Please don go breaking my heart

February 13, 2004

Stupid Cupid! Steve Farrar relates the pain of academic couples whose love must be a long-distance one

The journey from Wales to Sheffield takes some four hours by train. It is not an especially difficult route, but Kate Reed does not find it easy. For each time she settles into the carriage to make the trip home to Yorkshire, she is leaving her partner behind.

"My heart fills with dread at the thought of another long stretch away from my beloved. I hate being apart from him," the 31-year-old Sheffield University sociology lecturer admits. Kate's partner is a fellow academic.

His work has taken him to a Welsh university while hers is rooted in England.

Both are ambitious and keen to carve out a career. They also want to be together. So far, the opportunity has not presented itself. "I really enjoy being an academic, but it is exhausting living apart," she says.

Still, she is optimistic for the future. "I'm relatively young and think things will get easier. We are trying to come together."

This is a feat that many academics find hard to pull off. Such love stories often have unhappy endings.

As relationships that begin on a single university campus blossom, academic career paths pull couples in different directions.

Many professionals now endure long-distance relationships as women embark on careers that once were the preserve of men. But it seems that academics are more likely than most to endure the trials of the late-night phone calls, email exchanges and weekend treks across the country.

Few cities boast more than one university, and competition for posts is fierce. It is rare for both partners to find meaningful employment at the same institution at the same time, especially early in their careers.

Usually, it is women, who are more likely to be lower paid and at lower grades or to take a career break to care for children, who suffer.

For some couples, the solution is a hefty daily commute. For others, such as Kate and her partner, the distances are too great to avoid living apart for at least part of the week.

In one case raised with The Times Higher , an academic working in London has to take unpaid leave to spend time with his family in Sheffield, where his wife holds a good university position.

And with English the global language of scholarship, a disproportionate number of academic partners now live in different countries, and even on different continents.

One American couple found themselves working at universities on different coasts of the US within a month of their marriage. For six years they soldiered on, living in different time zones, before they divorced. The woman kept her career but is now 41, childless and wondering whether the sacrifice was worth while.

Relationships often fail under the pressure. There are many single academics whose work is their world. Julia (not her real name) decided to put her relationship before her work.

She had every reason to look forward to a very successful career as a historian, with a first-class honours degree, a PhD from a leading UK university, a British Academy postdoctoral fellowship and fellowship of the Royal Historical Society, all by the age of 30.

Four years on, she is teaching in a school. She quit academe to build a stable home with her academic husband.

The pressure of living apart was just one factor in her decision, along with the precariousness of short-term contracts and a poor working environment. "My marriage suffered very badly, but fortunately we weathered the storm and are now much happier all round," she says.

But although she enjoys her work, she still regards having to quit as a waste, on both a personal and a national level.

"I was educated by the state, had student grants from the local education authority and got a government-sponsored postgraduate and postdoc," Julia notes. "Now I cannot feed that back into the system from which I gained so much.

"You'll always get the fantastically cosmopolitan academics who are the stars in the stratosphere, living glamorous lives with a flat in London and another in New York. But for normal young couples embarking on academic careers, it can be hell. At the end of the day, we found we had to make big compromises - the loss of my university position and self-esteem - to keep our marriage."

Phillip Hodson, fellow and head of media for the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, notes that employers are far less accommodating.

Targets, performance indicators and budget constraints produce a take-it-or-leave-it attitude that leaves little room for compromise when it comes to easing the burden of a long-distance relationship. "You end up with a job that might suit your short-term career needs but not your life and certainly not your partner," he says.

Steve Potter, director of counselling for the University of Manchester and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, says that his service helps many academics who are weighing up that choice between career and relationship.

This is especially problematic for young researchers who are still navigating temporary contracts that demand great mobility at a time in their lives when they also want to start settling down.

In some cases, Potter has found academics well prepared for the challenge of a long-distance relationship, having a history of mutual assistance developed through the first years of their careers. Some benefit from the continuous open discussion of what is good for the couple.

Then again, Potter can think of one or two examples where a move overseas has been motivated partly by a desire to avoid an otherwise difficult relationship.

But most couples find it painful to live apart, adding to the sense of isolation that many academics feel. When the couple have children, the pressure mounts still further.

"It is really important to take the impact of the long distance on the relationship seriously and not just hope it will work out," Potter advises.

He adds that most universities, like Manchester, have well-developed staff counselling services that can offer help to couples.

"Talking it through with an independent counsellor can help double-check that the strategy you have adopted for handling the long-distance relationship is sustainable," he says.

Christine Northam, a Relate counsellor, says that modern communications - email, mobile phones, text messaging - have made modern long-distance relationships easier.

But for many, lack of physical contact and the practicalities of living apart are difficult to deal with. "If there were any problems the couple weren't aware of, they are likely to become more apparent," Northam says.

Before a couple embarks on a long-distance relationship, she advises them to talk the issues through, imagine how it might be and listen carefully to each other's opinions.

They will need to work harder on their relationship and set regular times to speak openly with each other. "Lots of people manage to cope with this," Northam says. "But you don't really know how you're going to cope with it until you try."

In the US, some universities run a spousal appointment system to help couples move to a new institution together. Kate believes this approach should be considered in the UK.

But the experience that some of Julia's friends have had in the US suggests that this is still not an ideal solution. When one partner has secured a new post, the other - usually the woman - can be offered a part-time, non-permanent academic position.

One of Julia's friends insisted that his wife's post be made permanent. The deal was made only when he threatened to quit. "Immediately all her peers resent her because she supposedly got in through the back door - but what other option does she have?" Julia asks.

In common with most institutions in the UK, there is no specific policy to deal with the problem at Cambridge University, though it comes up fairly frequently. In many cases, partners of a newly appointed academic are able to bring their own research to Cambridge, apply for other posts or register with the university's temporary employment service.

But a spokesman stresses they are not given preferential treatment and that all appointments are covered by the university's equal opportunities policies.

Liz Allen, national officer in the universities department of lecturers'

union Natfhe, says she is in favour of family-friendly policies but is wary of deals being struck in private to find partners positions.

"I'm all for employers being creative for flexible working, such as negotiating blocks of time off to enable couples to enjoy weekends together, but posts have to be offered fairly, not to a favoured few," she says.

Julia believes there is now a "lost generation" of young academics, forced out of promising careers in British universities because of the need to live apart from their partners.

"I firmly believe our country will look back on this time as a sad one for university education," she says.

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