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What Going Back to School Taught Me about Relationships

Tug of war - Going back to school - relationships

When I considered going back to school many years ago, one of my primary motivations was to pursue a career that I enjoyed more than what I was doing at the time. Although I knew that my decision would impact my life in many positive ways (e.g., increased income after graduation), there were many other changes that I had not anticipated—namely, the impact that returning to school had on my first marriage.

After discussing my desire to go back to school for another degree, my then-husband was at first very supportive. He was proud of me for pursuing something that I was passionate about and he liked the idea of us having additional income when I finished. However, once classes started and the demands of my coursework, research obligations, internships, and other requirements were in full swing, things fell apart. He wanted more time for him. He felt like he was not a priority to me anymore. He made many comments about how I thought I was “better” than him because I was getting an advanced degree. We started arguing all the time. I had to make many hard choices between school deadlines and dealing with his insecurities. All of this culminated with my marriage ending while in the midst of finals and graduation. It was one of the most emotionally and mentally taxing times of my life.

My experience has been one inspiration for why I study how power impacts intimate relationship outcomes. One way that psychologists have defined power is when there is asymmetrical dependence in the relationship, meaning that one partner is more dependent on the other one.1 The partner who is more dependent has less power. There are many reasons why one partner may have greater dependence on the other, such as having less money or resources,2 and having fewer other relationship alternatives (e.g., other possible mates).3

What I did not realize then, but know now, is that my getting an education disrupted the dependency “dynamic” that existed in my first marriage. Prior to going to school, my then-husband had a better paying job and more education than me. My ability to obtain greater resources than him, and my being around other well-educated, alternative mates at school posed a serious threat to him and his relative power in our relationship.

In retrospect, I now see how such problems could have been addressed. While both of us saw value in my getting more education, we were young and did not really think through how this could potentially impact our relative dependence on each other. I also realized during that time that I was more egalitarian in my beliefs than my then-husband; once I became less dependent on the relationship, he wanted our spousal roles to resemble traditional gender roles. This did not sit well with me and led to greater conflict.

Many colleges and universities offer career counseling services to students in order to address such issues as I was struggling with, which are not dissimilar to those faced by many first generation college students. Had I taken advantage of such services, and included my then-husband as part of that process, things may have turned out differently, or at least not have been so emotionally difficult toward the end. I now discuss these types of issues with the graduate students that I mentor; as I have seen many of them struggle with strains in their intimate relationships when going back to school. With the right perspective, shared goals, a good balance of work and family, and good time management skills, this transition can be a much more positive one than what I experienced.

Have you experienced a strain in your relationships when pursuing a large goal? What did you learn from it? Share your stories and insights with our readers!

1Agnew, C. R. (1999). Power over interdependent behavior within the dyad: Who decides what a couple does? In L. J. Severy & W. Miller (Eds), Advances in population: Psychosocial perspectives (Vol. 3; pp. 163-188). London, UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

2Quisumbing, A. R., & Maluccio, J. A. (2003). Resources at marriage and intrahousehold allocation: Evidence from Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Indonesia, and South Africa. Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics, 63, 283-327.

3Harman, J. J., Stewart, A. L., Keneski, E., & Agnew, C. R. (under revision). The Impact of Multilevel Sources of Power on Intimate Relationship Functioning.

3 thoughts on “What Going Back to School Taught Me about Relationships”

  1. Its like walking a tightrope. College basically broke us up as I didn’t give the relationship enough priority. We are back together after a long struggle but she still resents school, the fact that I am home a lot (she had more alone time in her apartment), and that I don’t have to “punch the clock” anymore.

  2. It s not exactly graduate school, but I ve opened a salon and have had a very successful shop for a couple years now. I ve been so much happier in my new vocation. It s my dream job and it s absolutely what I was meant to do.

  3. This is so true. I decided to go back to college when I was 27 (now 34 and completing student teaching), married with 4 kids. Sometimes it feels that the processes of getting a degree at this stage of life isn’t worth it. Given that we weren’t perfect to begin with, the stresses of school, kids and a husband are overwhelming, to say the least. I can 100 percent relate to the experiences the writer expresses. My advise, get a degree before kids and significant others. Or make a plan, who’s going to be responsible for what, put it in writing, stick to it. Then there wont be finger pointing and hurt feelings down the road

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