Check out the first installment in this series here.
Written by Laura, a current graduate wife
Recently, a group of our graduate wife friends gathered for lunch in Oxford, and of course, at some point during lunch, began to talk about the process of our husbands’ PhD programs and potential phases we would or could face during that time. As the conversation continued, excited words flying across the table, we knew we might be on to something rich, something that would be beneficial to other graduate wives outside of our intimate lunch. One of the women in that group, Laura, offered to put pen to paper, writing a four part series for The Graduate Wife, explaining those phases. We hope it is helpful for you – whatever phase your other half is currently in – and will give you an idea of the best way to support them during that time. – Mandy and M.C.
It is likely late summer or early fall at this point, you have arrived at your campus – your new, if temporary, home – and in the span of just a few weeks, it seems like a wrecking ball has taken a swing at your former life, leaving you shocked and excited by the initial phases of your new life as a grad student. It’s untidy and grueling work – relocating, shaking hands multiple times a day and answering questions about where you were previously and what area of the discipline you wish to master, but it feels purposeful and powerful. It’s exciting and terrifying, and it can feel like you are cyclically overwhelmed and euphoric. For some new grad students, an immediate sense of doubt appears – Did I choose the right program? Am I cut out for this? Were my motives pure? Is this really what I want to be doing? For some, this is temporary, for others, they must spend a season grappling with these questions and weighing various opportunities.
Ah, but the glorious sense of satisfaction as you start to gain the tools necessary to make it in this treacherous journey, the sense that you have found your life’s passion, this is worth the price. You buy a load of heavy new books and eagerly crack them open, after a few rousing rounds of get-to-know-you activities at the initial orientation meetings you start to bond with classmates and colleagues, and the halls of your institution (and the stacks at your library) become like a comfortable, well-worn second home.
Emotionally it is common to feel like you are diving and crashing, cycling between overwhelm and enthusiasm. Many students experience a sense of identity-rattling insecurity and intimidation in this new academic setting because it appears that every classmate has read more, prepared more thoroughly, gained more experience; it is common to hear students report that they feel like frauds, fearing the admissions committee might have mistakenly allowed them entrance to the program. Grad students often feel they are living a lie – while pretending to feel confident – all the while fearing they will be discovered as a sham, as someone who doesn’t belong in this rigorous environment. The good news is, to a large extent this fades somewhere after the first marking period or first successful Socratic dual with that dreaded professor, when you finally receive much-needed feedback and gain a sense of your bearings.
If a grad student is married or partnered, the initial enthusiasm for this new adventure might fade as the realities of the long hours in the library or the lab are starting to set in. Relational roles have to shift, and this is not often an easy change. A partner who used to help at home is now physically absent for long stretches (and mentally absent even when they are home after the drain of the academic work has taken its toll) and the connection points you used to take for granted have sometimes disappeared – catching up while cooking dinner or folding laundry, or watching a movie after a long day, running or biking together or just doing household chores side by side. The needs of the non-student spouse can feel overwhelming to the student, and the student’s fatigue-induced emotional withdrawal can be painful and bewildering. What seemed like a joint venture now feels more like a lonely climb, and the isolation can be brutal because at this point the new environment may feel comfortable and supportive to a certain extent, but it is still new and lacks the deep roots of home and loved ones, history and shared experience; it is difficult to lean into a new support network that lacks the robustness and depth that can only be cultivated over time.
This is where a couple’s mettle is tested. How creative are you? Can you find new routines to share that don’t require long stretches of available time? Instead of a lengthy dinner conversation, can you share a single morning cup of coffee? Can you create new and meaningful rituals on less time and nearly no sleep? Partners, ask your grad student what is possible rather than demanding old routines to remain in place. Grad student, ask your partner to think of one or two ways you can show you still care – practical and specific and attainable ways – and follow through with the request. Think about each individual segment of your day, likely things that used to seem like mundane tasks, and transform them into connecting points. Infuse the mundane with meaning! Fifteen minutes of rich connection can go a long way in maintaining the cement of your relationship. Plan dates – knowing you will have time together in the near future can sometimes help with the long days. You have to be more intentional than you were, but it is possible. You can emerge a new, sleek, refined couple if you can make it through this stage of paring-down and streamlining. It will challenge your patience, creativity, energy, and resolve at first, but your future success as a couple will in part be determined by how flexible and adaptable you can be here.
Finally, support, support, support. Each partner must be investing in some kind of support system, no matter how worn out you feel or how intimidating it might seem at such a fragile stage. Some supports can be shared – e.g. participating in a religious community, joining new friends for get-togethers – but likely each partner will also need to forge their own groups or relationships, specific to their needs. Grad students: join a study group or occasionally go to a pub with classmates. Spouses: enjoy social time with colleagues after work or join a social group (book club, running group, volunteer organization). Parents: get out there and connect with other parents and make every effort to get your kids connected to a friendly network.
Sometimes this stage involves sadness as the honeymoon period finally comes to an end and the recent losses are deeply felt – missing loved ones, old belongings, old homes, etc. Give yourself grace and permission to grieve these losses – they are valid – and then figure out what energizes you and start creating a new support system around that. Sometimes easier said than done, but it still needs doing. Draw on spiritual strength, relational resources and old friendships, hobbies and life-giving activities, both individually and as a couple.
And remember, this is part of the demolition and reconstruction zone; it will not be easy, but something beautiful and substantial can emerge, maybe you just can’t visualize it yet. This is often one of the two most painful stages of the graduate journey, but things can turn around quickly and suddenly in this stage, and it is likely that one day you will wake up and realize this new environment feels like home and this is an experience you wouldn’t trade for anything – the adventure, risk, and challenge will refine you and change the course of your life, relationships, and character in ways not possible if you miss the opportunity to take this journey. Stay the course!
Stay tuned for Stages 4-6!