Love in the Age of a Thesis Submission
November 14, 2018 7:14 AM   Subscribe

How can I prevent a new relationship from being stillborn when grad school gets in the way?

I have recently started dating a guy who is on the brink of handing in his PhD. After an initial month of spending a lot of time with him (3-4 days a week), our contact has dropped off considerably (1-2 days a week) as he is working through with an unexpected problem with his thesis. Although he still invites me out, and asks to meet up, it does feel like to me his heart is no longer in it, not because he's suddenly got cold feet or changed his mind (at least that's what I feel), but because the thesis is a constant preoccupation. The relationship - if I can call it that - has been in a holding pattern for the past month, with no progress in intimacy. I am frustrated of course, but I have decided to be patient and wait it out. I don't want to force anything on him when he isn't feeling it.

I am also in a PhD programme at the same university, albeit in a very different field. I am at the start of my programme and thus do not have the same immense pressure that he is facing, but I know the system all too well and the kind of mental torture that it can often impose.

On the one hand, I would like to be more supportive of his situation, but on the other, it's difficult not to feel that seeing him is an encroachment on his time. I have been bringing homecooked meals when I do see him, since food is something he seems to struggle with, but beyond this I am not sure what I can do. We've only been meeting on 'neutral ground' (ie not at each other's houses), and I don't foresee this changing in the near future.

Neither of us are great at talking about our feelings, and in some respects the relationship is not on solid enough ground for us to broach the topic. I cannot ask too much about his work (it's a bit of a sensitive issue). He's also incredibly bad at texting, but this has been consistent behaviour from the start so I am not reading too much into it.

Hope me with some suggestions for what I can do to keep things alive without being The Needy Girl That Got In the Way of My Thesis.

We are in our late twenties and early thirties, if that might be of any relevance, and although it's probably premature to say so, I would like this to work out to be a LTR.
posted by radiantsquirrel to Human Relations (13 answers total)
 
Seeing a new person 3-4 times a week for the initial month seems a lot to me, and I don't have a PhD to write! Also, to me the neutral ground only thing seems off after seeing each other so regularly for a couple of months. So maybe he has more standard expectations in frequency and location of dates but you won't know unless you talk about it!
posted by JonB at 7:22 AM on November 14, 2018 [1 favorite]


Be the person you are with the needs you have as well as the perspective you have.

You sound thoughtful and self-aware. You do not have to mould yourself into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl That Made The Thesis Amazing model. Don't call him up at the very end of your rope demanding he go to Paris with you for a week, but it's okay to say "hey...I would really like to see you a bit more regularly since we have since you ran into your roadblock. Is there a way we can do that without stressing you out?"

And then maybe you can problem solve together, like maybe if you multi-task like doing a workout together or grocery shopping together or a laundromat + coffee date.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:31 AM on November 14, 2018 [8 favorites]


I used to do a lot of writing at a local brewery. My boyfriend at the time would bring a book or grading or whatever, and we'd hang out and I'd feel productive and he'd feel like we were on a date. Can you invite him for a coffee shop or brewery date - couch it as "I have a bunch of work to do and need to get out of the house, want to come?"
posted by ChuraChura at 8:16 AM on November 14, 2018 [4 favorites]


our contact has dropped off considerably (1-2 days a week) as he is working through with an unexpected problem with his thesis.
That sounds like not a problem

Although he still invites me out, and asks to meet up, it does feel like to me his heart is no longer in it, not because he's suddenly got cold feet or changed his mind (at least that's what I feel), but because the thesis is a constant preoccupation.

That sounds like normalcy.

The relationship - if I can call it that -
Why would you stop calling it that? That sounds absolutely unreasonable, given this recent emergency.

has been in a holding pattern for the past month, with no progress in intimacy.
How would it progress in intimacy if there's no time?

I am frustrated of course,
Of course? It's odd that you're frustrated, given that you've just outlined the perfectly understandable reason your frequency of hangouts has dropped.

but I have decided to be patient and wait it out. I don't want to force anything on him when he isn't feeling it.
Good idea.

