Strange bedfellows

Does academic life lead to divorce?

Published March 25, 1999 6:42PM (EST)

It was in a college Chaucer class when I first read the "wo that is
in marriage" from the Wife of Bath's prologue. Never mind that the rest of
the tale, in which a lusty woman recounts her five husbands (three good,
two bad), could be read as an advanced feminist tract for the time, I took
this seeming truism out of context and convinced myself that it applied not
to the public at large but to those in academia. The evidence was
everywhere around me. My advisor, just out of graduate school from Brown,
was recently divorced. Pretty, smart and vivacious, she was everything I
wanted to be when I thought of becoming an English professor. While she
talked about pastoral poetry, I couldn't help but think of the genre as a
metaphor for her once-happily married state. She would sometimes allude to
this herself, though not in so many words. But the implication was clear:
Successful academics do not have happy personal lives.

My romanticism professor, married to an outspoken critic at Columbia
University, was also going through a divorce. When she referred to her
young daughter as a Wordsworthian child of nature, I listened between the
lines for evidence that her husband shared this fantasy. It appeared he did
not. Perhaps the reason for the divorce? Gradually, as the years of graduate
school dragged on, the model of the successful female academic crystallized
in my mind: She sacrificed her personal life for her work. Matrimony and
academia -- if one tried to marry the two -- could bring only wo.

Fast forward 10 years. My husband (we met in grad school) and I had
recently relocated from New York to San Francisco. In the six months
we'd lived in this new city, we still hadn't completely unpacked; we'd both
been working too hard. The very night I finished my dissertation, I came
home from my writing group (an invaluable support network of five female
friends) and found a note -- and a half-empty closet. My husband had moved
out: no forwarding address, no phone number, just a few scrawled lines
telling me he had left. In subsequent conversations, he insisted it was my
fault: I abandoned him when I finished my dissertation (he had long ago
opted to leave grad school for a more lucrative career). Besides, I had
become too much of a feminist; I didn't need him, I had my writing group.
"I'm a feminist, not a lesbian," I cried. To no avail. In the
emotional havoc of the next few months, the thought occurred (I am ashamed
to say) that I would have gladly traded my hard-earned degree for him, if I
could have. We had been together 11 years, happily married for six of them,
or so I thought. Of course there were other problems, as there are when any
relationship ends in divorce, but completing my dissertation sealed the end
of our marriage.

My ex-husband's timing was not all that unusual, I later learned. While
in New York, where I delivered my dissertation, I met Gertrude
Schneider, president of the City University of New York Alumni
Association. When I told her about my imminent divorce, she replied that my
newly doctored, newly divorced situation was common.

In her 25 years of academic administration, Schneider had
heard this story more than a few times. Recently she explained that she
thinks it's a "gender thing." "Haven't you noticed this yourself?" she
asked. "Usually, it's when the wife gets her Ph.D. that the breakup occurs,
not the other way around. Especially when the marriage is shaky to begin

If getting my Ph.D. was so hazardous to my relationship, why hadn't I
been informed? Were there statistics on this kind of thing, and if so, why
weren't they published? It reminded me of the time my car was stolen on the
seemingly safe street I'd lived on for years. Only when I mentioned the theft
to the friendly neighbors I'd always exchanged pleasantries with did they
let me in on the secret: Everyone, apparently, had had their car stolen at
one time or another on this particular block.

In retrospect, there were signs, not only in my married life, but in a
book I'd been given half in jest by a fellow graduate student, "How to
Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation" by David Sternberg. Although
Sternberg's book is hopelessly out of date (computers are yet a novelty)
and its sexist language grates, it was and still is -- if you believe the reviews -- a useful work for ABDs (graduate students who have
finished "all-but-dissertation"). While Sternberg is good at pinpointing
the particular anomie and depression that can befall the dissertation
writer, he is nothing if not systematic in how to deal with it. He
recommends drawing "differential dissertation association" maps of personal
relationships, the better to evaluate which relationships are helpful to
the completion of the book and which ones are not. "Do I seriously
expect you to give up your husband, your lover, your family, your job?"
Sternberg asks. "Believe me, none of these would be bad ideas, at least in
certain cases."

