What Do You Do When the Writing Stops?

-written by ML, a current graduate wife

I came home from work to find that my graduate student husband had spent the day playing video games again, instead of writing his dissertation. It would be so easy to yell, so easy to tell him off. Why? I’m at a job I dislike, we’re living in a town we dislike, so he can follow his dream…and he isn’t working on it. It would be so easy to lose my temper, so easy to run away, so easy to give up on this grad student wife life.

But I STOP. I stop before I yell. I stop before I even speak. I stop and think about, “WHY?”

Why isn’t he working on his dissertation? It isn’t because he’s lazy; it isn’t because he’s being mean; it isn’t even because he doesn’t want to. It’s because he’s hit a rough spot.

He loves to teach, he loves doing field work, and as a professor he’ll get to do both. But in order to get there, he has to do research and write a dissertation.

While he was initially researching, we set up a system of deadlines and rewards. Finish X research by Monday, and we go out to eat. Finish Y research by July, and we go to a soccer game. It’s a system I recommend trying if you’re in a tough spot, but it comes with a warning: I too want to go out to eat and go to games and the few times deadlines were missed and we didn’t get to go, I felt like I was being punished too. I remedied this by doing other things, say going to museum he wouldn’t want to go to on a day I had off while he was teaching class. I made sure to do things he wasn’t interested in so as not to pour salt in the wound.

However, when the research was done and it was time to write, I quickly saw that no matter what the reward was, the deadline was missed. You see, my husband is a perfectionist. When it comes to writing, he feels like every line must be perfect before putting it on paper.  This led to basically zero writing getting done.

When you really think about it, it’s not easy to run or give up on this grad wife life. It would mean being without him, and that would be terrible! Since we live 2,000 miles from family there’s nowhere to run to. Thank goodness! Instead of hiding and continuing to be angry we are stuck in a tiny apartment together, forced to find a solution to get over our anger.

A quick search revealed there are actually books to help with dissertation writing, I chose, The Dissertation Journey: A Practical and Comprehensive Guide to Planning, Writing, and Defending Your Dissertation” by Carol M. Roberts. Knowing that he wouldn’t read it because he had a lot going on, was bordering on depression, and just wouldn’t – I took it upon myself to read it to him a bit every night. He went from skepticism to wishing he’d read it at the beginning of grad school. First it pointed out that he isn’t alone in how he feels (much like this blog did for me). Then it explained the graduate process. Then it had some extremely handy lists as to what each chapter should contain.

It would be easy to treat him like a child—take away his video games, force him to sit at the desk and put something on paper or no dinner; ultimately though, that would make the situation so much worse. He’s already going through a rough time; he doesn’t need his #1 fan belittling him.

We still go through the book together (it’s not one you simply read through, it’s one that is read in parts as the dissertation moves along). I help him check things off the lists. I encourage him to just get something on paper and we’ll smooth it out later. I make deals like I’ll wash the dishes for him if he’ll write while I do it. I’ve gone from a pretty pessimistic person to his own personal cheerleader.

All-in-all, my solution is to STOP before you say anything, think about the real cause of why he isn’t working, try to find a solution together, and be encouraging instead of belittling and angry.

As a graduate wife, how have you dealt with a spouse who seems to be putting off writing or researching their work?


7 thoughts on “What Do You Do When the Writing Stops?

  1. Very encouraging post. So many times I discouraged my husband by nagging him or making him feel guilty rather than supporting him and being by his side. Your husband is blessed to have a support and cheerleader in you. :) thanks for being a good example to me of a loving and edifying spouse :)

  2. I’m still trying to figure this one out myself! My boyfriend is heavily involved in multiple extra curricular activities. This looks great on a resume of course, but when he is rushing from a club unit meeting where he’s the president, to practice three times a week for the university sports team he’s on, and writing three other papers completely unrelated to his dissertation, not to mention his classes, I’m surprised when he gets any work done on his Phd! So when he sits down to play a video game, 1/2 of me feels that “ya, he could sure use a break!”, but the other 1/2 thinks “Wait a minute, what about me?!”. I also try to do my own thing, similar things to ML, but it’s always an adventure trying to discover new hobbies – especially when money is so tight! plus we live in a really small town which offers surprising little. I somehow end up feeling like I’m about 5th on his priority list, this of course leads to the “Why am I here anyways?” question. It’s tough!

    1. My husband was like this too. It eventually led to a sort-of breakdown, at which point we had a long heart-to-heart about what the ultimate goal is, what NEEDS to be done to accomplish it, and how to add breaks in without it being as overwhelming. Of course there will always be stress and they will always be busy, but maybe some of it can be relieved. Soccer is a good break from work for my husband, but he ended up being on four teams…FOUR! I pointed out that it was adding stress, not alleviating it (figuring out all the times and locations of the games, rushing from one to the other, if they overlap he had to choose, all the time it took up…). In the end, he decided to play on one team, and it’s been a good stress reliever ever since. He is in his final year, and brought up the prospect of starting a paper that has nothing to do with his dissertation, I sort of begged him not to and threw in my opinion that he was using it to avoid writing his dissertation. We try to use video games as a reward for doing 30 minutes of writing, I can’t stop him playing if I’m at work, I can only ask nicely that he do some writing. There is more “us” time since he’s finished taking classes, I remember thinking the same thing you are while he was in them, it was a really hard time and I just had to keep reminding myself it was temporary. Sometimes I’d walk him to school just to get some us time in, it doesn’t have to be a stereotypical together activity, make it whatever works for you.

  3. There’s a fine line between being the one who is supportive and doing this because of the one we love, and becoming upset that our lives are put on hold.. :-/ This happens to me. I want to support my husband, but sometimes I feel frustrated because it’s all about him.. I become upset when he stops studying to look at something that takes too much time, or to come watch me cook dinner, or do something that is not studying, while I am working. Why doesn’t he just cook dinner, if he is going to watch me cook. It’s a difficult balance, but working through the writing process together is really important, really!

    1. Tammy, I felt the same way. 2 years into our grad journey, my husband and I had the worst fight we’ve ever had in our marriage – the overlying theme was I felt we did everything for him, and he got everything, and I always was the one to sacrifice. Needless to say, I didn’t approach it in the best manner (something about me screaming “IT’S ALL ABOUT YOU!” didn’t sit too well with him). :) We were able to work through it, and 7 years later, we still talk about that fight..now with a bit a humour. It is a difficult balance, can be frustrating, but the longer we’re together, I find if I can take time to put my anger aside and work out a solution, it makes all the difference in the world.

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