What do you think of couples who take the same major, and they enrol in the same modules and tutorials together?

A student asked me:

What do you think of couples who take the same major, and they enrol in the same modules and tutorials together? Would it become boring after awhile where projects are always done together and every minute of school is spent with that person?

Boredom isn’t the real problem that these couples should be worried about. While the idea of spending a lot of time together seems good, it’s actually not healthy for both individuals. It’s important to remember that a relationship comprises two unique individuals coming together to enrich each other as individuals. It’s not two individuals merging into a single hive mind as if The Singularity had taken place.

If you are already studying together or going out on dates, do you really need to spend even more time together?

While it is important to spend time together, it is just as important learning how to spend time away from each other so that each can continue developing their own individual selves, whether it is professionally, intellectually, or even socially as they meet new people or old friends.

Spending too much time together by taking the same classes would mean a loss of opportunities for each person in the relationship to explore new things on their own or to make new friends. It may feel really good now, but in the future you will look back and regret not making new friends or gaining new experiences on your own.

How far do you think a person can try to accommodate or tweak their habits for their partner before it becomes inorganic or that they are forced to become someone they don’t wanna be?

A student wrote to me with this question:

How far do you think a person can try to accommodate or tweak their habits for their partner before it becomes inorganic or that they are forced to become someone they don’t wanna be?

I get that sometimes we got to change our ways and allow for a significant other to come into our lives, but is there an extent to which one could radically change because of that, and lose themselves in the meantime?

I totally understand your question because I’ve had a past experience of changing too much for the other that I became much less of who I am, and it was affecting me a lot emotionally, and ultimately how I responded in the relationship.

In my view, there are three categories of change to ourselves or habits that we might have to deal with in a relationship:

(1) Change that’s inconsequential to yourself as a person. Especially when we have to spend a lot of time together, either working/studying or living together, it’s the little things that we do that can drive the other person crazy. Many of these things are inconsequential to our being as a person. For example, you might be the kind of person who likes to leave dishes in the sink and not wash them until night, but your partner is the kind that demands dishes be washed immediately. It doesn’t change you as a person to make a sacrifice like that to accommodate living with your partner. There are many things that fall under this category, and they usually have to do with hygiene and issues of cleanliness. I’d say, do what you can. Doesn’t cost much other than a little effort to make the other happy.

(2) Then there’s change that makes you a better version of yourself. I’m very careful to word it as a “better version” rather than a “better person,” because here the change is not about being someone else, but being someone better. Things like correcting bad habits, challenging yourself to be more enterprising, etc. A good partner is one who reminds you, maybe even nags you to be better, to do better. But if your partner begins to treat you like a personal pet project for a personality makeover in this category of change, that’s dangerous. It won’t end well. Such change must come from within yourself. If it’s forced from outside of you, you will only resent what you’re being put through even though your partner has the best of intentions. I used to spend a lot of money on things whenever I got very stressed with work, and my partner helped me to break that habit by nagging me about how bad such purchases are, and how I must not give in to filling the void in this way. Eventually I broke out of it, and I am a better person because now I am more conscious about saving money. So these kinds of changes are good for you, and you should embrace it.

(3) The third category is change that makes you less of who you are. And this is the kind of change that you must resist at all cost because it will make you very miserable (maybe even very regretful), and it’ll also affect your attitudes/feelings towards the relationship. I was once in a relationship where my partner was very clingy. She wanted to spend as much time as possible with me, and she’d make me feel guilty whenever I spend time with friends, or go out to do things I like (hobby interest groups, etc.). She hated doing all those things and so I couldn’t bring her to share in my interests. And because I felt so guilty, I gave up many friendships and many interests that I used to have. In fact, one thing that pained me so much was to give up my hobby and passion in writing. I used to write a thousand words every single day. But I gave all that up for her. My thought at that time was that I should give up these things because her happiness is important to the happiness of the relationship. But over time, it made me feel very miserable and quite dead inside. I had to occasionally use the excuse that I’m busy with work just to find time to pursue my own interests. That’s not healthy. A large part of me felt so empty not being able to do the things I enjoy doing, of not doing the things I want to do because of who I am as a person. That lingering unhappiness affected the relationship a lot.

