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The Grad School Survival Program

How to send your spouse off to school without letting go of your marriage

After two years of marriage (and five years out of college), my husband started law school full-time. We had heard horror stories of how marriages are ruined when one spouse goes back to school while the other works, and we were determined that it wouldn't happen to us.

One of the best things we did was to spend a lot of time on law school before classes ever started. We spent dozens of hours over several months planning, talking, and praying about the decision. Here are three of the big-picture ideas— and the ways they applied in real life—that kept our marriage from getting leveled by the back-to-school bulldozer.

Stay Stable

When Brent decided he wanted to go to law school, his first thought was to go for a high-powered, top-ranked private school that would virtually guarantee a great job at graduation. Then reality set in: Schools like that are tough to get accepted to, they're extremely expensive, and most of the ones he was interested in were several hundred miles from our home in northern Virginia.

After lots of prayer, discussion, and sifting through law school catalogs, we decided that stability in our family life was more important than a degree from a nationally known school. Brent applied to three schools, all in Virginia, all state-supported.

When he was quickly accepted by George Mason University School of Law (a ten-minute drive from our house!), we knew we were on the right track with our stability idea. With Brent attending George Mason, we could keep our condo, my job, and our church. Obviously, lots of couples move to a new town to start graduate school—such as my brother and his wife, who moved from Houston to Boston so she could go to law school—and survive just fine. Physical location is only one kind of stability, but it's worth preserving if circumstances will allow.

Maximize Togetherness

Once classes started, we heard endless variations of, "So, how do you like being a law school widow?" We were glad to offer a sincere answer to a cynical question. We saw each other plenty, but it took concentrated effort and a firm commitment. Here are some ways we made sure we'd still recognize each other at the end of three years.

Adjust the work schedule. Brent's classes usually started at 8 a.m., so instead of working from 9:00 to 5:30, I arranged to work from 8:00 to 4:30. This meant that Brent and I got up at the same time, ate breakfast at the same time, and left the house at the same time. Before the day really started, we'd already spent an hour and a half together. (And yes, time spent gesturing to your spouse while brushing your teeth counts.)

Treat school like a job. Even during semesters when his classes didn't start until 10 or 11 a.m., Brent went to the library at 8:00 every morning to study. He also stayed there until 6 p.m. most evenings. He confined as much of his schoolwork as possible to the regular business day, minimizing the amount of time he needed to study at home (and be unavailable to hang out with me). He was also careful to take a sabbath every week. Even though he studied for eight to ten hours every Saturday, from Saturday evening to Sunday evening, schoolwork was verboten— except during finals, of course, when any pretense of keeping to regular routines went straight out the window.

As the semesters passed, we noticed that many of Brent's classmates set up similar patterns. This seemed especially important for the students who had children. Day-care schedules needed to coordinate with study and work schedules as much as possible. They worked hard to make time for outings that the whole family could enjoy—and slept very little.

One friend says she literally penciled herself in on her law-student husband's calendar to make sure they'd have time for each other. Even though those dates sometimes got broken, "the fact that we were at least making the effort helped ease the loneliness a little," she says.

Eat together. We ate breakfast and dinner together nearly every day that Brent was in school. We started this tradition when we were both working, and we didn't see any reason why school should make us give it up. Eating dinner together often required a little creativity, since several of Brent's classes were offered in the evenings. One semester, his Thursday classes ended at 6 p.m. and started again at 8 p.m. So instead of cooking, I would drive over to the school and pick him up. We'd have time for a leisurely dinner (and a real conversation!) at a little restaurant near the school before I'd drop him back off for his late class.

Get Involved

This goes for both the spouse in school and the spouse at work. Although our first instinct was to have Brent avoid all extracurricular activities at school so he could spend every spare minute with me (see "Maximize Togetherness"), we quickly realized we'd both be happier if he participated fully in all aspects of school life.

So he joined the Christian Legal Society's student chapter and became its president. He won a spot on the International Moot Court team. He got elected to the Student Bar Association. And me? I got to go to all kinds of law school functions (more time together!). We socialized on weekends with several of Brent's new friends and their spouses, and, of course, we always kept our eyes open for student discounts. (The best one we found was free tickets to every performance at a nearby cultural arts center.)

A friend whose husband went to medical school got involved by inviting his study group to meet at their house. She also helped organize a spouses' group for get-togethers. She adds one caution on the spouses' group: "Don't mingle students' husbands with students' wives. Develop relationships with members of your own gender so that you don't submit yourself to the temptation of an extra-marital relationship, or even just a friendship, that would detract from your marriage."

The other side of the "get involved" coin is getting involved in your own life. I pursued several of my own interests, especially during those semesters when Brent had so many evening classes. I joined a women's prayer group. I volunteered at the county jail as a literacy tutor. I helped out with an inner-city ministry, taking kids on Saturday field trips. And when Brent had those crazy 10 p.m. Student Bar Association meetings, I took bubble baths, drank hot chocolate, and curled up with a good book until he came home. As another friend puts it, "I have a lot of interests my husband doesn't share, and although I love him dearly and love sharing things with him, it was nice to be able to indulge those interests without guilt."

Obviously, all of the ways we coped with school won't work in every marriage. The key is to find out what things are important to the stability and togetherness of your marriage and then make sure school doesn't endanger them. The strain of school will probably show while you're in the midst of it, but with perseverance, your relationship won't be worse for the wear at the end.

Elizabeth McBurney is a writer and editor in Alexandria, Virginia. Brent is now an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Balance; Marriage; Schedules; School
Today's Christian Woman, Fall, 2001
Posted September 30, 2008

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