The qualifier is hardly necessary, for in the Sternbergian worldview
there is only one "grand passion" -- the writing of the dissertation. While
such absolutes may seem a bit overwrought, Sternberg asserts a "truth" that
lives on in academia today. To be a serious scholar one must subjugate
one's personal life to the professional, and, at the very least, never
mention that one does have a personal life that might interfere with one's
ability to do research or relocate for a job. To do otherwise is to raise
the specter of dilettantishness, and, for women especially, to risk

Sternberg's other "truths" about the academic life include the fact that
one's partner should expect a certain degree of "role absenteeism,"
something that does not end with the completion of the dissertation but
rather becomes "an integral part of [one's] intellectual, professional and
emotional life." Partners are advised to either join in with the project --
Sternberg's own spouse took responsibility for his clerical work, though
that didn't save his marriage -- or find a support group. And, as one
advances up the academic ladder, Sternberg warns that academics must expect
to outgrow their partners as they cease to be intellectual equals.

Considering academe's monastic roots, Sternberg's assumption that one
must be married to one's profession in order to succeed makes sense. In some
ways, the intellectual demands of academia haven't evolved very far from
the medieval model of the scholarly monk toiling away, far removed from
worldly concerns. But the political climate of academia has changed: The
administrative demands are greater, the competition for scarce jobs
stiffer and the tiered nature of positions -- divided ever more
increasingly along caste lines between teaching and research -- all create
even greater imbalances between personal and professional lives.

Part of this is due to the "star system," in which superstar academics --
those who are slavishly courted by institutions and whose names invoke
iconic power -- have become role models for all academics. "The bar of
success has been raised much higher," one of my colleagues at Stanford
explains. "No work you do now is ever enough."

But if one commits to an academic career can one truly commit to a partner?

"No" is the emphatic answer from a former lecturer at Harvard who,
like almost all of the people I interviewed, requested anonymity. "Academia
is not a particularly healthy environment, and it doesn't place a premium
on anything outside of its own world." Her story is emblematic of the way
competition between two spouses in the same field can erode the
relationship. She and her husband were both graduate students in the same
English Ph.D. program. He was ahead of her, until he hit a roadblock when
it came to writing the proposal for his dissertation. The day she informed
her husband that she had finished the first chapter of her dissertation and
was handing it in, he confessed that he had been sleeping with her best
friend. "The early stages of the writing (e.g. the proposal) are
dangerous times," Sternberg warns. "Many candidates, frightened by the
extent of the commitment, are seeking a way out."

Although Sternberg was alluding to the dangers of quitting the
dissertation, this same fear of scholarly commitment also gets played out
within marriages. The people I know whose relationships have foundered
at this time are almost too numerous to count. Most fit a similar pattern.
Take a man I knew in graduate school at the City University of New York,
married for 13 years to someone who was not in the academy. I used to
see them together at the library, his wife on his arm, usually smiling and
keeping him company. One day I noticed she no longer accompanied him. The
next, it seemed, he was divorced and married to someone else in the
program. The reason? While he told me her leaving food on the stove was
indicative of her lack of concern about household things in general and
himself in particular, it appears he had been going nowhere with his
dissertation -- and he'd been having an affair. Shedding his wife was like
shedding an old self, one in which he could safely project
all the undesirable parts of himself -- including the stalled dissertation
writer. In this case, it worked. He finished. He got a job. For all I know,
he's very happy.

Divorce, of course, is not unique to academia. And similar patterns of
relationship breakups undoubtedly occur in any profession requiring long
apprenticeships, like medical school. "Academia is just a part of this
phenomenon," says Schneider. "Whenever you try to do
something big and do it right and your partner has nothing to do with it,
then if the marriage is not strong, it will crumble."

But what if the academic couple are not hobbled by dissertation
paralysis or conflicting aspirations? If both manage to write their
dissertation and both get jobs in their field, then why should the
academic marriage be any more or less precarious than any other marriage?

