Can Your Relationship Survive B-School?

For the significant others of B-school students, an MBA can be the toughest degree they never earned

There's a reason the MBA has earned a reputation as "the divorce degree."

B-school students are typically older than other professional degree-seekers (27, on average), and a higher percentage (about one-third) are married or seriously committed. Some have children. That means applying to B-school, and then, to jobs, can be an emotional roller coaster for two. Combined with the financial strain of going from two paychecks to one (or none), the round-the-clock nature of a full-time MBA program—from morning classes to late-night pub crawls—can put serious stress on relationships.

Even though business schools are doing more to bring students' significant others into the fold, the first year of B-school can be a struggle for many couples (see, 3/14/05, "MBA Family Values").

Alicen Spaulding and her husband, Steve, decided to pursue their graduate degrees at the same time—she her Master's in public health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and he his MBA at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. While she knew living apart for the first year would be a huge sacrifice for them both, the heavy load of her husband's outside-the-classroom obligations caught her by surprise.

Regressing to College Days

"I wish I would have been more mentally prepared for how intense the experience was going to be for Steve, compared to my graduate-school experience," she says. "I don't think I was really ready for just how scarce his time was going to be."

Even dual-career households used to competing demands on their time can hit the skids when it comes to adjusting to a partner's new student schedule. "A lot of times, we will see the student kind of regress to, 'Oh, I'm back in college and we're going to play hockey at 12 o'clock at night,'" says Betsy Howell, a therapist and life coach who runs partner support groups at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business. And partners can start to resent students' "community-building" activities when they're the ones getting up at 6 a.m. to go to work or get the kids off to school.

"Sometimes you would like to be cheered for, but for two years you're the cheerleader for your student," says Heather Cody, whose husband, Preston, is a first-year student at the University of Texas at Austin.

Feeling Inadequate

And being forced into a supporting role is psychologically burdensome for many partners, Howell says. "Women come here thinking, 'O.K., this is good for my husband's career. I'll come, I'll put up with it.' But then they become kind of angry, depressed, and upset because their dreams are all on hold and life is all kind of circling around the husband." (see, 11/29/06, "Catch F-2 for Spouses of Foreign Students").

Add in all the drastic life changes that typically come when accompanying a partner to B-school—living in a new city, with a new job (or no job), cut off from family and friends—and it's easy to see how insecurities can turn into full-blown jealousy.

"You begin to feel sort of uninteresting compared to students who are learning, traveling the world, sitting on boards of directors of nonprofits, taking art classes on the side," says Tom Snyder, the partner of Scott Tyson, a second-year student at Penn's Wharton School, says. "And truthfully, you begin to worry that your partner's student peers are starting to look more attractive to your partner than you are!"

Date Night Can Help

These feelings can sound mighty strange to those living outside the B-school bubble, but many partners say their significant others are invaluable sources of support. "It makes it easier when you realize that everyone feels the same way," says Caroline Eachus, wife of Brian, a first-year at Virginia's Darden School. "And I've made friends that I'll keep for life," she adds.

To prevent frustrations from mounting into serious problems, Howell emphasizes that good communication is crucial. Setting aside a regular "date night" is a strategy that works for many couples, she says, as is making a "wish list" of activities they would like to do together.

And while many partners say that getting involved in B-school events that are open to partners is a worthwhile experience, Howell also encourages the partners in her group at Tuck to set personal goals independent from their students. "I've had some who've gone back and gotten a nursing degree, or [gone] to law school, some of them will set more physical goals like 'I'm going to learn how to ski,' 'I'm going to learn how to cook,' and some just say, 'I'm going to read a book every week.'" (For tips on making a relationship last through B-school, see "When Your Partner's In B-School")

In the end, says Jennifer Jaax, wife of Grant, a second-year at UNC Kenan-Flagler, the experience is what you make of it: "It has been very challenging, but very eye-opening. Really, this has been two of the best years of my life."

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