How to best support my (competitive) partner in academic endeavors?
February 27, 2014 10:34 AM   Subscribe

My partner (29 years old woman) and I (34 year old man) are in the same academic field. For various reasons, I've had more success lately than her. How can I best be supportive and helpful as she navigates new issues? (I am, of course, a special snowflake just like all of you, as detailed inside!)

My partner is a beautiful, talented, and brilliant woman. She and I met about 1.5 years ago as students in a graduate program (masters, social science) and fell in with each other quite quickly. Things have mostly been good over the time we've been together, but lately there have been significant snags.

I've had a great run of grad school so far; I've been lucky enough to work with an amazing and motivated advisor, who has pushed me to produce a ton of work and position myself for the top PhD programs I am interested in. This has paid off in the form of a lengthy and solid CV and an offer to attend my dream course in the UK in the Fall (I am currently in the US, but excited to move and study abroad).

My partner, though, had not been as lucky until recently. She also has a great relationship with her advisor/mentor, but he's very old and somewhat out of touch with the current academic environment, and so has been less able to help her position herself. Even without his help, though, she's done quite well and is widely considered to be a top student in our current department (deservedly so). As I began to consider schools outside of the US, we of course talked about what that would mean for our future together. She was initially supportive, but it later came out that much of that was a cover for her...less supportive feelings. When I made the decision to pursue a PhD in the UK, she was uncertain about if she wanted to continue in academia or not. So, I made it clear that whatever she decided, I was in it for the long haul and willing to do the long distance thing. I also offered that if she was interested, I would love to have her join me in the UK (either as a student at the university, or any other university, or as a non-student). I must've phrased it poorly, though, because she took it as me saying that she had no future of her own and should just "follow me" instead of pursuing her own dreams. She kept that perception from me for quite some time, and probably got a lot of resentment built around it. We talked about, though, and I think (and hope) that she came to understand that I did not intend to ask her to follow me. (If it's relevant, she did ask me recently to drop my plans to move and study abroad in favor of staying close to the region she was planning on landing in. I will not do this, not because I don't want to be with/near her, but because I have a massive desire to see my work through, and have worked my ass off for 6 years to get to this point.)

Fast forward to now. I'm still on track to move abroad in September, and still very excited. She and I have had many discussions about how to make things work, and I've tried to be as meet-in-the-middle as possible (I've arranged for my fieldwork to be near my home in the US so that I can justify frequent trips home to research and see her, etc.). She, meanwhile, has renewed her interest in continuing her schooling, and has been accepted to one of her top choice schools (YAY!!). I am exceedingly happy for her and proud of her, and I truly find her to be a remarkable talent. But since her acceptance, she's been very different towards me, and I am having trouble making sense of things.

Recently (after her acceptance to her selected PhD program), we were having a conversation about fellow students and our institution. Specifically, we were talking about ways that our current school could better help prepare grad students for the PhD application process. We've talked about it before, and have always agreed that CV/resume building workshops and courses should be offered, if not mandatory. In our recent conversation, I mentioned that point again, and said that because so many of our peers don't exactly know how to market themselves (owing to their age, which is about 5-10 younger than she and I) in face-to-face interviews, that CV workshops would really help. She agreed, we continued the talk, etc. A day or two later, though, she sent me a message saying "Are you implying that I don't deserve to go to [PhD program] because of my nonexistent CV?" It caught me way off guard, and I responded with "What? NO! I don't think they could have found a more capable or qualified candidate anywhere!" and that "she knew how to sell herself and articulate her own brilliance", and so I think a CV is less important at this stage for her than some of our peers. She responded, saying that I "didn't make sense" and stopped responding to me altogether on the topic.

I'm really confused now. I find her amazingly brilliant and capable, and tell her so. Since the start of our relationship, we've shared in lamenting the influence of luck and supervisor motivation in the academic process, including many many conversations about her lack of advisor support in things like CV building. So, I thought we were on the same page in feeling like her troubles building a CV were largely due to advisor apathy, and not really reflective of her ability. Now, though, it seems like she thinks that I find her incapable, and I very much want to let her know otherwise.

