Hey, what d'you mean 'Jim who'?

February 17, 2006

The groves of academe are littered with the remnants of long-distance liaisons, but it is possible for the two of you to survive having British Telecom as the third party in your relationship, says Harriet Swan

So how did you spend Valentine's night? Staring deeply into your lover's eyes? Or staring deeply into your e-mail inbox? Long-distance relationships are something of an occupational hazard for academics, particularly those whose partners are in the same business. So how do you cope?

Expect not to, warns Phillip Hodson, fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. "You must expect that a relationship will deteriorate a bit because of the separation," he says. "Nothing will replace touch. You also have problems of suspicion and awful feelings of loneliness that may generate jealousies that are unreasonable."

He advises being as tolerant as possible about these jealousies and establishing rules early on about how you are going to conduct the relationship. Will you call, write or e-mail regularly, or not at all? Will you meet at your place, your partner's, or halfway?

David Berger, chair of the Association for University and College Counselling, says you have to make sure the time you spend together is quality time. Don't just disappear into your separate studies, whatever the pressures of the research assessment exercise.

On the other hand, you need to leave room for spontaneity. Erin Sahlstein, assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Richmond, in Virginia, who has researched long-distance relationships, says there is evidence that many couples, or one partner within a couple, meticulously map out their time together and then feel obliged to keep to this schedule.

"Planning can also become the basis of relating, which can take couples out of the present moment in the interactions," she says.

She also warns against compartmentalising your individual lives and lives as a couple. This can cause resentment if one person needs to go into the office or to bring work during a visit. "Couples need to recognise that their relationships are not in a vacuum," she says.

Hodson warns that you must be prepared for complex problems when you reunite. He advises a three-day period when you forbear all criticism. He says the person left behind will get used to dictating their own day-to-day life. "When their partners come back they're not used to it. The returning partners are also going to miss a bit of the life they have had."

He says it is hard to sustain a long-distance relationship for a considerable time. "If it is going to be more than temporary, you need to start thinking about relocation," he advises.

Trying to get a job in the same place as your partner brings its own problems, however, says Helen Scott, executive officer of the Universities Personnel Association. "If a new academic is joining and a wife/husband/partner finds a job as well, it reeks of nepotism," she warns.

While institutions' family-friendly policies have improved, so have their awareness of equal opportunities and the need to be transparent in recruitment.

Tim Roper, professor of biology at Sussex University, used to commute between Sussex and Leeds, where his partner was a postdoctoral research student at the university. She eventually also got a post at Sussex because she brought a research grant with her, although she has not got a permanent position.

He warns that it is likely that one partner will need to be prepared to compromise career aspirations if both are to find work in the same place.

Scott says couples may still find themselves subject to whisperings and resentment and should at least be seen to go through the proper appointment and interview process to help prevent this.

The alternative, she suggests, is trying to plan teaching hours and sabbaticals so that they co-ordinate with those of your partner, or at least allow you time to see him or her regularly. This will involve making friends with whoever runs the timetables and/or your head of department. It will also depend on the culture of the institution and that of your subject discipline. Arts and humanities academics are likely to find it easier to arrange teaching hours around long weekends, for example, something that is harder for those expected daily in the lab.

"It's always worth asking but you won't have any kind of rights and your employer won't be under any kind of obligation," Scott warns. "A lot of other people will be wanting to do it too." The more senior you are the more likely it is that you will be able to pull strings or call in favours in rearranging your hours, although junior academics are likely to be more flexible.

But ultimately you do have to consider how flexible you can expect yourself and your colleagues to be. Roper says: "I don't think it's any real kind of life. You have to ask what your personal priorities are and how you want your life-work balance to be. I wouldn't want to do it in the long term."

He and his partner had another reason for stopping their geographical separation as soon as possible. "We are both ecologists," he says. "Dashing around everywhere, commuting long distances is immoral, apart from anything else."

But if you do end up together, start a family, take on a mortgage and adopt a cat, don't expect all your problems to be over, Berger warns. "There are quite a lot of frustrated academics who have got stuck at a certain level because they have taken on parental responsibilities," he says. "They forgo some of their career prospects but find that very difficult."

Further information: Association for University and College Counselling: www.aucc.uk.com


E-mail , leave notes for your partner, say what you've been up to

Beware of nepotism , and try to bring in grant money if you go for a post in the same institution

Arrange your hours to maximise time together

Remember that being together may take getting used to

Make sure any separation is temporary

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