I'm a med student, but my boyfriend has just a high school education

How important is education in a relationship, and can we be happy if he is less ambitious than I am?

By Cary Tennis

Published April 9, 2008 10:00AM (EDT)

Hi, Mr. Tennis:

I came across an interview you did while listening to the radio one day. I really like your take on personal dilemmas, so here is mine:

I am a 24-year-old medical student. I would say I am pretty driven to achieve things in life, particularly so before I got into med school. I tried hard every day doing everything I could to help myself get into med school. Now reflecting back, I might have been too single-minded about this pursuit and might have lost sight of the other wonderful things in life. Now during med school, which comes with its own set of demands and responsibilities, I am making time to do things I want to do, not the things I should do. I am from an Asian culture where success is paramount, and usually it means being a doctor, lawyer, engineer, etc. My parents put a lot of pressure on me to do well, although they have since backed off because I am sort of there. Due to the way I was brought up, I believe education is very important and that once obtained it will lead to more opportunities.

I have always dated guys who are educated. My last serious relationship with a stable Ph.D. student, lasted two years. But even though he was knowledgeable and handsome, I just didn't connect with him. We would laugh together but were never spontaneous ... anyway, it felt like something was missing.

Now I have met someone who is just everything that I felt was missing in my last relationships. I find him very attractive; we laugh all the time about stupid things and serious things. We have traveled together and every day is fun. Even when we argue we are able to see eye to eye at the end. He adores me and treats me good. But he doesn't have an education, nor is he on the path to obtaining one. He has drive, but he is seriously lacking the follow-through aspect. He talks very big about his future, but he is happy with the present. He has a high school education and has a very secure government job that earns him enough. There is no impetus for change. I have discussed several times about him going back to university or getting a trades course, just anything to improve his current situation. He shows interest, but more so at my insistence.

I am attractive and outgoing and I have dated at least a dozen (serious/not serious), if not two dozen, to find this guy whom I really like, but it really bothers me that he is letting his life slip by without even trying. It bothers me that he has been gifted with health, and a sound mind, a good supportive family, and he doesn't want to make the best of it. It bothers me that there are people in less fortunate circumstances who are doing 10 times the work to get ahead in life, and meanwhile he is not even trying. Although it may seem like I am high and mighty and judging those without a university education, I am not. My parents do not have it, and I love them to pieces. I think that it was seeing them go through the struggles of having no education and immigrating to a new country that made me realize what amazing opportunities North America offers if you just try. I believe that we only live this life once, so why not give it all you've got.

Bringing all this back to my relationship situation, the question is, Will I be happy with this person in one year, five years, 10 years down the road? And if not, should I just end it or stay in it until it stops being fun? Am I over-thinking this ... or does education matter in a relationship?


Dear G,

If your new boyfriend has a government job because he is afraid to take chances, then perhaps he is doomed to a life of grinding frustration and fear, and you will find yourself ashamed and unsatisfied with how he conducts himself. But if he has a government job because he believes in the work that the government does, and that for an orderly society to work well people must be willing to do government jobs, and that trading excitement and glamour for secure and meaningful work is a decent and honorable bargain, then perhaps his work is noble. Perhaps it is about public service.

Some people derive deep satisfaction from seeing how they fit into a large organization and how they contribute to the general good. They don't need public accolades; in fact they would be made uncomfortable by public accolades. And they don't spell out their reasons for doing what they do. It doesn't mean they are cowardly or lazy; it means that their vision of how one ought to relate to society favors harmony and duty over striving for material success. Some people value simple human decency above visible accomplishment. They are people of whom one might say, If there were more people like that in the world, perhaps there would be fewer wars and less crime.

If he is this kind of person, then perhaps you have found a rare man who will make you happy and of whom you can be proud your whole life. You might find yourself defending him to your family, but if you genuinely believe in what he is doing, then you will radiate confidence in him, and others will feel it. And it may be a situation in which your strengths complement each other's -- you being the ambitious, driven one who gives energy and outward direction to the relationship, and he being the contemplative, steady one, who gives the relationship its depth.

The question is, Do you yourself respect the work he does? And do you believe he has a noble relationship to his work, or one that is craven and dishonest?

This requires thought. What does he say about his job? Does he think it is a stupid job? Is he cynical about it? Does he pretend it doesn't matter? Or does he seem to take a quiet satisfaction in it? Who is more dissatisfied with his job? He? Or you? And what about his big dreams? Are they related to his current interests? Or are they disconnected? If they are disconnected from his current interests, it might indicate that he is in the wrong field altogether.

These are not questions that cannot be answered with 100 percent certainty. Rather, you must make your best estimate.

And then the question is, How much do you want this relationship? What are you willing to risk for it? What are you willing to sacrifice? You always have to sacrifice something. And eventually you get to an age where you've experimented enough and you feel that you have to make the best call you can make.

You do not have to make the call yet. You have time. Though you have dated widely, you could probably double the number of men you date before you settle on one. That would double the pool of experience. You might meet one with whom you are just as compatible in personality but who also wants to achieve cultural and economic success in the same way that you do. It's possible.

But you must keep in mind that a person is not an assemblage of separate attributes but a whole in which each quality and flaw means something. The very qualities that you do like in this man are probably quite strongly related to those that you do not like; his fun personality, for instance, may be connected to his lack of a need for outward success.

Education does matter in a relationship because it helps individuals communicate ideas and feelings. Each person's education also contributes to the couple's collective social capital. But two individuals need not be educated to the same degree or in the same way; even wide differences in educational attainment need not stop them from having a happy life together. If you can come to see that what he does is valuable and important, and that his choice accords with who he is as a person, then great. But if you feel that he is not being true to himself, that he is acting out of fear and laziness, then perhaps you should walk away now and keep looking.

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