Sticky bits here: we have very different approaches to these things, in a lot of ways. She is intensely competitive in (and out of) academic work, and insists on framing everything as a competition. She always wants to know her peer's grades (including mine), and when we are alone she speaks pretty meanly about everyone else in our program, calling them stupid, detailing their shortcomings, etc. When she got acceptance to her PhD institution, her first concern was wanting to know who from the applicant pool (we know several other applicants, many of whom are my/our friends) was rejected, told me at length about what she saw as shortcomings in others who applied, and said she didn't want to post to facebook about her acceptance so she didn't hurt anyone's feelings (I think only the ultra-competitive, like her, would have their feelings hurt by someone else's acceptance) . I try to ignore the intense competition stuff, because it bothers me to see such animus within a group, and because I think it's mostly just her, out of our current cohort, that sees things in such a competitive way. On top of that, I love my peers and find each of them to be amazing in their own right. But it does bother me when she competes against me, because then she gets mad at my successes and assumes I silently gloat to myself, she furrows her brow and rolls her eyes if I mention that I've accomplished something, etc. This is all extra-weird considering that, apart from a few classes, we are in totally different spheres and never find ourselves applying for the same funds, schools, etc. But still, it's got me afraid to share my successes with her, and also (I think?) causes her to be very aggressive and competitive in sharing her own successes with me.

I'd like to find a way to soothe all of this, for both of us I hope, but at least for me. I know I can't convince her to be less competitive, so that's mostly out. How, though, can I maybe offer her support without it feeling patronizing? As it is, I try to ask for her input on every academic/career decision I make, because I find it hugely helpful and to let her know that I care quite a bit about her opinion. I'm also trying to do all of the little nice quotidian things most people like (congratulating her on her success, taking her out for celebratory dinner, helping around her house so she has time to focus, passing along anything I find that might be useful for her work, etc.), but it's starting to feel like it's all for naught. Does anyone have any experiences or ideas that might give me some insight into how I can be supportive and caring while this is all going on? I love her immensely, and very much hope that we can make things work come the Fall.

So, mefites brave enough to read this long snowflake journal entry, any help (hope!) here?


Since it might be relevant: We do not live together, but spend most of our free time together. We're in a small college town, so there's little to do socially. While the relationship has been mostly good, there was an instance (2, actually) of sexual infidelity (on her end) about 8 months ago. I think we've mostly gotten past that, but it might be causing something I'm not seeing, I don't know.
posted by still bill to Human Relations (29 answers total)
 
Woah, way to bury the lede, dude.

She seems to need to feel like the most great and most special 24/7. Sometimes that's due to low self-esteem, sometimes it's due to entitlement and selfishness.

Either way, this thing where she treats you like you hate her because you're not purposefully failing might have a lot to do with guilt over her infidelities. It is easier to justify having cheated when you pretend that your boyfriend is a condescending asshole...harder to justify it when he's kind and generous and supportive.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:46 AM on February 27 [15 favorites]


Woooooooowwwwwww.

She was initially supportive, but it later came out that much of that was a cover for her...less supportive feelings.

She agreed, we continued the talk, etc. A day or two later, though, she sent me a message saying "Are you implying that I don't deserve to go to [PhD program] because of my nonexistent CV?"

when we are alone she speaks pretty meanly about everyone else in our program, calling them stupid, detailing their shortcomings, etc.

she furrows her brow and rolls her eyes if I mention that I've accomplished something

there was an instance (2, actually) of sexual infidelity (on her end) about 8 months ago


I point all this out because the bedrock of support is communication. ESPECIALLY at a distance. You must communicate openly and kindly with each other to serve as that support. I am seeing that your communication is broken. So . . . I don't know that my advice (communication, communication, communication) is going to work here . . .
posted by chainsofreedom at 10:47 AM on February 27 [3 favorites]


She seems deeply unhappy with herself. People who are assured of their own strengths do not behave like this. And so while incredibly supportive you might be, your efforts are being received through a warped lens and will not get through to her.

I say this because I used to view my peers as competition, but in the unhealthy way that doesn't lead to a positive reinvestment in my work. I stopped feeling the need to snipe at others when I discovered that I needed an additional .25 credits to graduate, meaning I would not be graduating on the same day as the people I debated so hard against in seminar. Humiliation (as I saw it then) gives perspective.

I bring it up because to her ears, your encouragements may sound like mockery. You cannot change this; only she has the ability to reframe her view of the world. The question for you, I think, should be this: how long are you willing to wait until she sees that her partner is not her adversary?

In your shoes? I wouldn't wait too long.
posted by Ashen at 11:04 AM on February 27 [6 favorites]


She thinks you're a jerk who is obsessed with the flaws and shortcomings of others because she is a a jerk who is obsessed with the flaws and shortcomings of others. Not sure you're going to be able to change her entire personality/worldview.
posted by Juliet Banana at 11:06 AM on February 27 [19 favorites]


Is this a social experiment in which you see how quickly the cohort of Ask Mefi responders tell you to DTMFA without you asking explicitly if you should?

Because, it's not you, it's her. She cheated on you twice after less than a year in your relationship. Why didn't you end it then?

