For dissertation writers: When your partner wails, ‘I never see you anymore!’
You’re knee-deep or, more accurately, file/notecard/article/laptop-deep in your dissertation. You don’t hear anything around you—refrigerator opening, kids tussling, clothes washer whirring. You don’t even hear your name called for dinner. When you come up for air, you realize that your partner hasn’t spoken to you for days. When they do, it’s only to wail, “I never see you anymore!”
No Dissertation Is an Island
Much as you think you want to be left alone for months to finish the danged thing, you really don’t. You do need your family—for support, breaks, human contact that’s not centered around your dissertation (committee members’ cryptic comments, registrar’s too-soon notices of next payments, and classmates’ eternal moans about their own dissertations). So, here, based on my academic coaching-consulting-editing business guiding beleaguered dissertation writers, I offer some remedies for this major problem.
If your Significant Other (SO) suddenly blurts out the “I never see you” accusation, it’s time to stop, look, and close your computer. Face it head on. Don’t try to dismiss such statements or believe your partner’s possible retraction that “Everything’s fine.” When they nurse silent resentment and hurt and pretend everything is “fine,” that‘s the opposite of fine for both of you.
Two methods can help ease the tensions and promote the harmony and cooperation you need from your partner throughout this testy time and still enjoy them. These are to educate and bribe.
In the first method, begin by informing your SO that they are not the only one who will be sacrificing time, money, shared recreational activities, and the luxury of trivial arguments. If your SO has earned an undergraduate or advanced degree, tap the memories of those horrific term papers, master’s thesis, or capstone project. Then pounce: say (casually) that the dissertation is at least five times worse. Sketch out, vividly, the kind of time and solitude you need, especially with your many other duties (commuting, day job, work at home, household duties, kid-care sharing, elderly parent visits, community service . . .).
If your SO is in a profession or job related to your dissertation, you’re ahead. Partners who work in social services or healthcare can relate to your study of the antecedents of domestic abuse or correlations between diet and diabetes. Partners who are teachers or professors can see why you’re studying principal leadership and student achievement. Any partner can appreciate your passion for exploring what’s obviously meaningful to you.
Nevertheless, use the second method too.
Your SO should know that at the end of all the sacrifices and suffering, good things await. These can include your better job, promotions, prestige, more business, new business, more time with the family, your partner’s resumption of a degree program, and, maybe most importantly, mo’ money. Such reminders also help you to keep going.
Part of those good things are your promises AD (after degree). I’ll talk about these in a little while, but first, in anticipation of your SO’s objections, and even with your careful list of good things awaiting, air-clearing is probably necessary.
Sit Down, Talk, and Listen
Wrenching as it may feel, you need to allocate some special time away from your dissertation to sit down with your partner. The following suggestions are gathered from the solutions of many of my dissertation coaching clients as they wrestled with finishing their dissertations and maintaining (or restoring) a decent relationship with their SOs.
In a private place, decide on an uninterrupted session. Encourage your partner to ask questions about this huge project of yours, talk about their feelings and, if necessary, shout out all the resentments, assumptions, misunderstandings, disappointments, and accusations. You do the same. Allow each other to express all feelings, however irrational, and resist the urge to correct your SO or defend yourself. You don’t have to agree, but listen fully.
Then point out again the advantages of your degree (as you did in bribing). Later, if and when either of you needs to air renewed, residual, or the same negative feelings, arrange another session. When you don’t bring up the negatives, they don’t disappear but just go underground, pollute the family atmosphere, poison your relationship, and contaminate your efforts and progress with the dissertation.
Involve Your Partner
Part of the trouble is that your partner feels shut out. So share your work—your research questions or hypotheses or some of your research findings (I don’t recommend trying to explain your convoluted statistics). Your SO will see your enthusiasm, and may even compliment you on your dedication. And ask for observations and opinions about your study. Your SO may contribute some real insights and questions you hadn’t thought of.
Your partner may surprise you and even offer help—such as finding articles, setting up interviews, or sending out surveys. Accept the help—your SO wants to be involved. If you have to give explicit instructions (which I strongly suggest), do so beforehand. If you have to correct during or afterwards, do so tactfully and always expressing gratitude. When you work together, your relationship will become stronger.
Compromise and Cooperate
If involvement isn’t desirable or feasible and doesn’t soften the ill will, you can still work out solutions—compromises that mean something to each of you. For example, offer to do three loads of dinner dishes or make two days of meals for two hours of uninterrupted research time, volunteer an afternoon of yard work for a morning of library immersion, exchange a trip to the mechanic for an oil change for a day-long dissertation boot camp. Make agreements too for reconnection, say, weekend dinners together or evening cocktails three days a week. You’ll feel better for the breaks, and then you can get back to work.
In addition to those weekend dinners or cocktail times, special dates are very important to maintain any closeness. In the end, what’s it all worth without your SO’s presence and love? So, as thanks and admittedly an extension of bribing, consider real dates. These can take place in the near or far future or when you complete a particularly maddening section or chapter.
My client Geoff promised his wife that the very next weekend after writing up his data collection methods, he’d take her out to their favorite mountaintop restaurant overlooking the majestic river. Another client, Sandra, plunked Caribbean brochures on her husband’s desk with a note dated three months in the future: “Post-Chapter 5 Vacation.”
Here are some other ideas my clients have used successfully with their partners.
- Plan evenings of special intimacy (difficult to make a priority, Lord knows).
- Take a day for hiking and a picnic in the woods.
- Sit down together for an open-ended talk about mutual meaningful topics (future delicious retreat possibilities, revisits to happy memories, strategies for a needed home renovation, even an erudite subject you both like exploring).
- Designate an afternoon together on a special project—cleaning out the attic, painting a spare room, visiting a new family down the block.
- Volunteer together at a shelter to serve meals.
- Get tickets for a concert or play (a musical, if you must).
- Go go-carting (good for venting advisor aggressions).
You’ve probably thought of a few special ideas of your own.
And finally, as you educate, bribe, bargain with, and promise your SO time and attention, here’s one more, very important suggestion.
It’s a psychological principle, and one that has been proved in education (see Rosenthal and Jacobson’s (1968) landmark study of elementary schoolteachers’ expectations of their students), that expecting others to act a certain way becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. So decide, despite whatever angry words have been hurled, to see your SO as supportive.
Hokey as it may sound, visualizing and expecting others to act a certain way does work. Quantum physics corroborates this: “reality” changes with the observer (see David Hawkins, Power vs. Force, 2012). Psychologist and spiritual teacher Wayne Dyer instructs in The Power of Intention (2006), “Change the way you look at things, and the things you look at change” (p. 173).
Granted, keeping the supportive picture in mind isn’t always easy. Without maliciousness or accusations, rages or tears, see your partner accepting, understanding, and cheering you on. With practice, you will be surprised at the positive changes. Your Significant Other is not the enemy and really wants to support you in finishing The Beast. And is probably proud of you already for sticking with it.
Use these ideas or whatever variations you create. And soon (or not so), on a very special date sometime in the future, you and your partner will be celebrating and toasting your new status as Doctor.
Dyer, W. (2006). The Power of Intention: Learning to co-create your world your way. Hay House.
Hawkins, D. F. (2012). Power vs. force: An anatomy of human consciousness. Hay House.
Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. Urban Review, 3(1), 16-20. https://doi.org/10.2307/1162010 0.
© 2021 Noelle Sterne
Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).
Noelle is a contributor to TAA’s new book, Guide to Making Time to Write: 100+ Time & Productivity Management Tips for Textbook and Academic Authors. Now available as a print and eBook.
Dissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 600 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her third novel. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com