“Be prepared for a breakup about three weeks from now.” That was the relationship advice I got from a girl in her second year of my boyfriend’s graduate program, just before he started the first semester of his MFA in creative writing.
She had reason to be cynical: grad school means a convoluted class schedule, loads of coursework, very little money, and a whole new social circle of other grad students–and none of those things are awesome for an existing relationship. During her first semester, there had been a rash of breakups as everyone adjusted to the demands of the program.
But going for an MFA is about more than poverty and being swamped with work (although at their busiest times, grad students might not agree!). At its best, graduate school means having the support to delve into your passions—and when my boyfriend was able to delve into his academic passions, that brought a new sparkle to our relationship as well.
For one thing, watching your partner follow their dreams can make you resentful—or it can make you focus more on your own ambitions. A friend from the program agrees. “When I got my acceptance letter, my boyfriend got inspired to make new strides in his career. It doesn’t work out like that for everyone, but both of us are motivating each other to go farther.”
It works even better if both halves of a relationship are obsessed with the same thing. My boyfriend’s MFA is in writing, obviously something that I’m interested in as well, and he sometimes jokes that by being with him I’m getting a free MFA. I get to go with him when poets and novelists come to his school to read their work, I get to read the literature on his syllabus when he’s working on something else, and I get to have great conversations with him about writing. Plus, I’m trying to figure out whether a writing MFA would be a good time investment for me, and talking to my boyfriend and his fellow students is giving me a lot of insight into how the program works.
Obviously, graduate coursework eats up time. Obviously, grad students are using a lot of energy on their program instead of on their relationships. That is hard to handle.
On the bright side, the busy-ness issues mean that my time-management skills are really getting polished. Every Saturday, I write out all of our obligations for the week, and try to tweak our schedules so we have time together. I’m an inherently disorganized person, so this isn’t easy for me, and I’d probably get resentful of the extra work if my boyfriend didn’t openly appreciate it.
Which brings up another thing. When your partner is in grad school, they can’t bring as much to the relationship as they can when they’re less busy. So, you pretty much have two choices: you can withdraw a little from the relationship yourself and keep things 50/50, or you can bring more to the table than you used to, even though it’s not exactly fair. Option one makes your relationship more unstable, but going for option two requires a lot of trust. You have to believe that your relationship will last through the program, that your partner will see your efforts and be grateful, and that if there’s a time in the future where you’re less available to the relationship, your partner will step up to the plate instead of just leaving you.
I’m trying to go for option two. I think my relationship deserves it, and I think my boyfriend deserves it—he’s seen me through hard times, dealt well with the parts of me that other people would see as difficult, and just been so fun to be around that I want to keep anging out just to see what pun he makes next. But option two still feels scary. And I still feel vulnerable. I won’t lie: when we got close to the three week deadline that the more experienced student had given us, I had a huge crying fit. We weren’t having relationship problems, but I was still afraid that his grad school would throw us a huge curveball sometime in the next five days, and I’d be hearing, “It’s not you, it’s me…”
My boyfriend comforted me. He said that he knew that his program would only get more intense, but that he’d rather work hard to keep our relationship than jettison it for more study time—as long as I was willing to deal with the changes too. I’m glad that I was.