Dealing with Relationships as a Graduate Student

Avoiding the Big D in Grad School: Divorce, not Dissertation!

By Cheryl Champagne, Assault Counsellor/Educator in the Health and Wellness Office

Our well-being is intricately connected to the quality of our relationships at home, work, school, and in our community. The challenges of graduate school—deadlines, dissertations, defense (some of the Difficult D‘s)​can quickly take over and become all-consuming. Life can easily get out of balance in terms of relationships and self-care. When faced with competing demands for the little time you have in a day, what do you choose—working out, cleaning the house, spending time with your partner, or writing a paper?

I have been, at different times, a grad student with a spouse and the working-spouse of a grad student. I’ve experienced both sides. As a student, you can feel guilty all the time whether you choose to study or to spend time with your spouse or family—and you might feel inadequate in both. As a non-student spouse, you might feel neglected or unappreciated if you are the one doing the majority of work maintaining the home. If you and your partner are both graduate students, you have the advantage of better understanding academic life—but you may still struggle to find time for each other. 

What advice do I have?

As a Couple

  • Acknowledge when circumstances and priorities change—because change is inevitable, whether you are pursuing higher education, a new job, or planning a family. Discuss together the adjustments you will make and how you can take care of your relationship—in addition to your financial, career, household, and childcare/family responsibilities.

  • Remember that you are in this together and work as a team—but also take into account your individual needs, and make time for self-care and other/relationships with friends and extended family. 

  • Build in time for each other. Have a date night, meet for lunch, or spend time enjoying a shared activity. If money is limited, access free activities in the city, have a games night at home (away from the books!), or go for a walk together to reconnect with each other and reduce stress through exercise.

  • Keep the lines of communication open and listen to each other. Recognize there will be times when each of you is tired, overwhelmed or not at your bestbe flexible and ask for help from your partner or others in your support system.

For the Student

  • You embarked on an exciting adventure when you entered the world of academia. Enjoy the journey, but remember to do what you can to make your partner feel connected to and a valued part of your life.

  • Plan ahead with your partner for crunch times when you anticipate challenges keeping up with your regular share of the household responsibilities such as doing laundry, taking care of kids, or walking the dog. Ensure that your temporary hiatus does not become permanent and be appreciative of your spouse if he or she takes on more.

  • Students have varied schedules and work habits, whether it’s late night classes, weekend group work, or preference to study early or late in the day. If you live with a partner, work out a schedule that takes both your needs into consideration.        

  • Don’t get tunnel vision. Make sure that you listen to your partner’s feelings and concerns, even if you can’t do anything about it right now. It is easy to become defensive—when what might be more helpful is just listening.

  • As you deal with multiple and conflicting demands on your time, ensure you leave room for activities with your family and friends, and to celebrate holidays and occasions that are important to you. Find people in your networks who can support you, your partner, and/or your children.

For the non-student spouse

  • Recognize that your partner will need to participate in academic life outside the classroom to further his or her career opportunities. In addition to coursework, teaching, and research, your spouse may also attend conferences or be involved in student organizations.

  • Get involved in activities of your own. Whether you join a group, take a class, take up a new hobby, or volunteer in the community, you will feel more positive about your own life and appreciative of the time you have to yourself when you explore opportunities for growth and self-care.

  • Make sure you express your own needs and negotiate to have them met. This might mean specifically requesting money out of a tight budget, having your partner commit to being at home with children, or hiring a babysitter so you can do something on your own or with your spouse.

Last words

You may not be able to avoid some of the D’sdeadlines, dissertations, defensebut you can be proactive to ensure you steer clear of the other Big Ddivorce!

  • Remember to celebrate each other’s accomplishments and successes.
  • Appreciate your partner’s support, kindness, and contributions to your life.
  • And just when you think you’ve got it all together, something will change - so have a sense of humour!

Cheryl Champagne is the Assault Counsellor/Educator in the Health and Wellness Centre, St. George, at the University of Toronto. She provides workshops on topics such as Building Healthy Relationships and Mindfulness Meditation, as well as individual counselling for students who have experienced violence.

Posted October 1, 2015​