I am also in a PhD programme at the same university, albeit in a very different field. I am at the start of my programme and thus do not have the same immense pressure that he is facing, but I know the system all too well and the kind of mental torture that it can often impose.
Well, do you? Because the above suggests otherwise.

On the one hand, I would like to be more supportive of his situation, but on the other, it's difficult not to feel that seeing him is an encroachment on his time.
BECAUSE IT IS! IT IS! HE HAS TO WRITE HIS DISSERTATION!

I have been bringing homecooked meals when I do see him, since food is something he seems to struggle with,
He struggles with food? What's his struggle? Eats nothing? Eats nothing but chips?

but beyond this I am not sure what I can do.
Why would you need to do anything?

We've only been meeting on 'neutral ground' (ie not at each other's houses),
That's maybe odd. Why?

and I don't foresee this changing in the near future.
The near future is kind of off the menu because the near future needs to be taken up by dissertation writing.

Neither of us are great at talking about our feelings, and in some respects the relationship is not on solid enough ground for us to broach the topic.
I presupposed greater solidity of ground based on your irk on date frequency reduction. If the ground isn't yet solid, then your irk is premature.

I cannot ask too much about his work (it's a bit of a sensitive issue).
Because why? Something to do with his creative process? Or because he wants time with you to be a break from the work? Or because he doesn't want to spend hours fruitlessly gabbing and resents being asked talk it out when he should be writing it out?

He's also incredibly bad at texting, but this has been consistent behaviour from the start so I am not reading too much into it.

Good: do more of that not reading into stuff.

Hope me with some suggestions for what I can do to keep things alive without being The Needy Girl That Got In the Way of My Thesis.
If it dies, it dies. You can't keep it alive. It may be a great relationship that should have thrived but it came at the wrong time of life and was killed by a PhD dissertation.

We are in our late twenties and early thirties, if that might be of any relevance, and although it's probably premature to say so, I would like this to work out to be a LTR.
You haven't even got past "neutral ground" stage and you're already rife with sensitive issues. I think you need to back off and expect drastically less right now and not subject this to any more pressure. After the dissertation, all of these concerns immediately become understandable. But I'm thinking after the dissertation if he's into you, frequency ramp back up and the neutral ground rule gets rescinded and all becomes fun and easy again. Well. FunNER and easiER. It's never entirely fun and easy, of course.
posted by Don Pepino at 9:24 AM on November 14, 2018 [14 favorites]


I don't think that you need to be the Cool Girl but why don't you just take a breath and see where this goes? I do think you are being a bit intense here (though I am someone who moved in with my husband after 3 weeks, so I'm not judging).

It's perfectly possible that this might develop after he has handed his thesis in. And it might not. I guess you just have to decide whether you can wait this out or not. I think that the thing that will make this NOT develop is putting pressure on him at the moment. I say this as someone who is about 6 months away from handing in my own PhD. If someone I'd just started seeing gave me grief about focusing on my thesis, my baby, I would see that as a huge red flag (not saying that you are going to do that, but just in case!).

I also don't think 1-2 days is that problematic?
posted by thereader at 10:39 AM on November 14, 2018 [6 favorites]


1-2 times a week, where he is still actively initiating, in the end stages of thesis writing still reads as super involved to me. It may be a bit treading-water ish, but definitely reads as very engaged and interested. Now, as always with internet advice, I can't read his personality through this, but the behaviors you are describing sound a lot to me like someone who is invested in this relationship.
posted by annabear at 11:08 AM on November 14, 2018 [6 favorites]


Don Pepino has it. New Romantic Interest takes a back seat to Dissertation I Have Been Working All My Life To Complete. That's just how it is and you can't force it.

You can wait and make an agreement about how often you can manage to see each other, or you can say "I don't have the patience for this, call me when you're done if you want." I think 1-2 days a week is a LOT for someone in this process. In your shoes I would go down to 1, and make it a good, totally-relaxing, fun, light, low-demand, not-talk-about-work date.

