My partner is in a PhD program that she definitely hates. She came from a great Master’s program with loads of friends, but now she’s at a school who doesn’t value her interests or abilities. Along with being overworked and underpaid, she feels like there’s not an easy way out of this situation.
I’ve been working on my mental health for years and I have ideas and techniques for self-care and motivation, but my partner isn’t considering any advice. I have listened to her troubles for a year now and my Aries nature is to just DO SOMETHING, impulsively. She’s not ready to make any decisions on quitting school or to make time for herself or friends. She just feels stuck and helpless. While I know it’s helpful for me to listen and make sure she feels understood and not alone, I don’t know how to delicately advocate for her too.
How does anyone navigate through someone else’s troubles without feeling useless?!
Not a savior, not trying to be
It sounds like your partner might be too depressed to make a big decision on whether to stay in her program, drop out, or try to find another program she might like better. For now I’d focus on ways to get her out of the worst of her depression, so you two can analyze things when she’s in a better space.
That said – a PhD program is a big commitment. If she went into it coasting on the amazingness of the master’s program and it’s not meeting her expectations, I would encourage you both to rethink it when she’s feeling better. PhD’s are expensive (if she’s not getting a full ride, and even if the program’s paid for you say she isn’t earning much), and many don’t give you access to much you can’t do with a master’s.
It’s one thing if she’s in the sciences and she needs to get through this – and that’s a different discussion – but if this is in the social sciences or humanities I urge you to talk to her about her long-term goals, and whether continuing in the program at the expense of her mental health is really worth it.
If she is this upset over feeling overworked, underpaid and under-appreciated now, I doubt if she’ll be able to hack it long-term as a professor, if that is her end goal. There are fewer tenure-track jobs, there are increased demands on what little time faculty have available, and there’s increased worry over “snowflake” students, discourse, and privilege. It’s gonna be unfun for her for a long time and to make it through to MAYBE tenure track, MAYBE if you’re lucky, MAYBE somewhere that doesn’t suck and people aren’t homophobic, you really need to LOVE THE WORK. And I’m not sure she does.
If she doesn’t want to be professor, then she probably doesn’t need the PhD, and she can save herself a lot of heartache by quitting. Once she can make that decision with a clear perspective.
But. For now. Don’t be sanctimonious (I’m not saying you are) or draw from your self-care stable to suggest what might make her feel better, even if you think you know what she needs. This will probably sound condescending to her from the space she’s in now. She doesn’t need a cheerleader trying to pull her out of bed. She needs to sort shit out for herself.
I’d encourage you to do quietly and behind the scenes the work you can do to take care of your partner’s basic needs. Do the laundry. Cook healthy and tasty meals, or order them in. Clean the apartment and maybe bring home some fresh flowers. Give her the space to be depressed and not in the mood for sex, or super-horny, or withdrawn at the dinner table. Channel your Aries nature into creating a bountiful abundant home base for you both, where she can get her food, put on clean clothes, and take a long bath in a clean bathroom because you’re on all of that shit for the both of you.
I might put some boundaries on the listening. If she’s as stuck and helpless as you say, she’s probably repeating the same sorts of thoughts with no desire or ability to take action given her current depression. You can be there for her without becoming trapped in her repetitive rehashing. Gently and lovingly let her know that you are more than happy to talk about her concrete options and her next steps, that you have no stake in her finishing the program or dropping out, that you only care about her taking care of herself, but that going over the latest Things That Sucked About Grad School won’t help with any of that.
When you feel the urge to drag her out from under the blankets and take a walk, do something for yourself instead. You need to take care of yourself to be there for her, and if you’re not around to be her sounding board because you took a beach day, she might be compelled to move through some of her feelings on her own. Know that you’re not useless, but also know where your worth lies, what you can do for her, and what you must do for you until she’s found her bottom and is ready to rise up.
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