Marital Studies

Today marks my and my wife’s seven-year wedding anniversary. Seven years is the “normative time to degree” for a PhD in history, so by that standard I should be a verified marriage expert by now. Fortunately (?), though, I think the time-related expectations for this “discipline” are a bit more forgiving.

I’ve alluded to Julie in some of my previous posts, but since this isn’t a purely personal blog and she is very capable of writing about her own goings-on, I don’t make a habit about talking about her in much depth here. She is, nevertheless, omnipresent since it is difficult to imagine doing what I do without her being in my life. So this post is about her and what I’ve found out about what it means to be married as a graduate student.

I first decided to apply to graduate school before we had gotten married (but while we were dating). Having read the acknowledgements sections of various academic books, I had an idea of how troublesome it could be to marry someone heading into academia and had the opportunity to, admittedly half-heartedly, try to convince her she would be better off finding someone else. In seven years – of marriage and of post-graduate study in Beijing, Irvine, Chicago, Jinan, and now back in Beijing – she’s never expressed any regrets, although I have felt some on her behalf.

There are definitely some advantages to being married to a graduate student. We’ve lived in some really interesting places, and on at least some sightseeing excursions I can offer expert commentary. (OK, this is probably more of a downside.) Through my graduate programs and university communities we’ve also gotten to meet some really wonderful and intelligent people, many of whom also like to play board games.

But the moving around has been difficult too. And it is hardly over. In a few months, we’ll be heading back to Chicago and then, most likely, a few years later on to a new “home” that may or may not be permanent and over which we will have only limited choice. It is hard enough for me to deal with this mobility, but, after all, it is my career trajectory that has driven this wandering. As we’ve watched people our own age settle down and have children, we have put off starting a family, and buying a house is, well…

So I admire her for not only sticking with me but for the way she has managed to adapt to and grow in the different situations where we’ve found ourselves. She continues to hone her own professional interests and skills, even while she’s had to jump between different jobs because of our moving around. She’s both maintained old relationships and made new friends everywhere we’ve been, including among my colleagues, with whom our conversations often veer into obscure and unpredictable territory.

Seven years ago at our rehearsal dinner I made a toast to Julie that referenced a television series that is by now ancient history. That series was Lost, which for the younger people out there, was a very popular television show in the 2000’s and whose entirety I may or may not have binge-watched between spring break and the end of the year of my last semester of college (which was the last season of the show). In the course of the series, one of the characters, Desmond, begins to jump back and forth in time, which of course has advantages, but will eventually lead to his death. The only way to prevent this is to identify a “constant” – someone he loves dearly, will always recognize, and can contact regardless of what time he finds himself in. For Desmond, this constant is his love, Penny.

Now, as seven years ago, I’m thankful for Julie being my own constant. Graduate school can threaten to be all-consuming at times. And I’m grateful for all the support she has offered me in terms of enabling me to do my work. More important, though, is her constant reminder that there is love and beauty beyond the world of books and research. This is a world that in many ways I shy away from and that I think academics can feel it is a virtue to leave behind in the name of giving ourselves over to our work. But with Julie I have only regretted not stepping away from work more often.

Part of the problem is the difficulty of communicating what I’m doing and how it is going. PhD work is odd in the sense that it’s something you really only do because you have a passion for it, but it can be just as tedious as any other kind of work on a given day. And even the parts of it that are interesting to me are not necessarily compelling to others. So explaining what has been happening at the “office” does not come easily to me. But I’ve found facing this challenge helpful to my growth as a graduate student and a person. It’s something I could only do with someone as loving and caring as Julie. She is, then, a motivation and inspiration for my work in general, but also this blog in particular.


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