If you haven’t heard, graduate school is hard on relationships. Graduate students have higher risk of mental health issues than the general population, have work that never turns off, and often feel scrutinized. As women become more educated than their male partners, tensions rise in heterosexual relationships. Graduate students have teeny tiny salaries, and many of their friends just graduated into jobs paying much more. Grad school often means moving, uprooting your life and having to start an entirely new social circle in a new city. The partner or spouse is either dealing with their own transitions into graduate school, or trying to find a job in the new community and trying to make friends. Or the relationship is long distance, with all the challenges that go with it.
Now that I am post-grad school, I can happily report that the Dude and I made it! But oh my heck it was hard! We have been together for 26 years. We have been super poor together, have started over in 6 different states, had 3 kids in less than 5 years, and were homeless a couple of times. None of these things were as hard on our relationship as my graduate school.
There were multiple reasons for this. The Dude has had a really hard time finding his occupational footing. Before I started graduate school, he was working in a restaurant. He had been at the same place for quite a few years. He really liked working there but there was no upward growth, and restaurant work was getting hard on his body. When we moved for grad school, he continued to work on his BA, finishing the year after we got there. But jobs are tough in a college town. He finally found a job that seemed like it had growth potential and it was interesting to him, just as we were getting ready to move back across the state.
We moved across the state to a Hipster Paradise. Every restaurant job had 40 poet-servers and 35 musician-bartenders applying for the position.
With that kind of a crowd, it was very hard to break in. The environmental jobs were more ambiguous and hard to even find. He picked up some occasional shifts and a couple of very short jobs, and then went back to school.
Now armed with 2 degrees in supposedly desirable fields and a lifetime of experience, he hit the job market again. This time, he was able to find some temp jobs. Nearly 2 years later and this is where it still stands: temp work. Although the unemployment rate is incredibly low, it is still super hard out there!
All of this uncertainty and underemployment and rejection is hard on the soul and has left an impact wound.
Meantime, I had been slogging through my dissertation which is lonely and isolating and ego-crushing. I have ADD that I have never been able to get properly treated. Add impostor syndrome to the mix and I would end up wasting hours online, and then would have to spend evenings and well into the night doing the work I had procrastinated about all day. This left me in my room and on my computer almost all the time. A lot of housework fell to him, and it wasn’t clean enough, so then I felt guilty AND irritated. I wasn’t spending time with our kids and had so much resentment about that. We weren’t spending a lot of time together. We were broke all the time. I was taking out student loans and we maxed out our credit cards. There was never any time or money to do fun things.
So the thing that went was our ability to communicate. I would say something or he would say something and it would be misconstrued. There was a deep chasm between us that wouldn’t go away. It was the most frustrating thing because there was no reset that would make my words understandable to his ears.
Things got worse and worse. It was at the point where I wasn’t sure there was anything left to salvage. He and Ci were fighting a lot as well. It was a dark and exhausting time.
In the end-we went to a counselor. She is trained in John Gottman’s communication methods, and she helped save our marriage. Even if we couldn’t talk to each other on the car ride over, we went. She helped us find our voices and address our inner hurts. She was our cheerleader and helped us problem solve. And things started to get better. It has been over a year now since our relationship improved. We talk, we listen. We stop and do checks on ourselves, and each other. I try not to assume his body language means something sinister and he asks me if something is wrong if he thinks something is wrong.
These are tiny things, not profound. But they saved a marriage, nearly a quarter century in.