Skip to content

When Your Partner is NOT a scientist

Posted in: Personal Development
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?

Share this to your network:


  1. Suzanne on March 25, 2010 at 8:10 am

    MAD scientist- how nice for you! My SO says he would like to come help in the lab but I don’t have anything he can do without supervision. But I appreciate that he has the interest. He reads more popular science than I do.
    Thanks for commenting.

  2. MAD scientist on March 25, 2010 at 6:30 am

    My SO is a non-scientist (school isn’t really for him) but he has come in on weekends a few times to help me when I have a ton of cultures to inoculate to several different media. It’s fun getting him in to the science thing. Sure he won’t know the complete biosynthetic pathways of different metabolites but at least he can appreciate that this stuff grows on PLATES and that is DNA he’s seeing on a gel. It’s easy enough to make him do the culturing while I count cells in the microscrope for hours on end.

    I make him a part of my work without overwhelming him with the details.

    Also, this way he appreciates the tedium of my work and understands why it always takes me longer than I expect to do things.

    Luckily in my undergrad, I had a kickass supervisor/adviser who completely trusted me when I brought him in to help me. I won’t be trying this in my new lab for quite a while.

  3. Suzanne on March 24, 2010 at 9:58 pm

    Thanks Angie and Lab Rat!

  4. Angie Dale on March 24, 2010 at 4:58 pm

    I also found this very interesting. I have only ever had a non-scientist partner and like it very much. I did split with my spouse (for reasons that had nothing to do with either partner’s career) and am now a scientist and single mom. My big tip to anyone with a family or spouse is to always leave work at work and to always leave work and computers out of vacations. You spend the majority of your life working and if you want to have a well balanced life with the people you love, dedicate as much energy, passion and time to your partners and family as you do work. You will appreciate it more in the end. So will your loved ones. Also, don’t lie or bend the truth if you want understanding, and always invite your partners to functions. give them the choice of whether or not they want to be present for science discussions.

  5. Lab Rat on March 24, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    I found this really interesting to read. I am a scientist currently living with (and about to become the spouse of) a non-scientist and I think one of the best things about it is that we can’t discuss work together. My partner is a Doctor, so we do occasionally talk about Pathology, but I much prefer to leave my work firmly in the lab, or complain about my job to someone who doesn’t know how it’s meant to work allowing me to pretend I’m in the right.

    As for your points, I don’t know whether I have a more understanding partner than most, or whether I just do less work! My partner does occasionally get a little stroppy about weekend work, but that’s mostly because he’s worried that I’m working myself too hard. And given that he’s sometimes working with patients needing urgent surgery (which are apparently even less time-obliging than gels) he has no problem with the explanation of ‘something needing to set’ besides which he’s usually home much later than I, the joys of being a junior doctor.

    As for the advice, I would say the following from my experiance(heh this is turning into another blog post!:

    1-Be early if you can, be late when you have to be. I like to spend as much time as I can with my partner, the occasional happy surprise of being back early has led to some great evenings.
    2-if you’re going to spend an evening in front of the TV watch something you will both enjoy. Otherwise you spend the whole hour resenting them for not letting you get on with work rather than enjoying yourself.
    3-Find sneaky ways of doing housework real quickly. Negotiate getting money off the rent for the ‘job’ of regular housework. Partner will appreciate it and you.
    4-Leave the computer at home. Totally agree with that one!
    5-At lab dinners invite the partner along so you can spend time together and try and encourage your mates not to talk about lab work all the time. They’ll enjoy the change of conversation, and it means that it feels more like an evening out than another evening at work.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll To Top