I think you'll understand better when it's you in the final run up to submission. Everything else gets pushed aside and that's okay.

The home-cooked meal strikes me as weird and maybe might feel a little clingy or too intimate? I know eating habits go down the drain when you're writing, but you're not his caregiver so it would feel a little weird, I think, to be handed a casserole by someone you just started dating.

Anyway, yeah, either slow it down and relax or bow out. There's the PhD, and then there are life changes that happen afterward, too. It's not the easiest time to get together with someone new. It'll happen or it won't, and if it doesn't, there will be someone else, and at some point it'll be you trying to figure out how to have a life AND a dissertation, and the life will be coming second then too.
posted by Miko at 1:01 PM on November 14, 2018 [3 favorites]


...if I were making time to see a person 1-2 times a week whilst on a massive deadline like a dissertation (which I've never written but I have had similar deadlines in terms of scope and importance), that would be like...a lot, actually. Quite a whole lot.

. My boyfriend at the time would bring a book or grading or whatever, and we'd hang out and I'd feel productive and he'd feel like we were on a date

I think this is a great suggestion, if he'll go for it. I'm a little annoyed I didn't think about asking some of my friends if we could go write together somewhere during my last deadline.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 1:28 PM on November 14, 2018 [2 favorites]


Thanks all for your advice and perspectives! I am very aware that everything SHOULD get pushed aside for the thesis, and I don't begrudge him for that at all. It is just that I would like to make an effort for the relationship to continue, as I think he wants to as well, judging by the effort he is making. Naturally, if it doesn't work out, then so be it.

Sorry if some of the details were unclear in the original post (first time posting here in MeFi!). To add a bit more for context:

Initially the 3-4 days a week contact was because we were in the same study group, and although it was a bit tough for me to adjust to the drop in contact because feelings, I don't see this as a problem and am not looking for him to go back to lots of contact at the expense of his thesis. That would be unreasonable in the extreme - the PhD must come first.

The home-cooked meals are eaten together, mainly because he doesn't have the money to go out for a meal at a restaurant, and even in college canteen I typically pay for his meals. I didn't want this to be an issue where he "owes me money" or is embarrassed, hence the cooking. Hope this makes it less weird ;)

I just wonder if there would other (non-creepy / non-clingy / non-demanding) ways I could be supportive when we do see each other.
posted by radiantsquirrel at 2:00 PM on November 14, 2018 [1 favorite]


Depending on the field(s)... finishing a PhD typically means moving. Sometimes far away. Usually fairly quickly.

Your guy friend may be having 'two body problem' on his mind, on top of thesis crises.
posted by porpoise at 2:06 PM on November 14, 2018 [2 favorites]


I typically pay for his meals

Why? How was he eating before he met you?

The only reason I flag this is that it underscores what others have said here that you seem intensely invested in this interaction (I wouldn't call it a relationship because relationships come with certain expectations and what you two have doesn't seem to be at that point yet), and he is less so. I don't think he doesn't want a relationship since he's still actively making time to see you despite his thesis writing, but perhaps his thesis isn't the only reason to reduce how often he sees you. Please continue to give him as much space as you're comfortable with and see if he reaches out to you with consistency. You really can't control where this goes, and it seems like you're trying to.
posted by Everydayville at 3:54 PM on November 14, 2018 [1 favorite]


Low expectation dates are good! He's in some version of PhD hell and he is probably exhausted and mentally burned out. Having to be "on" on a frequent basis with someone he's into and developing a relationship with might feel overwhelming. I love the suggestion to have a work date; I would also suggest movies at home/Netflix (and I don't think cooking meals for the two of you is weird) or other similarly relaxing things. Depending on your interests, anything you can do together that isn't mental overload would be good.
posted by DTMFA at 4:26 PM on November 14, 2018


Meeting on neutral ground for months as adults who are dating would be pretty out of the ordinary in /my/ world; what’s your and his background? Are you religious or from a culture that’s more conservative? I think those things would be relevant here.
posted by needs more cowbell at 4:52 PM on November 14, 2018


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