She's constantly negative about your peers whereas you portray yourself as a more positive sort. You don't feel like you can share your successes with her because she will roll her eyes at you. There is nothing you can do to seem less patronizing to her and get her to be less competitive. Because that all comes from her perception of reality, not reality itself.

Honestly, DTMFA.
posted by rocketpup at 11:08 AM on February 27 [2 favorites]


There is nothing in your description of this woman that is very sympathetic at all.
She's behaving like an awful person, and you are trying to smooth things over? That is a stereotypical abuse response. She's already cheated on you twice. You need to dump her ASAP, and then work on your own self esteem issues.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 11:16 AM on February 27 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I think "communication" is often the key, but it appears that she's already misconstruing you at every turn. Still, I think you must try again, and explain to her how you feel like you're walking on eggshells around her, which you shouldn't be. You have a right to enjoy your accomplishments and anticipate your move and to express them without inhibition to the one person who is supposed to celebrate your joys with you. After you express these things to her, she should be concerned about your unhappiness and be willing to make changes, just as you have been doing. If she doesn't, it's bad news.

The other bad news is that she's cheated, and you kind of tack it on at the end like an afterthought. I think that's very serious, and I'm curious how you guys "got past that."

You already know her personality isn't going to change, which is true. I feel like you have already tried to be as loving and accommodating as you can be, and if she still isn't seeing it, I don't know what will make her see it. I would also be worried about infidelity after you've moved. Without you next to her constantly reassuring her and loving her, she might start stewing in her own competitive juices and feel ever more resentful and do things you both will regret.
posted by madonna of the unloved at 11:19 AM on February 27 [1 favorite]


Yeah, this is not just about being hyper-competitive or even just about cheating on you (twice, which you mention only in passing as if it just sort of... happened, rather than a choice she made). You are describing a person who does not see the best in others (including you, her partner), who does not give others the benefit of the doubt (including you, her partner), who does not take any pleasure in others' accomplishments or good fortune (including you, her partner), who behaves in such a way as to disregard the feelings and needs of others (including you, her partner), who demands constant validation from everyone around her (including you, her partner), and who forces others to walk on eggshells around her (including you, her partner).

You say she is beautiful, talented, and brilliant, but you don't say anything about the qualities she actually brings to you and this relationship other than... her (brilliant, talented, beautiful) presence? (Well, that and her willingness to get past the fact that she cheated on you twice less than a year into the relationship!) You talk about loving her immensely, but you don't really describe someone who behaves very lovingly toward you. In fact, you don't describe a person who has much empathy, kindness, or flexibility at all -- which are generally necessary components of a healthy, long-term relationship -- and there is no amount of soothing or reassurance you can do to make her into that kind of person.

What's also missing from much of your question is any notion of agency. You talk a lot about how "lucky" you are to have done well, for example, and then you off-handedly mention her repeated cheating as an "instance of infidelity." But the thing is, you are both adults who are both responsible for your decisions, feelings, and behavior. The problem is, you seem to believe that you're supposed to shoulder the responsibility for both of you, while she gets to shoulder none.

Honestly, she sounds like someone who's probably quite dazzling to be around at first, and that you fell for her hard, and that she enjoyed being fallen for. But that only gets a relationship so far. The qualities that make it go the distance aren't ones that she seems to possess, and nothing you can say to her will change that.
posted by scody at 11:27 AM on February 27 [11 favorites]


I don't disagree with everyone else, but there is also something else going on here.

You mention that you are "willing to do the long distance thing," but it seems pretty clear from this question that she does not want to do the long distance thing at all. You've basically said, "I'm moving to a different continent thousands of miles away, and you have no say in this. You can either come along [and maybe drop her own research?], or I'll see you in a few years." And you call this being "meet-in-the-middle." I am not saying that you are wrong to put your career first but I can understand why it is upsetting her. And from the tone of your question it seems like you see yourself as bending over backwards to compromise, but she sees you as basically handing down an ultimatum, and this disconnect probably makes it even more upsetting. So although her competitive streak definitely sounds unfortunate, I think even a less-competitive person might be feeling abandoned or unsupported in this situation.
posted by enn at 11:32 AM on February 27 [15 favorites]


For the life of me, I can't find anything in your description that answers the question, "What does she provide to you?" And the casual mention of infidelity? Like, wow. I'd wager $1 that (a) she didn't tell you, you found out, and when you confronted her she (b) got angry at you and convinced you it was your fault. Y/N?

