Bae is Great, But I’m Tired!

Greetings Cite a Sista Family,

As I am writing this, we are on the eve of what could potentially be a very difficult night for many of us.  This month’s Cite a Sista chat focuses on us as Black women being too educated to be loved. What a concept? I want to acknowledge that I recognize the timing of this post is somewhat in contradiction of tonight’s chat, but my hope is that it offers hope to add to the conversation.

That said, this post is, too, inspired by where I am in my personal journey leaving me compelled some thoughts that I want to share with my #Sistascholars.

As a couples’ therapist, one of the most common questions that people ask in strained relationships is “How did we get here?”  And the most common answer is “I don’t know.”  Many people believe that relationships end because of some grand transgression, e.g. infidelity, but the reality is that many relationships end because of small things that build over time.

For those of us traversing the terrain of the graduate school journey and the early academic career, relationships can be a struggle. When we enter a relationship, or if we’ve already been in one for a while, we must ask the tough question: what are some of the challenges we face that are unique to partnerships amidst the graduate school environment? How do we continue to love on and support one another when who we are at the core is shaken with every continued educational experience?

In my own life, I’m newly partnered and we found ourselves having a conversation the other day about the dissertation process.  I found myself trying to explain to him how difficult life is going to be for me in the next few months.  As we continued to chat, he made a statement to the effect of, “your work is going to change lives… I won’t stand in the way of that.”  He went on to say how he wants to support me in any way he can.  And while this conversation made my heart smile, it also created a little worry because I have seen my friends going through the dissertation and heard the horror stories about the strain on their relationship.  I started to think about why that happens, even when one’s partner has been prepared (as much as possible) about what dissertation or a tenure track position, for instance, is going to be.  For partners who’ve never done it, I mean. The therapist in me kicked into overdrive.  The first thing I realized: it’s the small things that build over time.

But there’s also another layer to this for us as Black women.  Yes, many of us take on the work that is meant to help our own whether it be Black people, Black women, Queer men and women, people with disabilities, and other minoritized groups.  Our work is often undervalued, underappreciated, and underfunded.  So what does it mean to have a partner that is supportive of us throughout this process.  I would say that a major part of that is having a partner who validates that struggle whether they understand it or not.  Support also looks different for each of us.  For some, it is relaxing some of the expectations of duties within the home.  Some days I may not feel like cooking or washing dishes, so I may need my partner to step in.  I may be sad, angry, frustrated and not know why and I may need my partner to allow me to just be quiet and hold off any heavy decisions.  I may need to spend an entire week away just to get some writing done.

So how do we, as Black women, maintain a relationship once we have found that one that makes our heart smile?  In a healthy, loving, non-abusive relationship, how do we continue to work through our goals while also giving our relationship the same amount of effort?  I found myself recalling conversations where people say things like “If he loves me, he’ll support me no matter what,” and while this is true, nobody wants to give-give-give without getting anything in return.  What about your love for them? The question that kept rumbling in my head, “how do we still keep our partner happy when we barely have enough energy to care for ourselves?”  Because the truth is, if the degree or career is all that matters, why be in the relationship in the first place?  You can’t just put the relationship on hold!

The answer is, there’s no real formula.  There’s no real way to prepare a person for what is to come.  But the age old “communication” is a very good starting point.  Open, clear communication that involves more listening for understanding.  In addition to this cliché phrase, there are a few other things:

  1. Flexibility-Both partners must be flexible. Flexible with housework, flexible with scheduling big events, flexible with emotions.  Some days, you just don’t have it in you to put forth the emotional energy and having a flexible partner is necessary.  If there is something bothering either of you, some days just aren’t good to get into a deep emotional conversation.  Maybe there’s a defense of some sort the next day.  That is not a good time to start a difficult conversation.
  2. Consistency-In the same breath, there are times when you need to stick to your word. Always letting your partner down in the name of graduate school is going to wear on the relationship over time.  Remember, small things.  If there is something big happening and you say you’re going to be there, be there.  If your partner is struggling, be there for them and support them the way they do for you.  It can’t always be a one-way street.  Some conversations can’t wait.  Avoiding big decisions and things that are weighing on your partner will only widen the gap between you.
  3. Dedicated Quality Time-We don’t get a lot of free time as graduate students, but the time that we do have needs to be intentional. The same is true for new professionals. If your partner has a break from their commitments and you can get a break, take that time and make it meaningful.  Create memories.  Recharge the relationship.  When there is not a lot of extended time, take advantage of small pockets.  Eat breakfast together without your phones.  Wash dishes together (two birds with one stone).  Have your partner drop you off at work and converse in the car.  Read some articles while you cuddle on the couch. There are endless possibilities.
  4. Gratitude- Sometimes a simple thank you is all a person needs. Having a supportive partner is great, but they are not obligated to do anything.  Every decision is a choice that they make for the betterment of you and the relationship.  Simply acknowledging that can go a long way.
  5. It’s Not All About You- Yes, you’re getting an advance degree and the work you are doing will change lives, but everyone needs to feel like they are also getting something out of the relationship. Even the most amazing man or woman gets tired of always being the one to make all the effort, but their love tank needs to be filled too.  Find small ways to say “thank you” “I love you” “I appreciate you.”  Find ways to incorporate their goals in the mix.
  6. Know Your Partner-Pay attention to changes in behavior and affect. If you notice something is off, take the time to check on them.  Let them know that they are a priority.
  7. Assertiveness- This is the most important! Speak up for yourself!  Sometimes, our partners just don’t understand. And #misogynoir is real! We’re not supposed to be too smart or too confident.  Even the greatest of partners will allow some of that to creep it.  Don’t be afraid to let them know when they have you f*cked up in the most loving, caring way.  We work hard, we love hard, and this accomplishment is only going to better us as a unit. Don’t silence yourself for the sake of their ego.  Being free to be all that you are is going to make a stronger, more honest relationship for the two of you.  You’re brilliant, be brilliant!

Being in a relationship in graduate school or when starting a new career is difficult, but absolutely possible.  The goal is to finish the program or move to the next promotion with your partner by your side.  Neither has to fall at the expense of the other.  (Now lots of other things can happen in between, but that’s not the focus here).  Make decisions in love, be flexible, be gracious, and be your brilliant self!

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