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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?

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  1. Michele on March 30, 2010 at 6:32 pm

    I would call this “When Your Partner Doesn’t Have a Job”

    EVERYONE works late, keeps a crazy schedule, and has industry stuff no one else understands.

  2. KateMadd on March 29, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    Why are these issues exclusive to scientists? I would call this: “When your partner is NOT an academic.”

  3. s_laub on March 26, 2010 at 4:07 am

    “planning ahead properly”. WISE words. Make lists! Never underestimate the power of a list!

  4. Nick on March 25, 2010 at 9:48 am

    I first met my wife when I was in the midst of my PhD so we can definitely relate to the “I’ll be done in 5 minutes” thing. She would regularly come to meet me after work, only to sit in the lobby for 30 minutes or more while I finished a vital part of an experiment that could simply not be left at that point.

    That caused a lot of friction between us in the beginning I have to say! I didn’t go for the “be consistently late”approach, but instead made a big effort to separate my work and home life as much as possible. This is a difficult thing to do, but is healthy and worth the effort in my opinion.

    To do this I turned into a bit of a planning and efficiency freak and got to the stage where I could nearly always finish in the lab at 5pm. My wife liked this, and so did I, but the side effect was that it generated a lot of tension from my workmates who saw me rarely stay late. You can’t please everyone!

    My take on this:
    1. Nothing is more important than family so it is vital to make sure that they are prioritized and work does not take over.

    2. If you have the mindset that you will be in the lab until 7,8,9pm – you do not work as efficiently as you do if you know you have to be out of the lab by a certain time. So staying late is not always as beneficial as you think it is.

    3. You can save a lot of time in your day by planning ahead properly…!

  5. Åsa on March 25, 2010 at 8:22 am

    My partner is a part time musician and a part time retail worker, which means that he works late evenings, weekends, has gigs on both evenings and weekends, and sometimes has to go on a tour for a week or two. So I cause no trouble working late/weekends as long as I plan it well so that it overlaps his work (and vice versa). And he shows full respect for conferences/meetings/visiting other labs for a month of work, since it’s kind of the same as going on tours…

    However, I really appriciate that he’s there to show me that there’s a fully functional world outside of academia. So that if my experiments fail I’ll still feel that it is not the end of my existance, and if I’ve had a horrible week I can always see other possible roads in life.

    I don’t have a lap top so it’s quite inconvinient for me to bring home my computor 🙂 Sometimes I bring some things on a usb stick, but for most of the time my “home work” is limited to reading a couple of papers/book chapters (which is much more efficient now since I started following your tips here on bitesizebio!). I am a multi tasker and a planner to the extreme so my days in the lab/office are usually efficient enough for me to be able to have a decent evening/weekend at home doing science-unrelated things together with a partner that I share several hobbies with. If I do start babbeling about work, then he’ll be fine with it. And I wouldn’t want it any other way!

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