Sometimes it's all a matter of priorities. The case of one assistant
professor of rhetoric offers a glimpse of how even relatively good
circumstances can gradually undermine the importance of personal
relationships. Married to a woman he met in graduate school, who also has
a job in her field (though in another state), they are currently going
through a divorce. For years they had gotten jobs that necessitated living
apart, but ultimately it wasn't really the geographic limitations that
ended their marriage. "Our commitment to our marriage was not as strong as
our commitment to our careers," he says bluntly. When they finally
both got offers at the same university, he declined. His wife didn't think
she would stay for more than a few years and he was not willing to leave
the good job he had for an uncertain future.

When asked if he thought it possible to be happily married to another
academic, he said he didn't think so, adding: "Academia is a world that is
not set up to nurture a marriage or a personal life in general." And while
he concedes that there were problems in the marriage to begin with, the
demands of their professional life only exacerbated them. "The academy puts
a wedge between people. It gives them something else to fall in love with,"
he says, echoing Sternberg's romanticism. "But it's still a wonderful
life, even if I blame my career for the divorce and feel distant from it

Almost half of all marriages today end in divorce, though that number
appears to be leveling off after rising sharply in the 1960s and '70s. I've
been unable to determine if academics have any higher divorce rates than
the rest of the population. The questions of why people divorce and why the
United States leads the world in divorce rates are not easily answerable.
A recent Scientific American analysis of regional divorce rates, however,
finds a possible answer in the "restlessness of Americans": As people
migrate, writer Rodger Doyle asserts, they are more likely to loosen family
ties, including those with spouses. Divorce is an American tradition, as
Glenda Riley's historical study puts it, approved by the Puritans as a
viable way of changing one's life and sanctioned in the formative years of
this nation's history in the spirit of democratic individualism.

The academic life partakes of both America's forlorn restlessness and
bootstrapping individualism. Professors are definitely one of the most
peripatetic of work forces in the country. And the myth of meritocracy, of
advancing through one's own intellectual prowess, is still very much its
driving force. Finally, in a society where men often marry younger women, aging male professors who work closely with admiring young graduate students often succumb to the temptation to start over with a newly minted marriage where the lines of authority are not so muddy.

"I don't know that things are worse in academia than they are in other
professions," rebuts one Ivy League law professor whose first marriage to
another academic in the same field ended in divorce. "We all work harder at
our careers these days, whatever they may be." He cites the counterexample
of one of his colleagues who gave up a private law practice to go into
academia, where he could have more time to spend with his family.

But a female cultural studies professor at Sonoma State University
disagrees. "Going into academics kills women's marriages," she states
matter of factly, though she herself is happily married to a
nonacademic. "Male professors are expected to be married to their
scholarship but not to their wives in the same full-on, participatory way.
Women academics are asked to be polygamous and then are punished as a
result." The secret of her successful marriage? Her husband is not jealous
of her career, nor does he expect her to do any domestic work. Though this
assistant professor thinks there are systemic things that could change (the
long road to tenure, for instance, which almost demands women put off
having children until their late 30s or early 40s), she is quite content
with being married to her career. "There's no more or less expected of
women in academe," she says. "There's more
expected of women in marriage." And while she notes that there is still a
lot of inequity in the academy, she has more hope of changing this world
than of changing the expectations that go along with marriage.

Aside from changing the entire process that involves so long an
apprenticeship and so much emphasis on publication, what else can
universities do? "Individual departments [can] nurture a sense that everyone
in the family matters," says the soon-to-be-divorced assistant professor.

Academics suffering from the confusion of a broken relationship would do well to revisit the Wife of Bath. Refusing to be secondary to her husband's nightly readings from a book on wicked wives, she tore out the pages, and, when that didn't work, smacked him. Now I'm not recommending that you beat your partners into understanding, but metaphorically, her battle to make her physical presence take precedence over his obsessive belief in "the text" resonates. She won, but only at the expense of the literature. It was this struggle, how to merge a literary love affair and a human love affair, without destroying either, that I yearned to hear discussed in the halls of the academy. If I had heard such conversations -- a candid acknowledgement of the sacrifices and conflicts that came with the field -- maybe I wouldn't have had to read between the Wife of Bath's lines wondering if "wo in marriage" was a universal truth or merely academic.

By Christina Boufis

Christina Boufis teaches at Stanford University and San Francisco County Jail. She is the co-editor, along with Victoria C. Olsen, of "On the Market."

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