Relationships in Graduate School

written by Carmon Drumm, M.Ed., LPC Candidate

Being in a relationship during graduate school is as beautiful as it is difficult. The relationship often provides support, but also seems to compete with the demands of school. Those in partnership with the student are burdened by the same academic demands of student life (i.e. time, limited financial freedom, and feelings of helplessness as they watch their partner experience stress about school). Many relationships may struggle to thrive without strong communication and understanding.


Strategies to flourishing:


  1. Encourage your partner to share their thoughts, feelings, and needs
  2. Listen without judgement or defensiveness
  3. Start these conversations now and continue to have them through the year


Not sure where to start? Here are a few ideas:


Strengthen your commitment and identify relational boundaries. School will require you to miss several events and sacrifice rituals you may share with your partner. Discuss what is most important to your partner to not sacrifice. For example, it may be especially important to your partner that you continue sharing Saturday morning coffee and celebrating a particular holiday together. Identifying what is meaningful to them and committing to prioritizing that ritual, event, expression of love, etc. is a great step towards understanding and planning effectively. Compromise when needed and always approach the topic with care and consideration.


Talk about your breaks. Yes, you have academic breaks for various holidays, but for many programs breaks are not free of labor (ugh). Partners may look forward to extra time with you, only to be disappointed by the amount of work you have to do. Set realistic expectations for your partner of what breaks will really look like (i.e. studying, extra rotations, volunteering, etc.) and listen to how they feel about it. Remember, you aren’t the only one who will experience stress by the demands of your program.


Communicate about your time-management skills, especially before and during challenging seasons of the semester. Speaking honestly about your tendency to procrastinate or sacrifice sleep before deadlines may be more helpful than you’d expect. Your partner may be able to provide you some insight on how you manage your time and you may be able to communicate what support you would like during those times. For example, some students value their partners pushing them to study and others become frustrated by it. Speak respectfully of what is and is not helpful.


Connect daily. Even if it is just 10 minutes to discuss some random aspect of the day, make a point to connect. If you are on opposite schedules, leave a note or text. Being intentional about these acts of connection demonstrate that your relationship is a priority and school/work is not all that is important to you.


Prioritize simple weekly activities. The leading relationship researchers define date-nights as “a pre-planned time where the two of you leave your work life and work-in-the-home life, and spend a set amount of time focusing on each other, and really talking and listening to each other…Date nights should be sacred times to honor your relationship. Think of them as such, schedule them in your calendars for as much time as possible—even if it’s just for an hour, show up no matter what.” Can you commit one planned hour a week to your partner?


Acknowledge your partner’s sacrifices out loud. Research has shown that happy couples succeed by frequently scanning their environment for ways to appreciate each other. When you take the time to notice and express what your partner does that makes your life easier, makes you smile, or reminds why you were attracted to them in the first place, they feel validated. And validation is a powerful thing: we all love for our actions to be accepted and appreciated, and want to be honored and respected.