Marital bliss

It may not be an exact science, but when it comes to finding love, some academics have found they need not look beyond the ivory tower, writes Sarah Cunnane

July 30, 2009

"In non-academic marriages, there is often resentment," says Dorota Iwaniec, emerita professor of social work at Queen's University Belfast. "I can understand that because most academics are more interested in their research subject than they are in emotional relationships." She adds: "Of course, there are instances when it works extremely well."

An understanding of the academic work-life balance may be crucial to the success of a scholar's marriage. Research published in 2006 by Dutch sociologists Paul de Graaf and Matthijs Kalmijn found that not being able to talk and not getting enough attention were two of the most common reasons cited for marital breakdown, and complaints about working hours had become the fastest-growing reason for women to seek divorce.

Tara Brabazon, professor of media studies at the University of Brighton, agrees that the key to a successful marriage beyond academia is for the non-academic partner to have an understanding of academic patterns.

"Non-academics need to know that there are some weeks where we will have to mark 135 papers and it does not matter if we break a leg, the kitchen floods or the credit card is chewed up by the machine - those papers have to be marked."

Brabazon believes that having a partner who is a fellow scholar means the couple can take a lot more for granted.

"We know what an exam board is. We know that the house is not going to get cleaned when the proofs for a book arrive. We know what it feels like to speak in public most days of our lives. That knowledge gives me great comfort because I can rely on Steve (Redhead, professor of sport and media studies at the University of Brighton and Brabazon's husband) not only to understand but to care."

Iwaniec says that compromise needs to happen both ways, and if academics are to start a family, they need to take emotional responsibility for it. She says of her own work ethic: "I write, I research, but I can close the door on that and put my family first."

However, Redhead believes that if a marriage is strong, scholars can often carry on with their existing patterns of work and study. "Before we met each other a decade ago, Tara and I had worked out our own personal regimes in these areas, living on our own. When we met and got married, we effectively carried on the regimes and they seemed to work. If it ain't broke, don't fix it!"

Perhaps predictably, many academic marriages are marked by less traditional gender roles. Redhead says that a balancing-out of chores makes a partnership more equal, and that he would be unable to conform to a more stereotypical role even if he wanted to: "Tara claims that she is the drag queen; what does that make me?"

In contrast, Howard Segal, professor of history at the University of Maine, acknowledges that despite having the same job and workload as his wife, Deborah Rogers, she played a greater part in raising their two children. However, he confesses, he was "unable to get away with excuses about work".

Nevertheless, says Rogers, who is professor of English at Maine, he supported her in other ways. "I had just given birth to our son, Rick, and I was so tired that I was playing with him while soap operas blared in the background. Having none of it, Howard encouraged me to write about soaps. Voila - the subject of my next article."

An academic partnership can bring not just personal benefits, but professional ones as well. Brabazon freely admits that her husband's experiences in academia have helped her own career: "His experience has helped me to avoid pitfalls, errors and missteps. I was appointed a professor at 37, so it probably worked."

The benefits do not just go one way. Redhead says there is considerable overlap with his research and the subjects Brabazon works on. "It means we are constantly interested in what the other is doing - and we don't always agree! Tara is a phenomenal reader and I learn something new every day."

Segal says that marriage to someone in a different field has led to his own work becoming more interdisciplinary. "We bounce ideas off each other, read each other's papers - if anything, we're sufficiently different in our interests that we can get different perspectives."

Familiarity with a partner's work does not necessarily start with marriage. Rogers admits she was "in awe" of Segal and Brabazon says of Redhead: "I had read and loved Steve's work a decade before I met him. We knew each other through writing and research first. But it meant that my love for Steve began with profound respect for him as a scholar, writer and researcher. Relationships built from respect have a pretty strong chance of survival."

In the end, while shared academic interests may help to keep a marriage alive, each academic has his or her own way of knowing why they have found the perfect partner. For Redhead, it is the order in which you would put your favourite Beatles: "The correct answer in our case is John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr." For Brabazon, it is the adherence to her one house rule: "Nothing negative can ever be said about the Australian cricket team at any time. Ever."

Iwaniec says that role distribution is key. "I don't let James (Stevens Curl, emeritus professor of architectural history and Iwaniec's husband) in my garden - he'd only pull up the flowers and leave the weeds. And he does the shopping, because he enjoys it."

Rogers, for her part, insists: "True bliss for Howard and me is when we are in sync, when we are two keyboards beating as one!"

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