To answer your question, what you can do is give yourself a little break. You don't even have to formally take a break from the relationship, but stop walking on eggshells, stop worrying about her feelings, stop worrying about every little thing you do, and stop thinking of her as the be-all, end-all human female for you. Give yourself two weeks of not worrying about your insufficiency, like make a calendar entry "Today: All day: Do nothing to stroke partner's ego: Repeat: 2 weeks". Because the focus needs to be on you for right now. Because after all, you can't change her behavior or feelings, just your own.
posted by disconnect at 11:32 AM on February 27


Tell her to cut the bullshit. You can't be supportive of her without appearing from her perspective to be condescending. She's a catty, petty person who liked you when you were on the same level, but now that you're achieving and she's running in place, you're a threat to her self-regard as a top person who is being unfairly passed over. If you ask me, that attitude is more visible to others than she knows and it hurts her big time.

So, tell her to cut the crap. That you don't deserve to be treated like this. She's already cheated on you twice and now you have to walk on eggshells around her so you don't threaten her fragile ego? Screw that. Seriously. Leave her behind. Find some awesome woman in the UK and don't look back.

You're not responsible for her shitty outlook on life. You're not responsible for her infidelity. All you can control is how you deal with it. And there's no number of congratulatory dinners and backrubs that can make an asshole pessimist into a well-adjusted optimist.
posted by inturnaround at 11:43 AM on February 27 [2 favorites]


So one of the groups I provide career services for at my university are the PhDs, and offer those types of career/professional development workshops/services you're talking about. And as you probably know, the dynamic you're talking about among PhD partners is not uncommon, and pretty difficult. At least if a partner is competitive (in an unhealthy way, where there are no allies, just competitors), but in a different field, there isn't a constant awareness of someone to measure yourself against.

As you also probably know, a number of academic institutions seem to foster this competitiveness, particularly if the feeling is that their work is a life calling, or a passion, so people's egos are really tangled up into the field's definition of success. I think that unhealthy environment is ramped up because definitions of success are somewhat rigid and not always healthy: publications, rather than knowledge, grants rather than quality of work, mentor name/pedigree rather than, I don't know, really liking/having a person who actually knows how to mentor you, etc.

As a career counselor, I think the funny thing about work is that any psychosocial/emotional hangups/things you haven't worked through in the rest of your life, will just slam you in a professional endeavors. Somehow people seem to deny this really simple fact. Massive need for external validation from others? Not confident about your ability to make decisions or your ability to take care of yourself? Unable to put up healthy boundaries? Doubting the value of your scholarship? Then work will f*ck you up. Those hangups will manifest themselves in your professional life, and it will probably be ugly. And because of how insular academic career paths are, it messes you up even more, because often so many things are tied up in your decision to pursue a PhD - like your social network being associated with your academic institution, and students/faculty aren't likely to candidly voice doubts, so it feels like there is no one to talk to for perspective, lack of awareness on your part, or on the part of other students or faculty about other career options, etc. - can make it feel like there are no other options.

I mention all of this just to point out that there may be a serious limitation to what you can do or say to not make your partner see you as competitors, or you as a bench mark, because there are so many other things in her life - including whatever is going on in her own mind - that are telling her that you are. So yes, communication is important, but to nail it down: there are two specific parts of communication that are key, that competitive people (in academe and otherwise) kind of struggle with: vulnerability and curiosity. Vulnerability would be her willing to admit that when you started talking about CVs, that it triggered her own fears, rather than just talking smack about people in her department or the fact that your university doesn't provide career services. Talking about other people's inadequacies rather than how the situation impacts you is is a lovely way to mask/distract herself from her own frustrations and insecurities. Curiosity would have been to ask you if you were in fact trying to skirt around some assessment of her progress in that CV conversation, rather than jump on you and insisting that you were. Or to ask if you were asking her to sublimate her career for yours, rather than fear that you were because so many female academic partners do get asked to do just that. She's not doing either of those things.

Personally, to best support your (competitive) partner in academic endeavors, I suggest you up your own expectations to those of a healthy person, and hold both of you to that standard. In brief: You should be able to:

- expect that your partner celebrate your successes
- talk to them candidly about your fears and concerns about your professional progress
- gain brainstorming and emotional support for challenges you face
- give them feedback and support to help them avoid minefields and achieve their goals

Pretty much every single academic power couple I know does these things in spades.

It's fine that she wants to see you as a competitor, but it's not okay that she doesn't see you as an ally. You can be vulnerable and curious with allies. You can't when you associate competition = enemy. Certainly, you can remind her directly when it seems like she's getting wound up: 'I'm not your competition - I am your ally'. But I'm also going to encourage you to behave like a healthy person. If she throws an accusation at you, don't go on the defensive by defending yourself and insisting that you think is an academic star, even if she is. Instead, stand your ground by commenting on her behavior and on yours. Point out that you wouldn't discuss what you thought were her shortcomings in such a passive aggressive way, and tell her that it sounds like she has concerns, and you're happy to talk about them and support her if she wants, because you're partners. also, if she fails to be a cheerleader when you share your success, tell her that you really value a partner who can be a cheerleader, the way you are for her. In short, be a healthy person. Because most of the other alternatives involve trying to work around a developmental shortcoming on her part, and you will never be able to make yourself small enough, less successful enough, to not trigger her ego's fears when she's in the grip of something. Seriously, if every time win a $500 travel grant to a conference you have to spin it for her, you'll just exhaust yourself, and not make her any better. No one wins in that scenario.

