Everyone knows that b-school is about classes, projects, studies, grades, networking, internships, and job search. It’s common knowledge that students also party hard and that happy hours followed by hangovers and hookups are routine. It’s no secret that all this business and pleasure often choke serious relationships out of existence.
Campus legend has it that by the first November of the MBA program, most students who arrived with prior relationships grow so apart that they have one or two cities between them. The Monday following Thanksgiving is referred to as Black Monday by MBA students, not because it commemorates a frightful market crash, but because it is the usually the day when many of them return to campus single. “MBA” easily lives up to its notoriety as the “divorce degree.”
There is no other way to say it: the MBA-life steals students from their partners. For a start, blame their taxing academic and social pursuits. As part of their studies, students not only have to attend classes diligently, they also have to join teams and put considerable effort into networking. A little into the program, they find themselves spending more time with their team members than with their partners. No wonder then that once they are on campus, “people are suddenly minus their plus one,” as an HBS magazine Harbus writer remarks.
Suddenly left by the wayside by their significant other, students’ partners find themselves excluded from a new, hip b-school social circle. Some partners have been heard complaining that they have to show up for pub night to hope to run into their significant other or husband/wife (about one-third of all incoming students are married and have at least one child, according to online sources). At one top school, partners often say their husbands/wives “died” during their first year of MBA.
A social psychologist quoted by FT compares the emotional rollercoaster that a couple goes through during an MBA program with the stress a couple having their first child goes through. Major shifts in attitudes/values strain relationships, she says.
Students with long-term partners from out of state usually have the worst of it. In many cases, partners usually have left interesting, remunerative jobs to pitch tent in an unfamiliar b-school town. Partners who stay in their respective places hoping to make long-distance relationships work find that they cannot even manage to speak to the students on phone. “Honey, I’m out with friends. Can we do this another time?” They are never available.
The first year of MBA is well-documented as the most difficult time for couples. The student finds himself mired in a 24-hour academic and social whirlpool. If his partner complains, there is this exasperated response: “B-school is a full-time mission, sweetheart. You’re either in or out. There’s no 50-50. I thought you would understand.” Some students unknowingly adopt the life of their fellow students who are single and who don’t need to worry about anything more than homework, debt, and attractive dates (hookups, more likely) and end up forgetting about their partners’ wants and needs.
Main reasons for MBA breakups on campus
So what seem to be the main reasons for MBA breakups? Let’s discuss just four.
The student has no time or energy for his/her partner: On school days, she is all day in class. When she finally arrives at night, she gobbles up her dinner and gets behind her desk for home work. Sometime in the night she goes to bed. Weekends find her catching up on all the sleep lost during the week.
The partner doesn’t make any sensible conversation anymore: Here’s how a typical MBA partner narrates her feelings—“When we have a few minutes of chit-chat, he talks like a top executive at a strategy meeting. Or he holds forth about a high-profile but boring professor or about an accounting point he finds interesting. “Whatever happened to his funny banter, ready wit, and easy laughter!”
Personalities develop in different ways: The MBA student, with all the smart A-types around her, changes, or develops, in a way different from the way her partner develops. She suddenly starts to wonder if this guy she lives with and plans to marry is indeed the person whom she used to know.
Competition from classmates: There are usually more guys than girls in an MBA class, and most of the guys are either single or “Married but Available,” which is often how “MBA” is expanded on campus. These males are smart and attractive and can throw an MBA girlfriend/spouse off her feet. She may readily spot a greener pasture.
Other reasons why couples separate during the MBA
Some factors behind b-school campus breakups can be avoided or managed to an extent, such as a feeling of exclusion. For example, some students don’t introduce their partners upfront to their fellow students. Big mistake! Delaying this introduction makes the partner feel more and more left out as days go by. It also reduces the chance of the partner being invited to events for couples.
Some students with spouses or steady partners forget the fact that the MBA is for both of them, that it is meant to change their life together, that it is a joint venture with almost equal stakes. The significant other is a very good resource to help resolve emotional upheavals that the student faces on campus.
In the midst of networking and team meetings, many students fail to renew their commitment to their partners. They don’t realize that they can tell their team members that they have come to campus along with their partners, who equally deserve their time. For example, it is all right to tell their team that Sunday night is reserved for dinner with their partner and that this date is sacrosanct. Other members will understand, and get-togethers or team meeting can be scheduled around such commitments made by team members.
Frequently, money issues go out of hand. MBA students have taken a life-changing decision of attending a full-time program forgoing their salary. Similarly, their partners may have also compromised on their jobs and salaries to go and live with them in a new university town. But some students abandon the concept of living well within means and try to lead imprudently extravagant lifestyles with lavish parties and the like. The result: friction with their partner and a breakup.
The role of partners
Of course, partners also play big roles in breakups. One important cause for breakups is that partners fail to be sensitive enough to the students at a time when this is especially required, that is, during the first year of the MBA program. The students, like their partners, are also in a totally new life situation and have to bear the additional pressure of academics and debt. (For tips for partners, see this.)
A sensitive partner can help the student through many tough situations. Just like partners are entitled to an adjustment period in a new town or new job, the student also deserves to be cut a fair bit of slack. “Forgiveness, compromise, communication, and understanding should be their slogan,” writes a blogger.
It’s always a good idea for the student to clarify to her partner how much time there really is to spare. Making sure the partner is equally busy (in a challenging job, for example) is a great idea. The student could involve the partner in an MBA activity—one online source suggests that partners can be roped in to help conduct case studies. Setting some specific time for the partner makes him feel wanted. (more tips here.)
Schools now smarter
Over the years, awareness of relationship problems of students has been growing in universities. More b-schools are conducting workshops and organizing partner groups. Some expert counselling is also sometimes thrown in to help couples cope.
During one season at the Said Business School, University of Oxford, UK, the MBA course director addressed the student at the first luncheon for students, partners, and families. He said: “We would like to apologize in advance for stealing your partner. Please be understanding. They will be very stressed and busy for some time. You should expect that you may not see them for days at a time.” An ounce of caution to avoid a pound of regret?
Some couples break up because the student is not ready to accept that after all he might be able to get only 90 percent from his program, not 100, because he has to devote some quality time to her. For example, lack of socializing on the student’s part might affect his networking, or he might fail to make it to the Dean’s List. It is up to the student to decide what he wants.
An FT article narrates an episode from a Welcome Week at a b-school, where a student asked the professors present what their focus should be: academic performance, networking, internship, or job hunt. The moderator, a second-year student, interjected even before the professors could answer the question: “The first priority should be your partner,” he said. “Because she is potentially for life.”
– What bschools are doing to help families on campus
– When husband and wife study in the same MBA program abroad
– MBA application for married couple from India
Resources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7