Love In (and Out of) Academe

November 28, 2005

I had told him about it, but it wasn’t until I’d been called for an interview that my non-academic boyfriend started to get nervous. I drove myself home from the airport and left messages on his answering machine that night, the next day and the day after that. When he called me three days later, it sounded as if he was calling from miles away. By the time I had put the phone down, he was on his way over to pick up the few things he’d left at my apartment. After I cried, I lay in bed that night, hands and feet unfeeling, staring at the ceiling. I guess I’d known that interviewing out-of-state would put pressure on us; what I didn’t know was that it would immediately end the relationship. Six months of dating was just not enough time to build a relationship that we could both hold on to. I didn’t land a full-time position until 18-months late. In that time, I refused to date anyone.

I simply could not put another kind, interesting, funny man through this horrible process. In the end I landed in the Midwest, with only my dog for company. Although I immediately made friends on-campus and off, I found it difficult to consider dating. First, I was not in a tenure-track position. In my mind’s eye, this meant the same process as before. Three years on contract with this university, then moving on. Why bother starting up something that might end up in heartbreak? Yet close girlfriends here and in my original home state urged me to “get in the game” again -- if only to keep from hiding out. I finally did allow myself a few experiences.

I’ve been on a coffee date with an adjunct in my department. Although we are both in the humanities, our similarities end there. A six-year age difference made me feel ancient. And his constant reference to an ex-girlfriend who wasn’t really an ex- made me wary. Disinterested, I didn’t follow up his phone calls, but e-mailed short notes that bordered on professional instead. He has since drifted back into his muddled long-distance relationship -- although I hear that he recently asked our department secretary about other single women at the university.

Urged by my local lady friends, I went on a movie and dinner date with a man who drives trucks for the garbage company. Nervous, I dressed up too much and felt out of place in the movie theater in hose, a dark skirt and sweater. We chatted about nothing special that night -- a nice thing for a woman who’d been out of circulation for some time, but I could not find much to hold on to. He talked about the Navy and his route; I talked about classes and my family. After long pauses and awkward moments, I had that dreaded moment about halfway through the evening where I wished I’d been at home watching television with my dog. This man’s deep interest in marriage and my transient status didn’t help. By the end of the night, I stepped from his Pontiac feeling a bit sad. On the phone the next day, I got honest and told him that I didn’t think we had enough in common. When pressed, I said that I’d also feel guilty keeping him from his quest for a wife. Later he told friends in common that he agreed it was the best thing to do; he didn’t see that much in me. I smiled and nodded my head. He was absolutely right.

Academics frequently think they’re “all that” as my students like to say. And that sense of entitlement gets us into all sorts of trouble. Many of us, including me, are self-centered. That makes a true peer relationship difficult. If a professor also needs ego-feeding, there will be trouble in their partnership outside the office.

"It’s as if he wanted me to applaud for him every night when he came home," confessed my colleague’s ex-wife. "Believe me, I was impressed by his dissertation, his presentations, his research, his papers -- even his thoughts -- but at some point I had to ask myself, ‘What happened to me?’” She is now dating a corporate executive in the area. "It’s just so much easier," she told me over a latté, “I finally feel like I count for something.” Others I’ve interviewed have confessed that professors have a way of making them feel like “mere mortals” rather than peers. And many of these non-academics have more than one college degree, a vast life experience, and vivacious personalities. Although not shrinking violets, they simply could not make a place with a professional who either were tremendously accomplished -- or had an inflated view of his or her worth.

It seems as if relationships between academics and corporate-types have some hurdles to overcome -- yet a number of my faculty-buddies swear by them. “When I finish my job, I want to leave work at work,” says one business instructor I know. When he was married to another instructor, they talked incessantly about their jobs. A year after their relationship crashed, he confessed that he was only interested in dating “non-academics.” He felt relieved that he could start building a life outside of academia. “Don’t get me wrong,” he told me, “I love my job. I just want to stop thinking about it at some point.” He is currently dating a woman who owns a small business.

An accomplished Ph.D. in English rhetoric married his longtime girlfriend who used to wait tables. “She’s real-life educated,” he told me. Her life experience and intellectual curiosity count for a lot. When he comes home to chat about Deleuze and Espinoza, she holds her own -- and quotes the Dalai Lama, which enriches the conversation. My professor friend has a standing commitment to dedicate Sunday to their relationship (and to her two children of a previous marriage) -- and he keeps late-night grading to a minimum. Although they technically have a “trailing non-academic spouse” type marriage, it feels like a peer relationship to both.

A woman friend of mine who teaches humanities at a community college believes that her non-teaching husband brings something unique to their relationship. Because he is in administration in an academic setting, he understands the general issues. He’s also mastered the art of knowing -- truly knowing -- his wife. When she straggles in from a long, frustrating department meeting with a heavy bag of papers, he often says, "You look stressed. Is there anything I can do?" On other occasions, he trots off to the kitchen to make dinner for them both without comment. Some days, when she gets home sooner than he does, she sets in on the household chores, knowing that he will be tired when he gets home. According to her, they have a match made in heaven.

Another advantage is that non-academics have more regular hours -- which may encourage an academic to adopt a more normal working schedule. Many of my friends, tenured and adjunct, have confessed that knowing their significant other is going to be home in three hours forces them to manage their time more wisely. And a non-academic love often encourages academics to make friends outside of the ivory tower -- which can be a nice balance to a bookish, research-dominated life.

For some, however, this match has problems. A tenure-track professor I met told me she hated dating outside of academia -- if only because she did not feel valued. “I dated a municipal court judge who pitied me the whole time. Even though I was presenting at conferences, lecturing, and publishing, he simply couldn’t understand how someone would work for so little money.” Fighting a feeling of “less-than,” she finally stopped dating him. She simply got tired of defending her career.

