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!)
posted by still bill to Human Relations (29 answers total)
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.