Relationship column: You and Your PhD
Should we break up?
Dear PGR Auntie,
I’m in trouble. I don’t even know where to start. To cut to the chase: I think me and my partner might be breaking up. I don’t know if I want to be in this anymore. We’ve been together for two years and I feel like we’re going nowhere and we’ve developed in different directions. I don’t know if I can make it to the finish line. My heart’s just not in it anymore. Do you think I should get a divorce? I really don’t know what to do. Please help.
First of all: take a deep breath. And another. And then another one.
It’ll be alright, no matter what you decide. But the last thing you want is to make a rash decision. I can sense a lot of doubt in your letter - about yourself, about what you want, about your relationship. Doubt can be healthy and helpful. You don’t want to look back in 20 years and wonder how you got to where you are. Better think now about where you’re going and if this is for you. Doubt brings decisions out into the open, questions them, and makes sure they are for you. So it’s not bad that you’re having all these thoughts.
The problem starts with constant doubt. That’s when things can get overwhelming and ruminating starts. It’s absolutely important to think about what you should do, but don’t drag it out longer than you have to. My first advice to you is to sit down, just yourself, and take stock. What have you achieved in your relationship? Why did you start it? Why exactly do you want to stop? Could this merely be a temporary low? Or are there, indeed, deeper irreconcilable differences? Think hard about what this relationship has gotten you so far, and what about it makes it difficult. If you need to, go somewhere and take a holiday to do this. Get away from your partner for a few days to get some breathing space.
Once you’ve done that, talk to people you trust. Sit down with your friends, a mad amount of ice cream and talk it through. Sit down with people who have been in a similar relationships and have been giving you advice throughout your time with your partner. Go get advice. And then get some more. And some more. They all might advise you something different. They might try to convince you to stick with your relationship; they might tell you to leave it. But whatever they say, getting information from trusted sources will help you to make the decision that’s best for you. The decision needs to be yours and no one else’s. At the end of the day, you only need to answer one question: Will you regret the break up? In two months, two years, twenty years? That’s all you need to know. Whatever you decide, it needs to feel right and you need to have good reasons for your decision.
One last thought, Jack. Whatever you decide, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have failed. If you indeed decide to end it, then acknowledge that making that choice takes guts! You might be surprised at how many PhD students finish their relationship prematurely. A report from 2013 for English higher education institutions shows that after a period of 25 years starting from first enrollment only 80% of PGR students had actually brought their relationship to a successful finish. Others have found a job or simply lost their motivation. Even though this is England-specific, it is probably safe to assume that the difference with Scottish universities will not be extremely different. It’s not easy to admit to yourself that this is not for you and to end it, even if you’ve already put a considerable amount of work into the relationship. Try to still value the experience, look forward, and make plans for what’s next. Equally, if you decide to stay with your partner and stick with the relationship, that’s as courageous. Here as well it takes guts to go through a crisis and decide to work hard on your relationship. Whichever decision you make, the most important point is that you make it for the right reasons and won’t regret it.
I hope this was helpful to you, Jack. Please, do let us know how you get on and what you decide to do. If you want to read more advice, roam the internet - there’s loads on this struggle, i.e. here, here or here. Don't forget that you can also approach your College Graduate School, as well as your primary and secondary supervisors for help too.
PS: Also, don’t forget to get involved in our love letter competition! Writing a love letter to your partner can also help you make a difficult decision and see things clearer. And you can win great prizes!