Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Forgetting Balance: Relationships and Graduate School

In what follows I’ll be sharing a hint of scandal about my marriage and my wife, Julie. Introductions are an appropriate place to begin. Julie is an educational administrator at Howard University and epitomizes the busy DC professional. By day, she is known among her colleagues as a shrewd pragmatist, but this characteristic often lingers into the evening, well after she’s left the office. Also noteworthy is that English is Julie’s third language, and although her command of it is impeccable, she scrambles the occasional idiomatic expression. Her residual professionalism coupled with her dynamic use of idioms led to a recent conversation where Julie expressed her reservations about me sharing the difficulties of my relationship with future colleagues. The conversation was stuffed full of remarks about “contingency plans” and possible “anonymity measures.” She was skeptical of the wisdom behind my consent to write the piece, and pointed out that “If push comes to worst”—a novel combination of the expressions “if push comes to shove” and “if worst comes to worst”—I can always take a leave of absence and live with my mom in Montana until things cool over. She had a point, but in the end, I convinced her the exercise might prove cathartic for me, and who knows, it might be of some benefit to someone else’s relationship. In the end, she consented on the condition that she has editorial discretion.

So I sat down to write and recalled the warnings I had received when after divulging my plan to begin graduate school. A close friend told me plainly that graduate school would likely pose a challenge to my marriage. I believe I was stirring my morning coffee at the workplace lunch counter when it happened and bragging that I would soon tender my resignation for the more noble pursuit of education. His message was that graduate school was a hornet’s nest and that I would need to find balance. Unfortunately this particular friend is a habitual whiner and tends to go through the day hanging his head and shaking it from side to side, as if warming it up to reject the entire day. “Life is a travesty,” he would say. “There is a new outbreak of Ebola in Africa.” “More and more polar bears are drowning.” “Marriage can’t survive graduate school.”

I didn’t take his warning seriously, and anyway, by this time, Julie and I had already transcended a number of struggles together. I’m talking about real epic triumphs, like the time I screamed at Julie for waking me up to change a flat tire. From that argument, I learned to pick my battles. My confidence was also bolstered by my belief that the sum of my experiences as a serial monogamist had prepared me for this single moment in time. I was a gladiator poised to be elevated into the coliseum of graduate school, only superficially aided by a few pulleys and levers. I had my own weapons, and I had honed my own method. This was not going to be a problem.

By 2002, Julie and I had already been in DC for a year, and graduate school was beginning to loom large on the horizon for both of us. Julie had announced that she would soon begin working toward her Ph.D. in education. That year, I remember the theatrical release of the movie “About Schmidt,” starring Jack Nicholson. The previews seemed to loop endlessly for a few weeks, and they always featured Nicholson’s character as narrator. “Helen and I have been married 42 years. Lately, I find myself asking the same question. Who is this old woman who lives in my house?” How I pitied Nicholson’s character, particularly his feelings of unfamiliarity with his partner.

“Of course this baffles me!” I thought, “Unlike Schmidt, I married the right person for the right reasons, and anyway, I know myself! I would never just idly sit by like soggy-shorts Schmidt and play witness to the dismantling of my marriage. The instant I perceived distance, I would bring in the fire brigade. Just as we had in the past, Julie and I would sit down and work to articulate what the hell is going on—name it and banish it from our island!”

But I was soon to learn that the mischievous workings of graduate school are often cloaked. We enter our first year with an unenviable work load, and insurmountable expectations abound. Reasons to forgo such indulgences as stretching the legs, spending time in rooms with windows, and unwinding are easily found. In the beginning the assault is obvious, but soon it begins feeling blunted and appears to fade. I suspect this is because we learn to cope, but it must also be because that which is omnipresent appears mundane, normal and unremarkable. In the same way we fail to notice the buzzing noise of an electrified city or the greenish glow cast by fluorescent lighting, we eventually cease fixating on the effects of our stress and the routines we’ve casually adopted as a means of coping.

Then it happened. For the first time in my marriage, I noticed myself becoming inexplicably resentful about Julie’s allergies. Her quirky penchant for bringing random pamphlets home despite my protest suddenly seemed to be a direct statement about her failing commitment to the marriage. I remember feeling exasperated one evening when she demanded equal space for her own books on our book shelf. “Who is this woman?” There was a malignant dissatisfaction growing within me, and I watched myself—as though a spectator—take it out on Julie. Time spent on classes, getting papers ready for publication, socializing with classmates, and navigating department politics – the cumulative effect of these changes in this new graduate world had the effect of a wayward current. Julie and I had begun to drift apart. Schmitt’s gripe finally made sense.

“Editorial discretion” urges caution at following the narrative any further, but I’ve already shared plenty. What’s imperative of any cautionary tale is that the author state in unambiguous terms precautions one can take or a list of pitfalls to avoid, something akin to “Here are the ten things I did to survive a night floating in the Atlantic with sharks nipping at my heels.” Ten tips to save your relationship while in graduate school would be admirable, but I’m partial to the humor of a good anticlimax so I offer only one.

Most enduring relationships require a measure of time and attention; yet graduate school nibbles away at the graduate student’s schedule like pez, and it liquefies the grey matter involved in attention—like the brain-on-drugs egg in those commercials from the Reagan administration. Aiming for balance, people attempt to schedule time for their relationships, but once classes begin, time slips away and they feel they’ve lost their balance. I think we should dispense with this notion of balance. The metaphor suggests a teeter-totter or seesaw held level by two discrete entities of equal weight. Eight hours of graduate school is answered with eight hours devoted to relationships. Thinking about these spheres as separate and balanced is inaccurate and unhelpful. The distinction between what is work and what is personal often collapses, especially when important relationships are formed with one’s classmates and professors. Thinking in terms of balance is also a problem because it encourages us to regard our relationships as entities opposed to work. We are enticed to cultivate our careers and relationships as though they were distinct spheres, hermetically sealed from each other. In building our careers we exit our relationships.

The gravity well that is graduate school makes all this talk about striking a delicate balance sound a bit disingenuous. We would do well to forget balance, and instead allow or even encourage our relationships to be folded into graduate school’s gooey goodness. To this end, baking metaphors might be more useful. This integration of spheres will likely look different for different people, but for Julie and I, it has meant that we recognize scheduling evening time will not always be enough. To keep our lives integrated, I’ve begun attending more of her professional conferences, and for her part, she has begun hanging out with my graduate friends more often. I’ve learned far more about the field of education than I care to, and she’s learned to navigate conversations marked by frequent self-reflective, Goffman-esque comments about the conversation (lol, snort).

Les Andrist


  1. You know, I get that you might have wanted to erase comments that weren't supportive of your post, but I was trying to open up a dialogue on the points you made here. I find it a shame all comments were erased and not addressed...

  2. Les - great article. I really appreciate your candidness. As we pursue our doctorates, we all struggle to balance our personal and intimate relationships with the incredible demands of graduate school, but few of us have the courage to publicly share this struggle with others. For me, your piece demonstrates the real strength of your marriage. I was sorry to see someone had posted such inappropriate and personally attacking comments. I, for one, enjoyed your article very much. Thanks!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.