I was having tacos with an old student of mine who was about to finish a Ph.D. He got married just before starting graduate school, and had a son shortly after. “It’s had its ups and downs,” he said. “My wife has been really supportive.”
Then he told me how difficult the previous year had been with him finishing his dissertation, and attending job interviews and conferences in different states. All the research and hours and hours in the library. How he’d pulled more all nighters as a student than he ever has as a parent. He now had a job lined up, and was excited to settle down.
He paused for a moment, and I told him about a friend of mine from college who had recently gotten divorced. I told him how I’d known her for about eight years. During the early years of my marriage, I went to Mandy for advice. She already had two children when we met, and had been married for about five years. We were both older-than-average students, heading back to school and sharing many of the same struggles, only she was just a little bit ahead of me. Her advice was always right on. She helped me understand what my wife, Mel, was going through after the birth of our first son, and she helped me understand that so much of what I was struggling with (the long nights with a new child, the sleep-deprived arguments between Mel and me) was normal.
When she told me she was getting divorced, I was shocked. There is something really frightening about finding out a marriage you admired didn’t last. And naturally, after college, I kept up with Mandy like many people do, via social media, but from my vantage point, everything seemed normal and healthy in her marriage. I saw photos of her and her husband on trips, enjoying shared hobbies, and playing with their children. She never mentioned any marital strife when we chatted online. Everything was surface level, and so I made the assumption that her marriage was still functioning like it always had. But I was wrong, and the fact that I couldn’t see it made me worry that I might not be able to see it in my own marriage.
When I asked her what happened, she told me they got married while Mike was in college. They spent years getting him through school, sacrificing for his education, and once it was all said and done, they seemed to be stuck in a pattern of working towards his dreams, while her dreams were never discussed. And once she started working towards what she wanted, they started fighting, because he felt she was asking for too much.
“I remember her story hitting me pretty hard,” I told my former student. “I was in my last year of graduate school at the time, and I told Mel that since things were wrapping down for me, I now wanted to focus on her dreams next. Shortly afterwards she went back to school to finish her undergrad degree.”
I think this happens a lot. It takes so much to get two people established, and rarely can both partners get established at the same time, especially when a couple has kids. I hear so many stories of one partner quitting school to care for children, so the other can finish a degree. Or one person giving up a promotion, and cutting down to part time, so the other can put in the extra hours needed to climb the corporate latter. During these decisions, it always seems like they are putting one person’s dreams on hold, and there is an IOU given for some later date. But all too often, people get stuck in one gear, and have a difficult time making the transition to focusing on what the other person wanted before they took a back seat.
We were close to being done with our tacos when I said, “Can I give you some advice?”
“Sure,” he said.
“What did your wife want to be when you two met?” I asked.
He thought for a moment. Then he said, “A nurse.”
“Do you think she still wants to be a nurse?”
He shrugged and said, “I don’t know. I haven’t asked.”
He crumbled his taco wrapper into a ball.
“Sometimes when two people are focused on getting one person established,” I said, “The other person’s dreams get put to the side. Sometimes what they want gets completely forgotten about. It sounds like you’re close to getting settled. Now might be a good time to focus on her dreams. I’ll bet she’d appreciate that.”
He smiled. Then he nodded and said, “I like that idea.”
“Cool,” I said. “When you get home, how about you start by asking if she still wants to be a nurse.”