Finally, know that academic environments do not reward or support this kind of healthy behavior - I mean, you can be ultra-competitive and negative and scheming and paranoid, and if you have a strong enough publication record, you'll probably not feel the negative consequences of it professionally, though personally, you are sort of destroying your soul. I mention that only because you're really going to have to try to foster this 'act a healthy person' mentality without always feeling like you have a lot of healthy role models to support you in your efforts. But it's so worth it. Good luck.
posted by anitanita at 11:43 AM on February 27 [23 favorites]


Your relationship is ending. You're in denial about this. You're doing PhD programs across the world from each other. This is the point at which you break up, like high school first loves going off to college.

She knows this, you don't. That's why she's grumpy and cheating on you. She's checked out. She is feeling freer to be meaner and speak her mind because you're leaving anyway. Probably she's already been through sad, angry, and in denial-the stages of grief- while you're pretty much still deep in denial.

It doesn't have to be anyone's fault. I will leave her faults alone for a moment, however, and gently suggest that you sound like the type of guy I know well, who is over-invested in being nice. Break-ups aren't nice. Long distance is really hard. You're doing no one any favors by being determinedly cheerful about it, not even yourself. Let your guard down- you have a dark side, too- and maybe actually live in the valleys of life a little more. Don't soothe and skim the surface and be pleasant- bite deep sometimes.
posted by quincunx at 11:45 AM on February 27 [22 favorites]


I find it hard to take this question at face value, somehow. You describe an utterly nasty person and ask how you can smooth things over with her. You let drop that she has already been unfaithful to you. And you declare that you're moving thousands of miles away.

I don't think you're lying, but I don't see how you expect us to answer this other than "DTMFA". It's as if the whole question was constructed to elicit that response. She's horrible, you don't have the power to change that. You're moving across continents and you yourself don't intend to change that, and nothing that you've written suggests you should be motivated to do otherwise.

I mean, you've basically described yourself as someone who ought to be saying good riddance to bad rubbish and moving to the other side of the world, and that's apparently what you're doing, so if you're asking for permission to do that, okay.

If not, I would suggest accepting her as she is and doing what you can to minimise the impact of her meanness by saying "Cut it out!" every time she starts up. You can't convert her into a not-mean person, but you can make it clear that you don't like it and avoid getting into arguments. That might seem more supportive of yourself than of her, but I don't think it is.
posted by tel3path at 12:00 PM on February 27 [3 favorites]


I won't go over what people before me have said in depth...

But honestly, dude, up to the end I thought "maybe.. maybe she's not this bad." And then you toss the infidelity.

I think you need to assert some dominance in your life. You need to just not accept being treated poorly. If you can sleep with someone else and be forgiven, what the fuck can't you do?

There is a lot of inertia with relationships. Every day you have to decide "Do I go home and cuddle with a pretty girl, relax, and enjoy her generally positive company? Or do I spend the whole night sobbing, depressed, and spend the next few months profoundly sad, alone, and scared? In the hopes that in the coming years I will eventually have a better day-to-day relationship dynamic than I do now."

I find that being able to do what needs to be done is an unusually beneficial skill, which sadly few people are able to manage.


But it's not to late. Stand up for your peers, stand up for yourself, don't apologize, and create the relationship you deserve. If that pushes her away in the process, whatever, you won't miss much, and you'll have fun at the LSE (okay that's just a guess, it's my Alma though :P)
posted by jjmoney at 12:32 PM on February 27


This is a very common tale. You are both passionate about the same things and are dedicating your life to those things. You meet in grad school, fall in love, and now your dedication to your academic careers is pulling you in two different directions.

If I may: Let it.

I don't think she's HORRIBLE (even with infidelity...) like everyone says. To me, it sounds like she feels she needs to prove herself as an independent person, and is using every means available to her to do so. I don't entirely blame her, even though you sound like a peach. Academia can be HARD and COMPETITIVE and depending on your field or colleagues, sometimes it is DOUBLE HARD for women. This can create shoulder chips and make otherwise lovely people nasty. Sometimes the high road is easier to take when things are going well for you. However, none of her behavior is evidence of a good partner for the long term.

