Come-hither eyes...and some impressive publications

October 20, 2006

Research leads some academics to romance, but how do husband-and-wife teams balance their work lives and love lives? wonders Harriet Swain

Early in Chris Moulin's first postdoctoral job he was taken out to lunch by his mentor and asked how everything was going. As Moulin started laying into the department, the mentor broke in: "Before you go any further, I ought to tell you that the head of department is my wife."

Moulin draws on this experience now that he is married to a fellow lecturer in psychology at Leeds University, Celine Souchay. He says they have always been upfront about their relationship to avoid awkward situations and also because being married to a colleague seems natural to them. "I always did my training in departments where there were married couples," Moulin says. "When I came to Leeds, it was the first department I had worked in where there weren't any."

Certainly, it is not uncommon for academics to be romantically drawn to each other. Gail Kinman, senior lecturer in psychology at Bedfordshire University, who surveyed 850 academics for a study on work-life balance, found that 46 per cent had partners who worked in education.

Mary Balfour, managing director of the up-market dating agency Drawing Down the Moon and co-owner of dating website Love and Friends (loveandfriends.co.uk), says: "I wouldn't say academics are snobby, but they move in a world that is quite insulated from other professions. You don't very often get academics mixing with bankers." This, she says, tends to be the choice of the academics rather than the bankers. While after-dinner conversation can be light-hearted for both groups, "as soon as something serious comes up, such as politics or religion, it becomes clear that academics have a much more disciplined, rigorous approach to an argument".

Balfour ought to know. She is married to Sebastian Balfour, emeritus professor of contemporary Spanish studies at the London School of Economics. As an outsider, she finds mixing in academic circles stimulating but is well aware that "if you can't keep up because you've had one glass too many, you have to drop out of the conversation".

Souchay and Moulin admit that they discuss ideas in ways that people outside academia might not understand. "It's the creative aspects of the job, such as waking up in the middle of the night with an idea," Moulin says. "This sounds an overly romantic idea of academia, but it is something Celine understands. We are both terribly in love with the job, and that helps."

Souchay says that while being married to someone working in the same field can be challenging, the relationship is also very supportive. But there can be an element of competitiveness. She says she was professionally aware of Moulin before meeting him at a conference he was organising. "I was impressed by his publications," Souchay says. "But it wasn't just about that."

Lisa Matthewman, who has been interviewing academics for a study on workplace relationships, says she has been trying to establish the different kinds of love that blossom between colleagues, from infatuation to friendship. While she says she has identified "quite a few Casanovas" among her sample, the dominant kind of relationship has been one of friendship and intellectual playfulness.

Meanwhile, romance is helped on its way in the ivory tower by the relative flexibility of university life. This means it is often possible for an academic couple to co-ordinate hours, live abroad together and work from home at the same time.

Adrian Mourby, author of two campus novels, The Four of Us and Wishdaughter , says this flexibility of hours and intellect makes for good fictional romance, too. "Academic characters are good to write about because they are often articulate about their emotions and eloquent on the subject of their neuroses," he says. "Moreover, even in today's results-oriented world, they still have a lot of flexibility about how they spend their time. A protagonist who has to wait until she or he clocks off before the narrative thrust of the story can continue is much less useful to a writer than a protagonist who can cancel tutorials or postpone marking."

But a real-life academic romance is not all playful brainstorming. A sociology professor who has been married to an academic in a different subject for more than 40 years says that, while the couple discuss work, she cannot pretend to be as passionate about his subject as he is. At the same time, she says, those in a relationship with someone in the same department can encounter problems, such as when colleagues assume that the couple always think alike. "That can lead to a bit of cattiness," she says.

Souchay says that colleagues had in the past directed questions to her husband, assuming that she would agree with him, but things have improved. "They thought at first I was more his secretary than a researcher."

The couple were concerned enough about potentially antagonising their colleagues to check with human resources that it was all right for them to carry out second marking for one another, only to find that the university had no policy on married couples working together.

This is common. None of the couples Matthewman interviewed had any idea what their university's policy was on relationships at work, and many chose to keep their relationship secret for fear of gossip and accusations of favouritism. But those in the sample generally believed that managers should be aware of relationships to prevent possible conflicts of interest.

Kinman found that academics married to others in education tend to report higher stress levels and worse work-life balances than those married to people working outside education. She says that while it can be good to have a partner who understands the strains of the job, it can also encourage a blurring of work and home life.

Also, while academics are able to work more flexibly, their busy periods tend to fall at the same time, which can cause problems if, for example, childcare is an issue. "Someone doing a nine-to-five job could offer more support back home," Kinman says.

Sally Feldman, dean of the School of Media, Arts and Design at Westminster University, agrees. She is married to a non-academic and says that while academic couples may discuss high ideas, they probably spend more time comparing grant applications and talking about the research assessment exercise and the "minutiae and frustrations of academic life".

"If they're not careful, academics in relationships with each other could get hung up on the language that's becoming second nature to us all," she warns. "They will be 'looking at collaboration', 'considering reappraisal of their values', trying to make sense of a world where they are 'bringing in income while maintaining value and quality'. I can't imagine the relationship lasting very long."

Mourby says the academic couples he knows seem to have a better - and gloomier - grasp of university politics than couples where only one member is an academic. This does not make for much romance - at least where fictional characters are concerned. "The appeal of academia works best when the academic hero stands unique - tortured, misunderstood, disillusioned and deeply sexually frustrated," he says. "Put two of them in a book and you're throwing away the mystique."

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