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Being a student and being in a committed relationship can present you with important life roles that sometimes feel incompatible and conflictual and at other times feel quite harmonious. Your relationship can provide you with important emotional support as you cope with the stresses of school and work, but at the same time represent additional responsibilities and demands on your time. Not surprisingly, trying to fill both roles can be a confusing and frustrating experience. As a couple, communication, and the way you handle inevitable “boundary issues” can greatly influence the quality of your life together and the quality of your student experience.
As a student, you may expect to lead irregular hours and drop everything else in order to do the “crash” project of the day. Also, you may place a high value on independent, spontaneous activity. In some way, you may tend to put your relationship on “hold,” expecting that difficulties such as unequal divisions of labor will magically disappear once you have your degree. Your partner, on the other hand, may expect you to provide predictable time, to work together to common interests, to play, and especially to communicate. Expectations for attention, emotional support and affection carry implicit expectations of time together. You may feel that you do not have enough time to fulfill all of your partner’s expectations. Couples who derive satisfaction from both their relationship and their academic pursuits, tend to understand what the other’s expectations are, reduce or modify certain expectations as needed, and then learn how to establish fairly clear approaches and routines for fulfilling those readjusted expectations.
Maintaining quality in a relationship requires communication. Partners need to express positive feelings, negative feelings, complaints, needs, and above all, affection. In the academic context, where the environment so clearly emphasizes the importance and independence of academic activities and perhaps by omission deemphasizes relationships and connectedness, the obvious commitment to equality and the time needed to express that commitment require careful negotiation. The student partner may need to communicate that his/her partner’s needs and activities are important, too; that the impact of decisions on each person is significant; and that each person has dignity and worth as an individual. This positive context is especially important when working out possible sensitive “boundary issues.”
Boundaries, especially time boundaries, are important because in school there is always more to be done. That does not necessarily change after graduation. It is important to learn how to set limits now. Ironically, you will probably be more effective in school and in your career if you adopt a lifestyle that allows time to take care of your work and your relationships. Above all, schedule regular and specific times to spend with your partner free of school and household responsibilities. You may enjoy being together as you do necessary tasks, but that does not adequately meet your need for time alone as a couple. Try treating these scheduled times with the same respect you would a meeting time with a boss or an advisor…more, in fact, since your partner is more important than your boss or advisor. Similarly, each of you needs to learn to say "no” to outsiders requests for time that exceed the priorities the two of you have set. Relevant questions may include,
- What am I sacrificing by spending my time this way?
- Is it more important than time with my partner?
Learn to consult with each other when making significant alterations in joint priorities.
Successful relationships require each partner to take seriously the other’s pressures, needs and wants, to negotiate with both partners’ good in mind, and, often, to adapt to less-than-preferred decisions and circumstances. Furthermore, the old admonishment to “just try harder” may not be enough. Rather, certain problems may require totally new approaches. Here are some examples of what may be new approaches to frequent concerns.
- Money Problems: No matter how carefully partners budget and save, they may not have enough money. Beyond a certain point, if the student tries to earn money and goes to school at the same time, the long-run cost to the couple may be greater than if they got a loan that freed the student to finish school a year or two earlier. Considering the greater earning power of post-graduates, loans do make sense in many cases. If you are considering this (or some other) financial strategy or option, seek professional counseling. Whether that counseling comes from a campus financial aids office or from a referral from that office, it is recommended that both partners be involved in the entire counseling process.
- Rat-Racing: Along with too many hours devoted to earning money, all of your other roles and commitments and the sheer academic pace can make things unduly hectic. In order to maintain a healthy, constructive balance between school and a committed romantic relationship, you may find it necessary to take longer than you originally planned to finish your degree. It may be unreasonable to expect to keep the same schedule as your peers who do not have partners or families. Pace yourself realistically. The long-run benefits of rat-racing are often muted by damaged relationships and career burn-out…and, as the saying goes, “to win a rat-race, you’ll probably have to become a rat.”
- Communication Breakdowns: No matter how hard couples try, they will have at least occasional communication breakdowns. A communication breakdown occurs when the speaker’s intent doesn’t correspond with the impact of the message received by the listener. Usually the impact is negative. The negative impact may range from feelings of mild confusion or irritation all the way to profound anger and strong beliefs that the speaker is emotionally disturbed, sinister,or both. To begin resolving a communication breakdown, the listener needs to identify the impact, describe it to the speaker, and ask if that impact was intended. For example, “When you say ‘X’, I feel put down. That doesn’t mean you are trying to put me down…I may be misinterpreting or something. Whatever, I think it would help if we talked about it.” If the speaker meant no harm, the listener has done both people a favor by identifying the negative impact so it can be undone; then the original conversation can resume without as much of a handicap. If the speaker really did intend to exert a negative impact, the two should perhaps explore and resolve the reasons for that intention before going on. Having done that, the couple may find it much easier to deal with the original topic.
- Flexibility of Roles: Whether you and your partner are students or workers in or outside the home, balancing daily chores and management responsibilities associated with running a household can be quite a weight. Fairness in carrying out household tasks is important at all times, but at certain times of the year, such as exam time or when special projects are due, fairness requires flexibility. Good planning and open communication are essential in working out a mutual agreement about what is fair and when it is appropriate to be flexible.
Implicit in all of the preceding suggestions are the themes that when partners are equally empowered and active in decision and planning processes, the decisions and plans are more apt to be carried out and both the process and the end result tend to be more satisfying for both partners.
The Counseling Center has several other self-help brochures that may be particularly helpful: Assertiveness, Stress Management, and Time Management. In addition, the Counseling Center periodically offers free workshops in these areas. Dates and times are advertised in the Daily Illini.
If you wish to start a support group for partnered students, contact the Support Groups Coordinator at the Counseling Center 217-333-3704.
The Child Care Resource Service (217-333-3252) can be helpful to students who need to locate child care or wish to find other parents with whom to share child care. Finally, if you find that you and your partner are in need of couples counseling, call the Counseling Center (333-3704) for an appointment. All appointments are strictly confidential and are prepaid through your Health Service Fee.