The Atlantic

Editor's Note: Every Wednesday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I have been dating my current girlfriend for about a year and a half. We are really happy together, and never fought until it was time to decide where to go to graduate school a couple weeks ago. There aren’t schools that we were both accepted to (despite our best planning) and are interested in attending.

I was only accepted to three programs. She was accepted to all her programs, and naturally wants to go to the best programs she got into (I am in favor of this) over ones near my options. The programs can mean a long time apart (one to two years for hers, four to five years for mine).

As my program will take longer, I think that if we want to transition to a long-distance relationship while she finishes her degree, we would probably want to move in together as I finish mine. She has said that she doesn’t want to do that. Instead, she is pushing to remain in the same city the whole time, with me putting off my program until she finishes, and then going “wherever I want” afterwards. Her reasoning for going to these better programs is they offer better degrees for salary and job security.

I can’t help but see the mismatch here. She is pushing me to defer on my career goals when I don’t know if I’ll get into the same programs if I reapply in two years. How do you know whether you are asking too much of your partner, or they are asking too much of you, to be together? What do you think of my situation?

Anonymous
Austin, Texas


Dear Anonymous,

There are many ways that you two can make this decision—and no single option is the “right” or “most fair” one because what works for one couple doesn’t necessarily work for another. You’ve only been dating for a year and a half, and if you end up spending your lives together, you’ll have many dilemmas to navigate. Right now—when the stakes are high, but not as high as they’d be if you had children or mortgages to consider—is the perfect time to get some practice.

It seems like your current dilemma isn’t just about how to negotiate your professional options, but also about how committed you are to each other.

This question of commitment could be the part that you two need to talk more about, because underlying the logistics is the possibility that this relatively new relationship might not work out. It doesn’t sound like you’re engaged to be married, and I don’t know what kind of commitment you two have for the longer term, or how fully you’ve discussed this. You say you’ve never fought before—but have you two had disagreements? A year and a half is a long time to be in a serious relationship and never to have disagreed on anything. Now would be a good time to bring into the open your feelings about things like: Does one or both of you want marriage? Kids? Where do you want “home” to be once you finish your graduate programs? Near her family? Yours? Can each of you get job offers that you’re both happy with in the same city? If not, what’s the plan then?

When couples bring disagreements to therapy, often I find it useful for them to talk with each other about the “why” of what they’d like to see happen, and not just the “what.” For instance, why does your girlfriend want you to live with her at the cost of turning down your acceptances? By staying in the “what,” people tend to assign motives to their partners that are distorted or simply wrong—and these assumptions back both people further into their corners. Instead of feeling like trusted partners trying to work out a mutually beneficial solution, they treat each other with suspicion, believing that the other person doesn’t have their interests in mind at all (which generally isn’t true).

Maybe, for instance, your girlfriend has expressed concern over the expense and hassle of traveling to visit each other, but once you delve deeper, you might discover that something else is at play—say, she’s worried that you’ll lose interest in each other, or that you’ll meet other people if you’re apart. This could be more of a trust issue for her than a logistical one. You might have unvoiced worries, too: Are you afraid of deferring graduate school because you don’t completely trust that when it’s your turn, she’ll actually move to any city you want, even if she has a better job opportunity elsewhere?

If you don’t get curious about the feelings underneath your positions, you’ll stay stuck in the same place you are now—trying to hammer out a solution by cycling through the same set of options (take turns, do things in stages, do both of your programs separately) but never getting past the underlying dilemmas.

Of course, there are no guarantees—you could both promise commitment and still break up; you could reach a happy compromise and still have a change in plans—but you can stack the deck in your favor so that no matter what happens, you’ll feel good about having made a choice after being rigorously honest with yourself and your partner. I say “choice” because whatever you decide has to be entered into freely and without resentment, knowing that it’s an imperfect but workable compromise—at least for now.

Rest assured that in a year’s time, you’ll both have a much better idea of whether you want to adjust the plan—and of how invested you are in a future together. In other words, you’ll have far greater clarity on whether you’ve been asked or are asking too much of each other. Meanwhile, this test-drive of the hard choices that couples have to make will prepare you well for the ones that lie ahead.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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