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When Your Partner is NOT a scientist

When Your Partner is NOT a scientist

A recent  article published by The Scientist called Power Couples gave advice and examples for scientist couples who have successfully balanced their life at home and in the lab.  It was interesting from the perspective of how two very busy and career motivated people work together to have it all: raise a family, run a lab, and stay in love with each other over the years.

My previous relationship was with a scientist and in fact we worked together in the same lab for a while. We had no problems working together- we enjoyed it. Working in the same field as your spouse means you have much more in common. There is more to talk about and you can actually help each other with your work. How rare is that to have in a boyfriend or girlfriend?

The bigger challenge is trying to maintain a relationship when your spouse is not a scientist. As someone in this position, I can tell you, it’s not easy. Let me tell you why.

I’ll be leaving in 5 minutes honey…

The non-scientist spouse doesn’t understand that when you bring home a stack of papers to read, it means that while he (or she) is sitting on the couch watching “Man Tracker” on The Science Channel, you will be right by his side with your head buried in work. And when his feet make their way up to rest on the paragraph you were in the middle of, it’s not going to get him a foot rub.

The non-scientist spouse doesn’t understand that your job doesn’t end at 5 pm or 6 pm or 8 pm. They don’t realize that long after you are home, the wheels are still turning ferociously in your mind, churning over possibilities. The magnetic draw of the computer to look something up is overwhelming and before I know it, I’ve been at it another two hours until I am snapped out of the reverie with a romantic call from the bedroom of “GET OFF THE COMPUTER AND COME TO BED. NOW!”

The non-scientist spouse doesn’t understand that when you say you are leaving in 5 minutes, you actually mean 5 minutes after the gel is done, you wrote up the result in your notebook, and you sent an email to your boss.  (You can’t say “in 30 minutes” or you will be met with a slew of complaints from the non-scientist spouse. The words “the gel needs to finish” has become a meaningless phrase used to avoid going home.)

But it’s not all bad

Living with a person who does not understand the life of a scientist has its benefits too. You spend much less time complaining about work because it would take too much explanation of the issue to gain the sympathy you seek. I don’t discuss the latest new product I saw that competes with mine or the poorly written paper I read that used our product wrong and then said it didn’t work. I go running instead and let the steam out via sweat. In the end, I think this makes for much greater relationship harmony. Who wants to hear their spouse complain about their job all night?

What I love about my non-scientist partner is that it doesn’t matter what I do, he is impressed and  he thinks I am a genius. I try to tell him the truth but he won’t accept it. So I let him keep his grandiose vision of me, a master at work unfairly spurned by the  Nobel Prize committee for my thesis work that is gathering dust in a library in Virginia, which, incidentally, holds the cure to all known cancers if anyone cared to read it (so he has convinced himself). Why fight it?

There are many professions that demand the dedication and focus that science also does. However, I don’t know if any other profession becomes so infused with one’s “being” as being a scientist does.   One’s approach to figuring out problems in the lab is applied in all areas of life.

At least….it is for me. How about for the rest of you?

Tips and tricks

A Bitesize Bio article is not complete if it doesn’t have some kind of tips and tricks list, so here are my tips for making a relationship work with a non-scientist. Every relationship is different, of course, so feel free to share the secrets to your success.

1. It is best to be consistently late so they understand that you will always be late and then they can plan for it instead of complaining about it. If you are always late and then decide one day to be on time, it can be stressful for the non-scientist spouse. Whatever you do, be consistent.

2. Try to devote at least 1 hr a night to watching TV with the non-scientist spouse, even if you can’t stand the show they want to watch. Even if it’s the UFC, or worse, Dog the Bounty Hunter.   Leave the research articles on the floor, engage yourself in the action, and pretend that you don’t even know you had something else to do.

3. It is normal that the non-scientist spouse does the majority of the upkeep at home because of your schedule so try to remember to comment on things and say thank you. The non-scientist spouse will be upset if you do not acknowledge their effort. You’ll earn bonus point for noticing before being told that the bathroom is sparkling or that they did all the food shopping and bought all your favorite food.

4. This is a difficult one but sometimes you have to leave the computer at home when you go on vacation. I’ve only done this a couple of times but the response from the non-scientist spouse makes it worthwhile.  Of course these were only one day get-a-way vacations. For longer than a day, bring the computer, but it is best that you only check emails when the non-scientist spouse is in the bathroom, napping or going to get ice.

5. There are always work related events, such as happy hour or dinners where everyone gets together. Let’s face it. When scientists get together, we almost always talk about work. Do not bring your non-scientist spouse to these functions. They will feel left out and bored and the next time there is a function, they will complain. Only bring your spouse to functions where everyone else is bringing their non-scientist spouse. This way they have someone to talk to who has some idea of what is going on outside the world of science. Or in the UFC.

That’s my advice for all of you dating or considering dating a person who has a completely different occupation than you do.  While it can be tough on your relationship to not share a passion for something that is such a huge part of your life, at least you can count on the fact that your future in-laws will instantly love you.

Personality plays a big role in relationships and so your advice might be totally different from mine. I’d like to hear from all of you out there who are making it work with a non-scientist. What are your tips?

