Dear Laura

Dear Laura: ‘Helpless in the dark’

Dear Laura

Readers-We are very pleased to launch our ‘Dear Laura’ advice and support column on The Graduate Wife!  If you have any questions to submit, please email us and we will ask Laura to respond.  We hope we can all benefit from some of the personal stories and advice given.  For more information on Laura click here.


Dear Graduate Wife,

I was wondering if you have some tips for being supportive…Right now my partner is miserable and I feel like I have tried everything to make him feel better, with no luck.  Also, how can I avoid allowing his stress to get to me? After all these weeks, it is getting me down.  I don’t like the feelings of helplessness when there is nothing I can do to distract him from his stress, but I am also finding that he is miserable to be around.

 – In the Dark

Dear In the Dark,

Indeed, you have entered that time in your spouse’s program wherein dark clouds have gathered and it seems your household is craving glimmers of light and hope.  Here is a little nugget of hope: this is not forever.  Hang on to this, write it down, scribble it in Sharpie on your arm, whatever it takes to help you remember that this is just a phase.  Your partner is not forever damaged, your marriage is not crumbling – despite feelings to the contrary – and you will eventually get your loveable partner back.

That being said, let us be honest: your partner is very, very difficult to love right now and he has become quite boring at dinner, but he probably knows that he is poor company (which makes him feel guilty and like he can do nothing right, and by the way he will never be able to get a job because no one will ever like his work and he is not as smart as anyone else on the job market and why did he ever start this program anyway and….). Does this sound at all familiar?

So, here is the good and the bad news: there is nothing you can do to lead your spouse out of the dark tunnel; he has to trudge along until he finds the light at the end. Is that freeing or horrifying? Let me explain further:

Think of the last time you flew on an airplane; the flight attendant said that in case of emergency, the yellow bags will fall from the storage compartments (though they may not inflate, which I’m glad they come right out and say because if we were crashing and my bag was flat….okay, I digress). You are given in no uncertain terms a directive that is contrary to our instinct, which is why they are so careful to make it clear – in case of emergency, secure your OWN mask first, before assisting anyone else because you will be of no use to anyone else if you are deprived of oxygen.

The same principle applies here; you have to find some oxygen, some enjoyment, some satisfaction and live in it as deeply and intentionally as you can to make it to the other side of this “emergency”. Get your own oxygen flowing, and then perhaps when you have those rare opportunities to meet your husband in his struggle, you will be able to provide him with a breath of fresh air.

Some people might feel nervous about releasing the responsibility they feel for rescuing their spouse, perhaps thinking this would indicate a lack of care or concern, but in this case it is a fruitless struggle and your energy is better spent enjoying your life. Trust me, your spouse will feel relieved that he is not bringing you down and might even feel free to join you in your contentment every once in awhile.

You’ve been wanting to learn to throw pottery? Now is the time. You have been craving that decadent chocolate cake you saw in last month’s foodie catalogue? Invite some girls over and polish it off in one night (and send me some!). You have been thinking you might want to start training for a 10k or read a whole genre of books or learn photography? Today, tonight, and tomorrow. Do it.

Your spouse is having a hard time keeping his head above water; it does not help for you to jump in the water, too – you need to stay on the shore and offer lifelines until he makes it to safety.

Finally, I have never met anyone who made it through the graduate wife journey alone.  You need girlfriends. If you have to Skype with your best friend from home every week, make it happen; if you need to join some groups in your new area to meet some kindred spirits, do it.  You need to be surrounded by people who are filled with life, with whom you share laughter and tears, and you need to have enough fun for the both of you without any resentment or grudge. Did you hear me? Without any resentment or grudge. Now that is a tall order, but if you save the energy you would have been spending trying to save your spouse from this dark pit, you can channel some into disciplining yourself to stay away from resentment. Remember this: this is the hardest part of your spouse’s grad school career. It is temporary, and it is not his fault. He will be helped immensely if he can see that you are doing your best to enjoy your life. So get going and have some fun!


Laura M. Benton, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and professional Graduate Wife (12 years, friends. Two MA’s and a PhD.)

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4 thoughts on “Dear Laura: ‘Helpless in the dark’

  1. this is wonderful advice! wish i would’ve read it about 2 or 3 years ago. i couldn’t have said it better myself.

  2. I love the idea of “Dear Laura”. We are not in the dark yet as we are only 3 months into my husband’s current programme (it’s his 3rd degree) but it helps to already be armed with the information before we get to the “dark.” Thanks for the great advice.

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