I talked to someone about this problem, and she said, “If she’s not happy that you are busy doing what you need to do to be yourself, then that’s her problem. It’s her happiness, and she’s responsible for it, not you.” There’s a lot of truth to this. Changing who you are, becoming less of who you are just to make your partner happy is a no-deal. Because if you yourself are unhappy, then you won’t be responding to your partner in a happy way. And the whole relationship won’t be very happy. So you’re not doing your partner a favour by sacrificing and changing yourself in this way. You must retain your interests, your passions, and your friendships. If your partner is unhappy that you’re not spending enough time, then your partner has to learn to deal with it, or at least come to a compromise where you’re giving your partner enough time, care, and attention.

What are your thoughts on couples that have a big “gap” between them? E.g. one is more highly educated than the other, or one is earning more than the other.

A student asked:

What are your thoughts on couples that have a big “gap” between them? E.g. one is more highly educated than the other, or one is earning more than the other. In other words, where the other party struggles to keep up with his/her partner.

I’m going to be very realist about this matter. I know some people like to say that as long as you have good chemistry or love each other, these kinds of differences don’t matter. This is not true. Some things matter a hell lot to certain individuals. And no matter how much we’d like to believe that we are secure and magnanimous individuals, we do have our own personal needs, and we do have some insecurities that cannot be easily ignored.

So it really depends on what the gap is, and whether it is something that either party values greatly or either party is very insecure about. Yes, a lot of these problems can be mitigated with communication. But depending on what the gap is, and who you and your partner are, it can affect the relationship. So it’s best that we don’t pretend it’s not a problem or hope that it’ll magically go away.

Let me share with you a story (well, two stories) to illustrate the point: I happen to personally know the first person in the world to receive a PhD in Computer Science (I met him a couple of times over the course of my work). He passed away at the age of 86 in 2015, and I was sent on a work trip with another professor to Michigan where we would comb through his archives and digitise his unpublished works for publication. Let’s call him H (just to keep him semi-anonymous so this won’t show up on search engines).

The professor who went with me was a close personal friend of H. And she made it a point to visit H’s family, and I tagged along. During the conversations we had with his family, I learnt that he had an amicable divorce with his first wife. They loved each other a lot. H valued intellectual discussions greatly, and it was something that he enjoyed doing with people a lot. But there was a huge intellectual gap between him and his first wife, and he was unable to talk to her about his work (which also happened to be his passion). That was a huge strain to the relationship because he could not share his passion, his love, with the person he loved. They broke up in the end, but they remained as friends until they passed away.

I’ll be very honest and tell you that I have a similar problem with my wife. I’m not as passionate as H was to talk about his research. But when I did my Masters, my wife could not understand a single thing I was doing. She wanted to be the supportive wife to be able to talk to me about my work. She was able to do that when I worked on my Honours thesis, but she struggled to comprehend everything I was doing for my Masters. This made her feel very insecure and worried that she’d be left behind as I continue to advance intellectually.

Personally, I don’t value talking about my research the same way as H, but it does continue to bother my wife a lot, and that is one major source of her insecurity (it doesn’t bother me since it’s not a priority for me), especially with the fact that I’ll be doing a PhD soon. And there is really nothing I can do to help with her insecurity on this matter. It’s her personal battle, and one that she has to sort out on her own. (I’ve already done all I can on my part. This is a problem that she has to overcome on her own, but it is a personal struggle and not one that can go away easily.)

What’s the moral of the story: It’s NOT that you need someone to be equal to you in every way. No. There are many professors who are happily married to people who do not possess a Masters or PhD. Similarly, there are many happily married couples where one spouse is earning far more/less money than the other, or holds an appointment more prestigious than the other. It’s not an issue for these marriages because they don’t value those things enough to be a point of contention, or it just happens to be an issue that none of them are insecure about.

The big “gap” – whether education, or money, or status – will be a problem EITHER (1) if one party values one thing which the other isn’t able to adequately satisfy (e.g. in the case of H wanting to share his intellectual passion with his first wife) OR (2) one party feels extremely insecure because of the gap (e.g. my wife freaking out that she cannot catch up with me as I continue to advance in my education).

So, please be sure to communicate regularly with your partner about these things so that you both have an understanding of what you value or what will make the other insecure. This is not a one-time conversation. Sometimes we just don’t know what we value or worry about until the actual situation presents itself.