Break up. Don't talk for a year so that you can be friendly at conferences someday, looking wistfully at each other across the aisle and remembering when. I see no other course of action that could possibly end well for either of you (and stop building your research trips around her).
posted by whimsicalnymph at 12:35 PM on February 27 [3 favorites]


First, it is immensely clear that you love this woman.

It is also very clear that you need to continue your successful career path, and it seems this competitiveness will always be a factor in this relationship and will likely affect you career choices. Being pulled between loyalty to a partner and making the best decisions for your career will be constantly a factor.

This intense competitiveness, with perhaps a mean edge, seems to be one of those traits that spills over into other parts of peoples' lives. The competitiveness in school may grow into competitiveness in your social circles/the mommy wars/the PTA. Keeping her as a long term partner, she may one day expect you to consistently meet some expectations borne out of comparing your lives to the neighbors/others. It's something that could slowly seep through your lives. Hence the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses."

Graduate school is a pretty insulated, hot house environment. Sometimes these school spawned relationships simply die when they are exposed to the harsh air of the real world, and I don't have a lot of faith this will make it. The long distance thing will probably be too much. With not just one, but TWO instances of her infidelity, I just don't see this happening unless you pull monogamy off the table, and if that happens, it becomes the easy way to shop for a new partner.

I think you need to start to prepare yourself that this was your "grad school partner." She was around during this time, and this relationship is unlikley to survive the rewards and challenges you have in the next few years.
It's a function of the cycles of our modern lives. Few partnerships last very long anymore, and our nomadic habits chasing jobs and happiness, and the "grad school partner" is definitley one of those stages many people have.

Enjoy your remaining grad school time, but begin to think of this relationship as one with an expiration date, as it is clear she sees it that way. It's probably better to break up sooner than later, but don't break up at a time that may put stress on your school requirements, and enjoy this time you two have together. It is remarkable and precious to have close relationships in life and that is worth honoring, even if some of our relationships come with an end date.

Breakups are still hard. Rally all of your support system and friends. Get in touch with your old, non-grad school friends and start to do things with them again. Prepare to re-enter the real world, and call on those that have always supported you. They will still be there.

Cherish her, cherish the time you had together, and prepare youself for a rewarding new life on another continent.
posted by littlewater at 12:40 PM on February 27 [2 favorites]


Wow, very insightful and great responses all around.

A few things to clarify:

enn: My decision to move was initially accompanied by support from her, but it turned out to be not what it seemed. If she had voiced issues with it right from the start, it's likely I would've tried to find programs in the states that were a good fit.

Quicunx: The cheating issue happened prior to my decision to move, so I don't think it makes sense to think of it as a response to my decision to move.

Re the infidelity: Yeah, definitely kinda buried the lede there. The thing is, I feel like it's not that big a deal to me any more, but it's clearly poking it's head into other stuff. And it may well be true that it's impacting her behavior towards me, too.

To the rest: Great points all around, and I think you've all offered some great input. As of now, my thinking is that if this keeps up, I'll just end it. It'll break my heart to do it, but I don't exactly want a partner who won't support me, competes with me for everything, and shrugs off most of what I offer.

More insights welcome. Keep 'em coming!
posted by still bill at 1:02 PM on February 27 [2 favorites]


I don't exactly want a partner who won't support me, competes with me for everything, and shrugs off most of what I offer.

Some woman is going to be very lucky to have you someday -- and will support you and show you every day what a thoughtful person you seem to be. Sadly, it just doesn't seem to be this woman.

I wouldn't wait for another sign. Life is too short and you have too much to offer someone else.
posted by mamabear at 1:19 PM on February 27 [9 favorites]


I was just about to gently suggest what mamabear so succinctly posted.
posted by littlewater at 1:30 PM on February 27


I'm sorry to say that I agree with the herd here. I think that she's been unhappy for awhile (happy people don't cheat) and she's just looking for reasons to provoke a huge blow out fight so she can feel okay about ending your relationship.

Before it gets ugly, I suggest that you sit down with her and say, "It seems to me that you have a lot of anger towards me. I'm walking on eggshells around you, and you seem to insist on taking everything I say the wrong way. I can't win here. In processing what's been happening lately in our relationship, with your infidelity, and your outbursts, I can't help but believe that you want to end things and somehow, you just don't know how to tell me. Be honest. Do you want to end our relationship?"

You won't want to do this, because you don't really want to know. But any placating that you'd be doing would be like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. It's not going to work.

Here's the thing, right now, you're too involved with everything that's swirling around you. You've got conflicting emotions, and she's not letting you enjoy your success, and you're probably pretty angry about the cheating (I would be) and for some reason, you're remembering a less complicated, happier time in your relationship.

