Regarding Academic Couples

Academics often marry or partner with academics, so perhaps it’s not surprising that I work with many underproductive academics who are married to prolific partners. Almost always, the underproductive person in a heterosexual couple is the woman, a fact we can attribute mainly to sexism. (Women still tend to have a lot more household and caretaking responsibilities, and to suffer from more discrimination.)

Having a prolific partner puts enormous pressure on a perfectionist writer, since the partner is a constant reminder of how much the perfectionist is “failing.” To make matters worse, prolific partners’ attempts at “helping” are often counterproductive. The usual tactic is nagging, but even gentle nagging (e.g., “Did you get any writing done today?”) is only likely to create anxiety and feed the underproductive partner’s perfectionism.

In some couples, the prolific partner is a harsh critic, not necessarily because he’s mean, but because he himself is resilient and can’t understand why others aren’t. But here, as elsewhere, harsh criticism is counterproductive.

If you’re the underproductive partner, it’s your job to state your needs and maintain your boundaries. If it sets you back to have your partner critique your work, stop asking him to do it. If his reminders are just stressing you out, tell him to stop. If you need more time to write, ask him to do more chores, or discuss hiring someone.

If you’re the partner of an underproductive writer, the best thing you can do is model compassionate objectivity (Chapter 2.10). Also, listen to her needs and strive to meet them generously. If she asks you to do the dishes so she has more time to finish her thesis, offer to do the laundry, too. (Better yet, pay others to do it.) It’s natural to want to ask her how to her day’s writing went, but if doing so stresses her out, refrain.

If your relationship is already charged because of her procrastination, it’s probably best not to offer advice – but if you do, make sure it’s not misguided, i.e., “C’mon, honey, you know in this business you need a thick skin.”

If she hasn’t read this book, suggest it to her.