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Heavy Meddle: My Boyfriend Is Drifting Through Grad School With No End In Sight

More than five years in, a woman is starting to feel that she’s the only one working in the relationship. (David Goldman/ AP)MoreCloseclosemore
More than five years in, a woman is starting to feel that she’s the only one working in the relationship. (David Goldman/ AP)

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Dear Steve,

My sweet, smart, funny, loving, generous boyfriend and I have been together for over a little over five years. When we started dating, he was several years into a doctoral program. This fall, he will head into yet another year of his doctorate (year eight? Nine?), with no end in sight. I love him very much, but I have been more and more concerned for us as he continues to float along like this.

If I could see that he was working toward a goal, I don't think it would bother me so much. I have been working two jobs for several years because I am terrified of the consequences of our financial situation if we marry and he continues to accrue debt in this way. And it's very, very frustrating when we discuss our days, and I have worked for 12 or 13 hours, and he tells me that he has slept until noon, maybe he ran an errand or did a couple chores, and had a meal, and that's it. He doesn't turn to his work until late at night, which maybe would be fine if he weren't too tired to focus. But if I bring that up, he gets anxious, and in the midst of his anxiety, it will be my fault that he doesn't get any work done that night.

He often mentions that he would like to raise a family, and to raise a family with me, but we are already in our mid-30s. I don't see how we could possibly afford this dream before we (to be crass) age out of the opportunity to have kids.

I love him very much, but I have been more and more concerned for us as he continues to float along like this.

A few years ago, when I was seeing a therapist, I sought his advice about whether or how much I should say about these concerns. My therapist said that it wasn't my fight, and that it wouldn't do any good anyway if my boyfriend felt like I was nagging him. I can see the sense in that, but if we agree that we want to build a life together and have a family, isn't it my business if I feel like we can't plan a future together?

I want to be kind. I want to be supportive. He has struggled with a cluster of health problems, physiological and psychological, since he started graduate school, and I know that they are major obstacles for him. But I also wonder if it's a feedback loop--he tries to work, he gets anxious, he gets sick, and then he can't work, which temporarily relieves the sickness and anxiety, but then every time he confronts how much work he has to do, he gets anxious, then sick, then he quits. And he goes further and further into debt in the process.

I'm tired of being scared for our future. I'm tired of feeling like I have no choice but to fend for myself, silently. We're supposed to be in this together, right? I want us to be in this together. What can I do? I don't know how to seek his help, or how to help him through this.

Signed,
Professional Grad School Widow
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Dear PGSW,

I have no doubt that your boyfriend can be smart and funny and loving and generous. That’s why you’ve been with him for half a decade, and why you hope to start a family with him. But the terms of the relationship you’re describing aren’t generous or loving. You’re working 12-hour days and worrying about having the means to start a family. He’s eight (or more) years into his doctorate, accruing debt, and, by your account, not working toward a goal.

That’s not you guys working together. That’s you getting worked over.

I’m not trying to be cruel to your boyfriend. I recognize that he has psychological and physiological challenges. When it comes to marriage, or long-term monogamy, we have to take the good with the bad, the weak with the strong. But what I’m not hearing here is a clear sense that your boyfriend is troubled by the inequalities in the relationship, that he’s working on his problems, and that he recognizes the sacrifices you’re making for him.

When you describe his reaction to your concerns, I see someone who is self-absorbed and entitled.

If you were reporting that he takes care of all the domestic duties and does the shopping and cooking while you’re working 60 hours weeks, and if you told me he was eager to start a family and willing to be a frugal stay-at-home dad while you serve as the breadwinner — well then, I’d take a more hopeful view of the situation.

If he can’t provide that hope, you need to start thinking about finding someone who can.

But that’s now what you’re saying. What you’re saying is, I’m scared for our future. And: I'm tired of feeling like I have no choice but to fend for myself, silently. That’s not how a healthy partnership is supposed to make you feel. Just the opposite.

I know this is going to sound scary, but I strongly advise you to share your feelings with your boyfriend as soon as possible. I’d suggest couples therapy, as well, provided he’s amenable. He needs to understand how you’re feeling, and needs to be given the chance to respond. He clearly has mental health issues to work on, as well as career ambitions.

The hope is that he’ll do this work and, in the process, step up and start to value you, and the relationship, in ways that give you some genuine hope for your future.

If he can’t provide that hope, you need to start thinking about finding someone who can. I realize that’s easier said than done. You’ve invested a lot of time and energy in trying to make this work. But you can’t build a life with someone who’s not willing to do his share of the labor — financially or emotionally. And you certainly don’t want to have to raise a child, or children, with someone who still isn’t grown up himself.

I wish you courage and patience.

Steve

Author's note: I think I’m giving more tough love here than I usually do. But I have a strong sense that his guy needs limits, or he’ll continue to take PGSW for granted. Am I being too hard on him? Not hard enough? Post your feedback, and/or counsel, in the comments section below. Send along a letter to Heavy Meddle, if you haven’t. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. — S.A.

Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond is the author of 11 books of fiction and nonfiction. He writes Cog's advice column, #HeavyMeddle, and is the co-host of Dear Sugar Radio.

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