other. It doesn’t have to be fancy, expensive, or complex — just time solely dedicated to the two of you connecting, and preferably not talking about work. Melissa Cristina Márquez has some great, affordable, suggestions for easy date nights on her blog.
  • Find and maintain hobbies outside of graduate school. They can be things you each do on your own or things that you do together. We are all better when we are whole people, when we are more than our schooling, our research, and our teaching.

The more I share stories with my fellow academics about my struggles in graduate school, the more I realize they are not mine alone. The more we share our coping strategies, the stronger and better off we will all be. Marriage and graduate school do not, and should not, have to be mutually exclusive.

Kathryn R. Wedemeyer-Strombel is a Ph.D. candidate in environmental science at the University of Texas at El Paso, and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow.

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