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A Domestic Disturbance: Wedded Bliss and Working Together

Advice for working with your spouse.

November 29, 2015

Patrick Bigsby is a student, employee, and wrestling fan at the University of Iowa. Sometimes, he tweets.




For me, Thanksgiving marks the start of a series of pilgrimages to my parents’ and my in-laws’ homes. These family gatherings frequently include some fiercely competitive game nights, and a chance to forget about classrooms and dissertations in favor of wiping the floor with my wife in a round of charades or getting utterly demolished by her keen artistic eye in Pictionary. While these low-stakes bouts always end in laughter and vows of rematches, she and I have had to handle a new dimension to our friendly rivalry ever since she was hired by my department this fall. Now that we are both teaching assistants on the same payroll, in the same building, gunning for the same opportunities, we’re competing in a totally different arena than we’re used to.

My fellow GradHackers have dealt with some of the issues specific to graduate spouses, such as the dilemma of name changes and the balancing the time-suck of being a graduate student with a marriage. However, I was admittedly unprepared for the head-to-head nature of having to compete with my wife for accolades, funding opportunities, office space and resources, and the love and attention of faculty and peers. Teaching in the same department means students and supervisors alike will compare us, even unconsciously. Shifting alliances in departmental politics can leave us ideologically divided. Fortunately, we’ve had the Fall 2015 semester to practice ‘fighting fair’ and making sure our work relationship, whatever it happens to be, doesn’t impact our domestic life. Hopefully the strategies listed here can provide a starting point for other graduate student couples who might be engaged in some professional competition.


1.) Don’t take it personally. Your spouse or significant other didn’t take a position in your department to replace, one-up, or otherwise thwart you. He’s there because he needed a job and he was an outstanding candidate for the position. Chances are you didn’t factor into the equation at all. As a corollary, do be proud!


2.) Don’t meddle. While it’s fine to give some standard new-guy advice like where to pick up your mail and which senior faculty member is grumpy before lunch, there’s no reason to encourage your spouse to decorate her office like yours or manage her classroom according to your rules. Since I’ve been a teaching assistant for longer than my wife has been, I’m frequently guilty of giving unsolicited, overbearing advice when she’s perfectly capable of thriving without my micromanagement. When you’re tempted to chime in, ask yourself how much of your advice is actually helpful and how much is just unnecessary interference.


3.) Do take advantage of the proximity. Working in the same department (or the same building) hopefully means you’ll have the opportunity to see more of each other – normally a challenge when two graduate student schedules are involved. Enjoy getting a cup of coffee together on the way to work, sitting down for lunch together in the break room, or even just taking the same bus home.


4.) Don’t try to keep things from each other. Once you and your spouse become co-workers, you’ll both be in the running for things like teaching awards, summer funding, and contract renewals. In the worst case scenario you’re competing for a position only one of you can fill, but even in the best case scenario you’re still going head-to-head for things like student evaluations and faculty recommendations. Address this by being honest about your intentions. While you probably wouldn’t expect all of your colleagues to tell you every detail, any kind of domestic relationship involves sharing in each others’ lives. Hearing “Dr. Jones is nominating me for the Outstanding TA Award,” or “Dr. Smith mentioned that I’m his first choice to teach the summer course” from your spouse is a much more pleasant way of finding out you didn’t get picked than getting brought up to speed by the departmental listserv.


5.) Do get away from work. Seemingly every graduate student has lamented the quest for work-life balance. This becomes extra-important when the person who used the last sheet of paper in the copier when you needed to copy exercises for your students is also the same person you share a bathroom with. Even if it means scheduling a “no-work-talk” hour, leave your office beefs at the office.  


6.) Don’t let up! This last item applies to your own confidence in your work and your competitive desires. One of the most satisfying things about beating my wife in Scrabble is that she doesn’t let me win, but instead will do anything within the rules to crush me. Similarly, I would never want her to show any mercy when using her encyclopedic knowledge of 90s movies to steamroll me in Trivial Pursuit. The cliché that “iron sharpens iron” applies to professional rivalries – even ones between spouses and partners. If you each can accept that the other is capable and deserving of their successes, there’s no reason for the competition to be anything other than healthy. Similarly, if you each can remain confident in your respective strategies and goals, there’s no reason to lose faith in yourselves just because the opponent looks familiar.


Do you and your graduate student spouse or significant other compete for the same opportunities? What strategies have worked for you? Which have failed? Let us know in the comments!


[Image by Flickr user Jon Ross and used under Creative Commons licensing.]


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