20 Comments

  1. Coloradoist323 on July 27, 2012 at 11:55 pm

    I have to admit, I love your website and most of the articles have been a TREMENDOUS help, but I’m disappointed in/enraged by this article and I can’t bear to think other people would take this advice. I am currently married and doing research in biochem. It IS tough to balance everything and sometimes I have to spend more time doing research/reading papers/studying/writing than my wife would like. But it seems as though the current trend is that many people would rather be married to their job than to their spouse, and speak as if their spouse were an annoying dog that they had to pet every so often to keep them happy (also the tone of this article – specifically, see advice points 1, 2, 3, and 5 in the article text). If this is your disposition, my advice is to leave marriage to those who believe it is important and instead devote yourself entirely to your job (also a noble life direction). I’ve come up with a few counter-advices to those listed in your article:

    1. Be consistently ON TIME, not consistently late. Try to give a true estimate of when you will be home, accounting for the fact that things in the lab nearly always take longer than you expect them to. And, when things take significantly longer than the estimate you give, sincerely apologize to your spouse and ask forgiveness. I guarantee it is better to talk about these things openly and honestly than to show up late every day until your spouse gives up in complete frustration and desperation.

    2. Agreed – spend time with your spouse…sometimes more than an hour! Remember, you actually LIKE doing things with them. It’s ok. Papers will exist tomorrow too.

    3. It is NOT normal that a non-scientist spouse does most of the upkeep in the house. You married a partner, not a slave. If they also work a job AND do most of the upkeep, you are parasite, not a scientist. The one exception may be a stay-at-home spouse, but even then you are not, as a scientist, too famous/prestigious to spare a few minutes to do the dishes or the laundry. You may not be as passionate about housework as you are science, but you are still responsible for it.

    4. If you cannot leave your computer at home, then you are not on vacation (look it up). No wonder your spouse is mad at you…you haven’t actually taken a vacation in a decade! And the computer-less vacations you have taken are never more than a day? Again, why would you get married in the first place? If you can’t part with your computer for more than a day, I suggest psychological intervention and life re-evaluation (unless you are not married – in which case you can be entirely devoted to your work).

    5. When going to work related functions, try getting to KNOW the people you work with. Ask them non-research related questions. What are they like as PEOPLE? If you’d still like to stay enveloped in a scientific mindset, you are free to observe and analyze their personalities systematically…and so can your spouse! They can come now too. They might even learn a little bit about what you do, who you interact with, and what your elevated, refined scientific world is like.

    As for me, I would give up a shot at a Nobel Prize or an Olympic gold medal for my wife and my marriage.

    P.S. I apologize for the sarcasm throughout my response, but marriage and science (in that order) are two of the things I’m most passionate about. I wholeheartedly request that this article be removed from your website.

    • MindScientist on August 3, 2018 at 8:49 pm

      Fantastic comment Coloradoist! Completely Agree.

    • C.R.N. on March 4, 2019 at 9:40 pm

      As a wife of a scientist, I truly appreciate your corrections ( as I see it).
      I met my husband while he was in grad school so I knew what I was getting into.
      We have been married 6.5 years and have 2 children. I take care of the youngest full time and have made my own career sacrifices.
      I chose to do these things and my love for him helps me get through the day.
      He shares job issues with me and I help him when I can.
      I do all the cooking, cleaning and shopping, but that’s mainly because he is too tired when he gets home to do them.
      He works 12 hour days and we never take a vacation… but this is how we live our life. You shouldn’t compare yourself to others because they aren’t in your same boat and you end up feeling like you got the shortest stick!
      Overall, if marriage isn’t a priority, don’t do it.

      • NON-scientist on November 1, 2019 at 4:36 am

        This year I have fallen in love with a physics PhD candidate with a lifelong goal of becoming a professor. It’s been hard recently, because I’ve realized, “Wait, this level of unavailability isn’t going to change when he graduates. He’s going to be this busy for as long as he is in academia.”

        It’s hard to feel like you come second (especially because in my ideal relationship, we might have HOBBIES together. We would cook dinner together and share in home responsibilities and child care equally.). It sucks to feel like spending time with you is a chore for the person you love most. I searched Google to get tips on having success in this type of relationship and this article is the first one came up. It brought tears to my eyes. “This is going to be forever? He’s going to have to constantly look for excuses to work for the limited time we’re actually together?” What a shitty feeling. I hope to search and find other success stories, but honestly right now it’s feeling rather hopeless.

    • Scientist on August 9, 2019 at 9:31 pm

      Completely agree !!!

  2. Sapinder on August 30, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    Thanks guys…..I am planning to get married….will think properly
    he he he he…

  3. Carter on August 29, 2011 at 10:27 pm

    I think that your advice and tips are very useful. I always explain what work is being done in the lab or at school, but my explanations are simplified for him. I think the best tip when doing that is to keep it SHORT, under one minute of explanation and he will listen. If I go over a minute, he drifts off. My spouse is an engineer. When he chooses to, he listens to me ramble off about a project or what I want to study in graduate school. Its a hard relationship sometimes in that aspect, but its good to know that there is always balance there. He will never come home and relay the same problems as me (meaning: funding, deadlines, etc).

  4. Lucy Reynell on June 9, 2010 at 8:55 am

    ditto what Michele said – if your partner has a job they care about most of this stuff probably applies to them too, no?

  5. Roberto on March 30, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    Michele: but scientists enjoy it! That’s something a partner would never forgive 😉

    • Sean Scully on March 16, 2011 at 11:37 pm

      Ha! Quite right Roberto. We ‘do’ enjoy it. Maybe that is the most damning thing of all. I think it’s just a matter of time until my wife gets me a bumper sticker that reads, “I´d rather be in lab”.

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