If you can, take some time to get your head on straight. Go out into the desert. Howl at the moon, take some peyote (not really, that shit is nasty) go on a vision quest. Or go to Vegas and get knee-walking drunk with your buddies. Either way, get away from the situation to gain some clarity.

I think you'll discover that, no, this isn't the relationship for you. And the fact that you'll be off to the UK will be such a blessing for you.

Godspeed little doodle.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:58 PM on February 27


The two-body problem is tough enough with a very supportive, not-in-the-same field partner. (That's my situation). This won't get easier, not any time soon.
posted by nat at 2:06 PM on February 27 [2 favorites]


OP, have you ever had a long distance relationship? I think if you had, you wouldn't even be considering it.

You could use all of your social science skills to do a little field test between the two of you to replicate cross-continent relationships.

It might go something like this:

On an upcoming Saturday, be out of contact with each other all day, but with knowledge of each other's evening plans/schedule. That night, you have dinner/drinks/a movie at your place alone with an attractive woman that is legitimately in your social/school circle. Totally innocent social meeting. Maybe even a woman your partner resents a bit already. Your partner does whatever she usually does Saturday nights without you. Tell your partner you will Skype her at 1 pm Sunday to catch up. Be 35 minutes late to the Skype call, blaming connection/transportation/oversleeping/time difference.

The following Saturday, same kind of setup, but switched. She is out alone with an attractive man, totally innocent social meeting. Maybe even one she cheated with? Skype meeting the following afternoon.

Could you even survive this experiment, while you are both still in the US? Would you even make it to the second Saturday part of the test?

How would you guys react?

Long distance relationships are pressure cookers.
posted by littlewater at 5:50 PM on February 27 [1 favorite]


So, there definitely seem to be some communication problems here. This may not be a long-term relationship for you. I do not disagree with other posters in this respect.

I did notice a, ah, lack of certain considerations in your description of your situation however, at least coming from my position closer to the less-social sciences end of academia. Your particular field may vary, but on the whole, academia is sexist. Individual academics are quite often reasonable, forward thinking people on the whole, but there are a number of (often subtle) structural factors about academia and about how academia interacts with gendered expectations in broader society that produce structural obstacles for women (more so than for men, that is - the academic job market is not great for anyone at present, and the structure of grad school can be negative in general, as anitanita mentioned, but this can be a shade worse for women, or academics from other historically underrepresented groups).

It may not be the major issue with your current relationship, but in general I would encourage you to read up on the experiences of women academics, factors that influence womens' greater rates of attrition (a phenomenon referred to as the leaky pipeline), imposter syndrome, and the history of women in academia - where it has been assumed for so long that a female academic would follow a male spouse to his job, not get equal consideration and recognition for her work, not get equal resources, pay, job title, etc. - even for women whose work won significant accolades up to and including Nobel Prizes. This is all still quite recent history (I'm only a couple years older than you, and it's a dynamic that I and many in my general cohort have encountered directly still), that most of the female academics I know are well aware of. And many of us are wary of falling into similar dynamics in our career/relationship interactions, because the catch-22 is that while we feel social pressure or expectations to follow a male partner, we get judged as less serious about our careers, and it has a documented more negative impact on our academic careers than the reverse: male academics who follow their female partners tend to experience relatively minor or no negative career consequences for doing so (you should read up on the data on this as well, of course, not just take my word for it).

I am not so pessimistic about distance relationships as other posters. I think that being apart for a fixed time (PhD program), with a concrete plan for when the relationship will become non-distance again is certainly possible. My experience with distance relationships is that they ended for reasons that would have led to an end eventually (though more slowly perhaps) anyway, not merely because of challenges related to distance. (But chief among those reasons has been a lack of good communication, which already seems to be an issue in your current relationship.) When you get to the long-term job stage of your academic career, however, I would urge you to consider (not take as absolutely immutable, but consider) advice I've heard from my elders many a time for dual-academic-career (heterosexual) couples: the man's career will be okay wherever, but following her husband can kill a woman's academic career, so always follow her job prospects.
posted by eviemath at 9:08 PM on February 27 [4 favorites]


So, you wound up with a highly productive and politically savvy advisor, who helped position you to have a shot at this program in London. While your partner's been increasingly aware of & insecure about her lack of this kind of support. And there was never any question of you not going to London, this was taken for granted; no real consultation or compromise with your partner, who felt, probably, unwilling to out herself as maybe not being ok with this, given the inertia of your success and your obvious enthusiasm for your prospects. And she'll be 30 next year -- man, cut her loose, you'll both be happier.

(This will free you to have a great time in the big smoke -- plenty of people to meet there. It'd be awful to be stuck in a long-distance affair in a place like London.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:42 PM on February 27 [1 favorite]


Re: your update.

