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I was sent on a work trip with another professor to Michigan where we would comb through his archives and digitise his unpublished works for publication.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.