What if you follow your spouse to grad school to support their dream, and after years of support through school, when they struggle to find a job they say you’re putting too much pressure on them to be the one with the career and why can’t you find something and be the breadwinner?
It was a bright, crisp winter day and as I walked through our neighborhood, I came across a towering, solid oak bookcase – free to a good home – which seemed like it might serve as a great central piece in our teeny (think grad student budget on a diet) apartment. I briskly padded home, begged my brawny hubby to come help me, and we wrestled the monstrous piece of furniture four blocks home and then up the steep, treacherous staircase to our flat. (Can you see where this is going?) Need I say: it didn’t fit in our place? But how long did it take for me to come to that realization, and how many times did I (gently?) instruct my husband to try this possibility and that, and how long until we muscled the @#$% bookcase back down those steep stairs and out to the street with a “Free” sign reluctantly stuck to its solid back? I have no idea how much time elapsed, but I know the way the story ends: though I had said nothing about not having enough money for a nice bookcases, and though in the wrestling I never mentioned that we were grown adults living in a postage-stamp-sized apartment because my husband was a graduate student, this scene closed with him yelling out “maybe you should have married a doctor or a lawyer!!!” and stomping off. Thus began a cold silence between us that lasted well into the next day.
I was baffled. What had happened? All I did was try to fit a bookcase into our flat, and it ended in an explosion (one that has become a great joke between us, and between friends who were privy to the story), but I could not understand how it got there, because I didn’t feel it was a commentary on my husband’s success or potential; it was just a bookcase.
What I know now is that when one is married or partnered, the graduate journey is a supreme exercise in risk and vulnerability, for both spouses. The vulnerability flows in and out of seemingly benign conversations, it creeps into moods and thoughts, it certainly shadows daily decisions and conversations of life’s challenges. The vulnerability is sometimes painful, sometimes debilitating, and much of the time, can be terrifying.
The graduate student him or herself has chosen to take a very public risk, to invest resources and life capital into a dream, knowing that it may amount to nothing; he or she might have to bear the shame of having risked and lost, with nowhere to hide. The student’s spouse is asked to counterintuitively place complete trust in the other person’s dream, but with no control over the journey itself; the quality of work, the decisions made every day at the office, the job interviews which form the path for future career development are completely out of the spouse’s hands. The sacrifices are deep, the mutual support required is intense, relational and spiritual resources are often tried by fire.
And so, to answer your question: First, let me say that I am making two assumptions. 1) I choose to believe that you are smart enough not to have said something to your husband like, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you just get a job already?”, and 2) For various reasons, I am assuming that he did not literally mean what he said. Unless he did, and then that is a different discussion. (Do let me know if I’ve assumed wrongly; this requires a different response.)
That said, I think that the comment made by your husband is likely fueled by complete terror and exhaustion over the weight of the vulnerability mentioned earlier. His success or failure is swiftly becoming public knowledge – one must report back to family and friends how one fared in recent interviews and with various job prospects – and his worst fears are starting to become a reality; he has nothing to show for his risk, and what is worse, he feels responsible for having asked you to sacrifice to the extent that you have. So, like the insecurity expressed in the “you should have married a doctor or a lawyer” comment I heard long ago, you may have been having a benign interaction, but the vulnerability is rising to the surface and it is threatening to swallow your husband’s sense of who he is, who he will be, and whether it all was worth the cost.
Maybe he is begging for some relief from the pressure of having to make this career a success and hold up the pillars of your family. Maybe he had a bad interaction with his advisor or heard that his colleague was just hired for the most lucrative, most highly sought after job at one of the schools with the most ivy climbing the brick and mortar. Maybe you said something that made him feel you didn’t understand his efforts. Maybe he was tired. Maybe he was being whiny and immature. I don’t know; it’s all conjecture on my part. But, I can tell you that neurologically, we experience separation, rejection (including job market rejection), and exclusion in the exact same way that we experience physical pain, and that contact with a loving partner literally acts as a buffer against shock, stress, and pain. He is in pain, you are in pain.
So, hold his hand. Ask him to hold yours. Hug each other. Hold each other. Stand together, literally and metaphorically. It mediates distress and enlivens positive hormones, it increases one’s immune system, and cements you together. Sit in silence or allow music to fill the background, pray if that’s a part of your lives, look each other in the eye, and prop each other up against the terror of academic uncertainty.
Then, tomorrow or next week, after you have built and re-built the foundation beneath you, then you can talk about who is going to work at Starbucks and who is going to start a pie making business. It won’t be quite so terrifying if you are facing it together; really, truly together.
Baffled, you know that the circumstances of your email and the question posted here include depth and history, to which I am not privy; do let me know if based on the limitations here you would like more discussion or if I’m way off the mark, or otherwise. If so, maybe you should have emailed a doctor or a lawyer. :)
Laura M. Benton, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and professional Graduate Wife (12 years, friends. Two MA’s and a PhD.)
To write with your own question for The Graduate Wife team, email TheGraduateWife@gmail.com or LBenton.LMFT@gmail.com