Changes nothing. So the cheating was before you decided to move, whatever. My point is still the same, dude- you are leaving. She is leaving. It is ending.

Like you seriously do not seem to get this, at all. To you, if you want to be in te relationship, well, you're in it! Long distance or not, what's the problem? You decide, and that's that!

Here's the thing though, reality is different. She clearly wants more from a relationship than long distance.

Dude, she's suddenly being competitive because you are competitors- if you're not her boyfriend, you're not on the same team. You're just a guy in her line of work that wants the jobs she wants. And in order to be her boyfriend, from her point of view, you did give her the option but it was the shitty "my job is better so you will give up your career and be my wife" option. She is too passionate for that, clearly.

This woman has clearly broken up with you in her mind, and to be honest, I think she might have the viewpoint that is closer to reality here than you do.
posted by quincunx at 9:57 PM on February 27 [2 favorites]


So, your life paths are clearly diverging such that you won't be spouses anytime soon: you set the wheels in motion to move to another continent without a clear plan for her to join you, and she started to see other people before your move was official.

Given that, there's no reason for you to be joined at the hip to each other. Perhaps let off the gas, accept that you'll both be involved with other people over the course of the next 6 years, and see what happens?

As you describe her, though, she doesn't sound like a very loving person. She makes you sad in so many ways: sniping at your mutual friends, going passive-aggressive when something goes well for you, laying verbal traps that spring 24 hours later. She's manipulative and her attempts to make you feel guilty for her insecurities is such a relationship anti-pattern. You weren't a consensual partner in opening up your relationship to her fucking other people - you've just tried to come to terms with it afterwards. Some time away from her will give you perspective on whether these are lovable quirks or toxic personality traits. If you love someone, set them free and all that.

The answer to your title question - how to support your partner in her academic endeavors - is to cut her loose. She'll do just fine looking out for herself. The answer to your implicit question - how to preserve a relationship with her while you do your PhDs on separate continents - is that it's not going to work now. Maybe someday, but don't wait around because she sure won't.
posted by SakuraK at 11:53 PM on February 27 [1 favorite]


I'm in a similar situation as you are, being in the same program as my BF. I must say I have some sympathies for your girlfriend. I also think that this is more about your relationship itself than your girlfriend being jealous or competative.

Being ambitious myself, I would never be initially unsupportive about my partner wanting to pursue a position, even if it was overseas, because I'd want the same support if I wanted to do something similar. That doesn't mean that it would hurt massively if my partner decided to do so because it would change our relationship enormously if not end it. You phrase your questions as if you really value your relationship and you 'tried to be as meet-in-the-middle as possible'. To me, it sounds like you made a choice, without her having a real say in it and she feels she just has to accept it.

If I could guess what went wrong here, it is you two never talked this thoroughly through. Have you discussed the implications for your relationship in case you got a position overseas? Have you even discussed the possibility of you applying in the US? Realistic options of her moving with you? Have you even asked if that is what she'd want? Have you talked about what a long distance relationship would concretely look like to you both? What you'd both want from your relationship vs. your career?

As I read your question, it seems you value your career more than your relationship, but you frame it as if you're bending over backwards to try to make your relationship work despite moving overseas and your GF is the one sabotaging things. But consider this: As you phrase it, it seems like you're saying to her: 'I'm going anyway, but you can come if you'd like' and 'If you'd like to do the long distance thing, I'd be game, but I'm going anyway'. That doesn't sound like she has a say in it or that your relationship has been a factor you weighed in when making your choice. I wouldn't be surprised if it sounds to her like you don't value your relationship or her enough.

It's okay to choose your career over your relationship and I think your GF would understand, being at least as ambitious as you are. I think you already made a choice and your girlfriend is more aware you did than you are yourself. Maybe she is acting out (the resume incident) and being angry because she's hurt. You're probably going away for YEARS, that's kinda a big deal for a relationship. I mean, that's more than you have been together till now. A LDR or moving overseas with your partner can be incredibly hard (I've seen it in my social circle). These are not easy, but Complicated Big Life Decisions. You seem to think of these as simple solutions, but maybe your girlfriend doens't even see them as viable options.

If you do value your relationship and want to salvage it, talk to her about it. Talk about what the future could or will look like. Talk about what you both want from the relationship. Ask her if she's hurt by your decision. Ask her if she still sees a future when you are overseas. It might also be a good idea to ask yourself these questions first.
posted by leopard-skin pill-box hat at 3:47 AM on February 28 [5 favorites]


Maybe it is just me but if you have to write pages and pages of why you still like/love a person after you describe all the really mean/weird things done to you....that should give you pause.
posted by OhSusannah at 9:43 PM on March 2


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