Ask Hors–Sex and the busy grad student

Dear Hors,

My love life since starting graduate school has been in the pits. With the grueling reading, days devoted to writing, and grading for hours on end, I don’t have much time to spend on romantic candlelight dinners. I told my partner this is how it was going to be for the first few years of school, but things have gotten tense. We aren’t talking as much as we used to and things in the bedroom are on the verge of lesbian bed death. How can I bring the spark back into my love life without taking the spark out of my studies?


Studious in the Sciences


Dear Studious,

Before we get into Work/Life balance, which is a huge obstacle for people both in and out of academia, let’s talk about the myth of Lesbian Bed Death or LBD. In the early 1980s, Pepper Schwartz put out a book called American Couples. Schwartz examined people through the use of surveys and concluded, among other findings, that lesbian couples had less and less sexual intimacy as the relationship continued. Academics have openly criticized the findings, saying things like the survey was poorly constructed or misconstrued the kinds of intimacy that lesbian couples partake in. Although it has since entered into the lexicon of pop culture, true LBD for a healthy partnership is likely a myth. Of course, if you’re not spending enough time developing a healthy relationship with your partner then your relationship might have LBD written all over it for that reason alone.

Here’s where we get to your problem. Can you, a busy academic, bring the spark back into your sex and love life without taking the spark out of your budding career?

Since you’re in the sciences, Studious, we’re going to start thinking of your relationship in the same way that you might think of raw data. Work with me on this one. Let’s say you’re lucky enough to be awarded a grant that allows you access to a huge dataset. (I’m a size queen, so I like my datasets huge.) First of all, congrats! Not everyone gets the chance to work with said data or see the possibilities within. You should feel lucky that you have the opportunity.

Now, with raw data, you have a bunch of responses sitting in front of you. They’re open to the possibilities and full of interesting results just waiting to come out. Yes, working with the data can be aggravating and often times it will be confusing. Sometimes you’ll need to tweak your strategies because you’ve created false positives. Other times you’ll notice your significance level is slightly off, probably because of some user error in the computation of your formula. However, with the right attention to detail, the data will talk back to your hypotheses, provide interesting results, and help you move forward in your career.

Do you see what I’m trying to say here? Let me print out the results for you in plain English: If you want your relationship to get better, put in some muthafuckin’ work!

The “I told my partner this is how it was going to be…” line is a way of avoiding any responsibility for the success of your romantic coupling. I have friends in graduate school who use the “not enough time” excuse to constantly avoid social obligations. It isn’t accurate and it can be downright insulting. When something or someone is important, you make the time. The next piece of data, the newest article in your area, the next presentation, a looming deadline – these things will always be there, calling for your attention in an academic career. A partner who you want to have involved in your life is calling in the same way. Answer the call, Studious. She won’t stay on hold forever.

So, how can you begin to put the spark back into your relationship without falling behind academically? First and foremost, have a conversation with your partner. Tell her that you’ve been feeling overwhelmed by the Life/Work balance issue and that you want to work a solution. Unless the tenseness has already gotten out of hand, she will be open to having this conversation and finding with ways to make things right. My biggest suggestion is the use of a schedule. Create times for school and times for the relationship.

In your situation, I’d start by devoting one night per week to doing something as a couple. Take the hours of 5PM to whenever you get to sleep and spend quality time with your partner. Go out dancing. Take her for a round of mini golf or a walk in the park. Cook a fancy meal together at home and cuddle on the couch with a movie. The key is to make sure that the two of you spend time together in a situation where you can reconnect. Afterwards, make sure you stay connected. Send your partner a text saying hello or telling them you had a good time. It is often the little things in a relationship that can make the biggest impact.

Will something come up that you’ll want to work on instead of going on date night? Probably. But will taking one night per week to spend a romantic evening with your partner ruin your academic career? Probably not. What you really have to ask yourself is this: Is my partner more important than ______?  If you’ve answered yes (as I hope you have), then you know that you can put whatever it is off until tomorrow to spend time with your special someone. Now, if you answered no… that’s a whole different advice column.





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