“He thinks that when I’m presenting at a conference, I’m vacationing,” a colleague confided. Her husband, a contractor, resented her university-funded travel; this difference of opinion brought much tension to the relationship. She also told me that he does not understand her at-home work. “Oh, I forgot. You’re not working today,” is his comment, with requests to pick up his dry cleaning and grocery shop. The time between semesters becomes a battle as he pressures her to make repairs on their classic Victorian house while she is desperately trying to read new textbooks, rework syllabi, course outlines, and assignments -- all while writing to publish. Unless they have owned their own small business, non-academics may not understand the idea of “working” while at home. And the resulting tension can be devastating to a relationship. This is not the only place where academics and their non-academic spouses do not agree. Making money (or not) and how one defines “success” are big concerns.

A liberal arts professor I know dated a man who worked as a marketing manager with a large, successful printing company in the area. When she complained about having papers to grade, he simply answered, “Why don’t you get a job where you don’t have to do all that scut work?” As she sat there, stunned, a handful of student work in her lap, he continued, “Hell, you’d make more money in advertising or something like that anyway.” Not only did she feel unsupported, but she also sensed that he did not understand that she did not teach for money -- or because she had no other skills. When interviewed, she told me that she chose this field because she wanted to live the values she’d been “spouting for a decade.” After studying Buddhism and considering “right livelihood,” she decided she wanted to work at something that contributed to (rather than breaking down) society. And a sense of being able to give back (rather than take) helped her through some non tenure-track years. For successful non-academics, status may be measured by a bank account -- which frustrates academics. The couple’s value system is simply mismatched -- and it is only with the greatest amount of effort that difference may be bridged.

But opinion about academic and non-academic spouses seems to be split squarely down the middle. I have colleagues past and current who swear by their academic loves. A strong bond often develops among professors -- to some it makes sense to seek a partner who suffers and celebrates the same issues. For most it is not just the idea of “summers off,” but a deeper match when it comes to the rhythm of the academic lifestyle. The demands of the job, combined with research and papers, can be daunting. And having a significant other who really understands can help pave the way to a couple’s success. Academic partners also seem more focused on career -- and often have similar interests when it comes to politics and social lives.

“My first husband never wanted to go out to the theater or to the symphony. And I suppose it could be coincidence, but my second husband [an academic] not only loves those things, but also encourages me to see independent films, visit the local art museum and go to poetry readings.” My friend, a foreign-language instructor, is grateful for a companion on these visits. And although a non-academic spouse could have these interests, it is sometimes more likely that an academic spouse will have them. Academics are big readers, too. Those who read books, papers and publications in their own industry often also read for enjoyment -- or simply to broaden their horizons. Not only can this be a source of inspiration and conversation, but also indicates an interest in things outside of one’s experience.

Understanding and helping manage the pressures of academic become easier when you’re already “in the soup” with a love partner. A history professor I know confessed that even though his wife’s Ph.D. was in another area, she was the perfect partner when it came to timing, workload and hours. “She is able to read my needs just by looking at my face and the stack of papers on my desk,” he told me, “It’s such a relief not to have to explain over and over again why I have to take three hours after dinner to draft an outline for a chapter of my dissertation. She’s already been there.” The academic spouse not only understands at a deeper level, but can provide support in a way that non-academics can’t. Two humanities professors I know are co-authoring a paper; they are husband and wife. One confided that this ability to combine their brainpower in this way makes their relationship “that much more complete.”

Although reading one another’s paper or dissertation does not seem like a common event (or even expected), the support is there. One poet I know often runs his work through his wife before he talks to his editor; although her specialty is social work, she often catches small inconsistencies -- and, even better, she really understands his body of work and how that reflects the man. Having a spouse or loved one at a conference or workshop not only can be a bonding experience, but can also lead to discussions that may result in a much-needed lesson for class, or a paper to be presented at a later conference. With academic couples, the sounding board is already there -- and as a friend of mine likes to say, “up to speed.” In some cases, a comparable level of education can provide a foundation for a successful relationship. Yet there may be tensions. The ABD may feel that their Ph.D. toting spouse is a constant reminder of what they have yet to accomplish. And finding jobs that allow a couple to stay together is a near-impossible task.

A new colleague took a position with our university four weeks before the semester started. His wife, on contract to teach at a campus 2,000 miles away, is now desperately trying to land a position in the same area. My colleague told me that they had been apart for three months -- with another seven to go -- if they’re lucky. Or it may be another academic year before they’ll be able to live together again. “We call every night -- but it’s not the same,” he said, “I love her.” But his voice is wistful and he seems confused. I sense that he feels isolated. Although he has cultivated some acquaintances in his new town, he doe not feel as though his experience is complete without his life partner. Single women academics often don’t feel comfortable socializing with a man who is dedicated to a “ghost-wife,” and he often feels like a third-wheel at parties where academic couples meet. The long-distance academic marriage is often an awkward union at best. At its worst, the situation will literally kill the marriage.

One instructor friend who specializes in distance learning says that personality, priorities, values and ability to communicate are the deal-breakers -- not what one does for a living. I think that she is right. Hasty judgments about who makes the best husband or wife can’t be made. Just as there are some absolute clods in academia, there are some wonderfully accomplished, smart and interesting people working for government or private industry. With friends in and outside of academia, I feel as though I am taking advantage of all that the world has to offer. Cutting one group out seems overly focused and elitist. And in our nation, which seems to value entrepreneurialism and individualism at all costs, narrowing the field of human contact seems unwise to me. 


Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.

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