Photo of two people holding hands
Liz Homan is a doctoral candidate in the Joint Program in English and Education at The University of Michigan. Her research focuses on secondary teachers’ digital practices and social networks. You can find her on Twitter at
@lizhoman or on her blog, Gone Digital.

Wait! Don’t stop reading, grad student singles. Despite my potentially misleading title, this post is not only for the partnered among us. It is not only for those of us with boyfriends, girlfriends, live-in partners, or spouses. No, this post is for every graduate student, single or otherwise, who sustains a relationship with someone who means the world to them – be it a parent, a best friend, or a partner. It is for all of us.

First, some background. I can say from experience that graduate school is hard on relationships. My partner, Kristoff, and I have been together for nearly 11 years. Of those years, at least one of us has been in graduate school for ten of them. In that time, many of our friends have divorced. We have separated (and since reunited). I’ve heard it more than once: “get a dissertation, get a divorce.” Well, not so fast.

Here’s the honest truth. Maintaining healthy relationships in graduate school is akin to training for an Ironman. On some days you’re terrible at one thing while being awesome at something else. Regular rest is necessary. You need to be able to switch gears quickly, and sometimes without much warning. And if you’re not careful, the stress will cause something to break.

Graduate students, it turns out, sort of suck at relationships. Studies suggest that we’re generally a gloomy crew—mostly because we’re vulnerable to depression and we are highly driven to achieve (and thus struggle with the uncertainty of graduate school). Fellow GradHackers have discussed the ramifications of mental health struggles and suggested ways to combat these issues. These personal struggles can become relationship troubles if we’re not careful.

In light of these challenges, here are three uncomplicated yet sometimes difficult-to-follow guidelines that have helped me get a dissertation while avoiding a divorce (or permanently damaging any other important relationships).

(1)       Make time for the people who matter in your life, and follow through.

Planned activities make all the difference here—I find it helpful to have “a thing” that is “our thing” (or, for the people I’m closest to, multiple “things”). For example, Kristoff and I have lots of “things” that are “ours”: running, cooking, our dog, home improvement, and football are among them. But I also have “things” with other people that I don’t share with him; I kayak with one friend, I talk about teaching with another friend, I eat sushi and shop with my mom.

But there’s an important catch: no saying “we should do that” without following through. See, if you suggest that something could happen in the future, and then it doesn’t, this could lead to disappointment or resentment for your friend or partner—without you even knowing. So instead of “we should do that,” try “when can we do that?” And get your calendars out.

(2)      Communicate, honestly and promptly.

Okay, fine, I know – everyone has told everyone since the beginning of time that the key to a good relationship is communication, right? Duh. Moving on.

This one has a catch too. After all, it wouldn’t be repeated so often if we were good at it. I find that the key to good communication is honest and prompt communication. This means that when a special someone annoys, hurts, or angers me, I need to tell that person. Right then. Even if it’s uncomfortable. Even if it’s upsetting. This kind of communication is the easiest to avoid, precisely because it is so uncomfortable. Be kind and calm, and rest assured that your loved ones will respect you more for your honesty than they would have for your passive-aggressive anger.

(3)      Be an individual, but don’t isolate.

Graduate school changes people. I enjoy doing things now that I never thought I would do, nevermind enjoy (like running), and I have lost interest in other things that used to occupy much of my free time (like crocheting). I need to know who I am on my own before I can have healthy relationships with friends or family, and that person continually shifts and evolves. Find things that make you happy. Do them, unapologetically. Be who you are.

You guessed it. The catch: It is so easy for us to isolate ourselves in graduate school. To become too “in our own heads,” too absorbed by the work of a thesis or project to invest ourselves in the interests and lives of others. So, do those things that matter to you, that make you an individual, in the service of others. In other words, adamantly be your own person so that you can be a better person when you’re with those who matter most to you. For me this means long runs on the weekends are non-negotiable, because I’m a better partner and person when I take that time to be just me.

As you can see, there’s always a catch. It sometimes takes an Ironman’s dedicated soul and versatility to make graduate school relationships work. And sometimes—despite our best efforts—they just don’t. And that’s okay too, especially if you have a healthy network of kindred souls to catch your fall.

How do you maintain healthy relationships in graduate school? Tell us below!

[Image by Flickr user Jessica Rossi, used under creative commons licensing.]


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