Degree In Sight

Who are you, and what did you do with my spouse?

First the good news about love and grad school: A 2011 study in Training and Education in Professional Psychology found that psychology graduate students who have supportive spouses have lower levels of stress than their unmarried peers. Couples can actually grow closer by working through the challenges of school as a team, says study co-author Alison Sweeney, PsyD, a psychologist at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center.

"It may be that having someone you can turn to, to discuss your daily life and difficult situations, helps you manage the many demands students face in graduate school," she says.

But even the most supportive relationships can be worn down by the grad school grind. In fact, couples who are committed to one another but leading different lifestyles are among the most dissatisfied spouses, according to a study published in the summer 2012 issue of the Journal of Individual Psychology. The study found that couples who had the same lifestyles were more apt to work together on tasks like housework and child care.

That means that a couple with one working partner and one grad school student may tend to argue more — especially if their values are also mismatched, says study author Debra Leggett, PhD, associate chair in the College of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences at Argosy University in Sarasota, Fla.

"If one partner grew up with this idea that, ‘I have to compete and make my mark; I need to make money,' while the other partner contributes less financially and sees education as a way to make a difference in the world as what's important, that's a real difference in basic values and that's where you see more conflict," Leggett says.

Still, couples who have similar goals regarding grad school can also get in trouble, especially if they take each other for granted, fail to communicate or focus on what's not getting done in the relationship. "You could spend all your time talking about gripes," Leggett says, when a better route is to figure out what makes a partner feel valued and appreciated.

"Maybe ... the couple goes for a walk or a movie. Maybe a partner really feels valued because the other partner puts his or her dishes in the dishwasher," she says. "Unless you know what works for your partner, you won't know what to do."

Making time for your partner

There's no getting around the time commitment grad school takes. "The work never stops, so you have to make a choice about when to work and when to spend time with your partner," says Benjamin Karney, PhD, a social psychology professor at University of California, Los Angeles, who studies change and stability in romantic relationships.

That's why it's important to make time for romance, passion, playfulness and adventure, says John Gottman, PhD, University of Washington, Seattle, professor emeritus, whose latest book, "What Makes Love Last," examines how couples persevere after the initial hormone-filled phase of a relationship.

"The danger in grad school is that work takes precedence," he says, and more care is needed to find activities both partners enjoy. He recommends such activities as exploring a new town, kayaking together and planning romantic dates.

A similar approach worked for Heather Poma, a clinical psychology doctoral student at Regent University in Virginia Beach. She and her husband met while stationed with the Army in Fort Bliss, Texas. They married while she was in grad school in Virginia and he was working as an engineer in Dayton, Ohio. They saw each other at least every other week and made relationship-nurturing activities a priority. Poma worked ahead so that she didn't have deadlines hanging over her, and her husband involved her in events planned by his family and longtime friends.

"It wasn't the easiest thing in the world," Poma says, especially when it came to her dissertation. "You could work on that 24/7 if you wanted to."

It's especially important for couples in long-distance relationships to make daily connections, says Cameron Gordon, PhD, a University of North Carolina at Wilmington psychology professor and relationship researcher. Even if you're only sharing what you had for lunch, that conversation can help bridge the space between what are often two very different lifestyles.

"Academia's a very weird world," he adds. "It's not corporate America or an average job. You have to work to open the lines of communication."

Communicate appreciation

Another important way to keep a relationship strong is to acknowledge the sacrifices your partner makes while you're in grad school. Simply saying thanks for a partner's helping around the house or other specific acts goes a long way toward keeping everyone happy and avoiding resentment, according to research by Gordon, published in 2011 in Personality and Individual Differences.

He found that couples who felt most thankful, even those who didn't always say it outright, had more satisfied spouses.

In addition to making your partner feel appreciated, expressing gratitude regularly can help you become more positive about your own life, says Gordon. There are, after all, a lot of things to enjoy about being a full-time student.

"You're learning all these exciting things. You have access to all these new resources for learning. It's a time in life when you can share that with someone else and both benefit from it," he says.

While a focus on gratitude is great for relationships, also be sure to communicate your gripes, Gottman adds. Most conflicts can be resolved by simply expressing your feelings and needs rather than making assumptions about your partner's motivation or emotional state. So, instead of saying, "You're a disgusting slob," say, "I feel stressed out when you leave dirty dishes on the counter."

Finally, be honest about your hopes for the future and enlist your partner to help make those dreams reality, Gottman says. He, for example, told his wife, clinical psychologist Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD, that he wanted to use his research findings to give people practical advice on strengthening their relationships. Since then, they have written two books together on the topic and have led dozens of workshops for mental health professionals and couples.

So, as you go through grad school, make a habit of sharing your goals with your partner — you'll advance your career and strengthen your relationship.

"It can't be about just surviving grad school," Gottman says. "You need to be honest about what you really value."

Jule Banville is a writer in Missoula, Mont.