My parents always said, “Life’s Not Fair”

Did you know that October is National Anti-Bullying Awareness month? In light of this, and the recent stories in the news of students who have been or are currently being bullied, we’ve asked a graduate wife to bravely share her family’s journey of bullying, and what they did to combat it. If you are being bullied or your spouse/partner is, we hope this will encourage you to seek help. You are not alone.

–Mandy and M.C.

-Written by Stephanie, a current graduate wife

Tweed jackets with elbow patches, respectful intellectual debates, advancing the field of science, grooming the next generation, and above all a just/transparent system. These are all things I had in mind when I excitedly accepted my first job at a public university. A product of public schooling myself, I arrived at my new home feeling quite content with these expectations and looking for a tweed jacket-wearing fellow to complete the new chapter of my life.

He didn’t come with elbow patches, but instead my soon to be husband turned out to be a graduate student. That was fine by me, and we enjoyed several blissful months together immediately after meeting. Unfortunately, the bliss soon began to dissipate (and not just from the end of your normal “honeymoon phase”).

It all started when a professor basically hijacked his lab project. With my husband being a foreigner, I explained to him that in my country, this is unfortunately not all that uncommon in academia. Although it shook my idea of a fair university system a bit, I brushed it aside as something necessary for my husband to advance in his field. After all, he did get a chance to contribute to the research, didn’t he?

Over a period of years we slowly started to discover that the same professor had been telling lies about my husband in public. As if this wasn’t bad enough, we later learned she had committed several other indiscretions against my husband (some of them illegal). The worst part was that we learned about most of this through third parties, or when my husband had to clear up major problems and misunderstandings as a result. It felt like we were surrounded by a fog and were being slowly smothered by it. Bullying is for third graders to deal with, right? Not for grown-up professionals?

We had to decide what to do. Would we run or fight for my husband? We decided to fight in our own way, but in hindsight my husband wishes we would have run. He compares the situation to being in a bar where you find yourself threatened by a six foot five muscle man (who can never be fired from his bouncer position) with tattoos and a gang of friends behind him. Is it smarter to pick a fight or to run? Definitely run. And after looking back, this is what he says he should have chosen today.

However, back then I was convinced we were operating within a fair system. After all, it was my taxpayer dollars at work funding the university, open records existed, and ombudsmans were in place to assist students with any problems. Surely this couldn’t be happening.

But it was.

Even after we talked to supervisors, department heads, and assistant deans, nothing was done about the situation.

Finally after years of trauma in our home, the professor was slapped on the wrist. After my husband’s graduation. I could hear my parent’s age-old cry, “life’s not fair.”

Life is definitely not fair, but thankfully we have moved on and are now at a different public institution. Even though there was hardly anything done to reprimand the bully in our situation, we hope the notation in her personnel file will equip others in the future to fight back. That fog I mentioned is slowly lifting for us and things are getting better every day, but the psychological affects of the bullying still remain. I’m not glad it happened to us, but I am glad it helped me realize some important lessons:

1. A graduate degree is not more important than the happiness and health of my husband.

2. The systems we take for granted as being just may not be just.

3. Standing up for justice may not be as easy as it is in the movies.

I wish all graduate students who are being bullied can quickly escape from their situations, and my advice to the spouses/partners who are supporting them is this:

1. Encourage your spouse to seek professional help. Most universities have a counseling center, so this may be an affordable place to start. If it’s possible, try to find a psychologist who has experience with bullying. (Additionally, if your spouse is a foreigner, try to request a counselor who is foreign as well.) And don’t be shy about making the appointment yourself or going with your spouse, if necessary.

2. Listen as much as you can, but not at the expense of your own sanity. Your partner may relive the traumatic experiences over and over. During these periods, it probably won’t help to try to reason with him/her about the illogical or paranoid thoughts he/she may be having. Sometimes it can be helpful if you listen without trying to “fix” the situation. However, this can take its toll on you; make sure to spend time away from your spouse once and a while doing things you enjoy.

3. Fill your cup first and nourish others from the overflow. Realize it’s okay if you are not in a good place to help your spouse on a particular day. If you are feeling exhausted, remember it is okay to tell your partner you cannot help them at that particular moment.

4. Encourage your spouse to widen his/her support network. No matter how strong you are, you shouldn’t allow yourself to become his/her sole emotional support. Suggest that your partner talk to close friends (outside the university) or family members. These people should be chosen carefully and trusted 100 percent. Your spouse shouldn’t have to worry about committing slander when sharing with them.

5. If your spouse decides to fight, remind him/her to:

  • Inform his/her supervisor but remember academic supervisors are usually not trained to deal with bullies;
  • Document everything (make sure to email summaries of conversations afterward);
  • Remember if he/she decides to take the case to court it can be very difficult to prove slander or libel, it will be very expensive, and even if he/she wins, it can damage his/her reputation more than it already is (even if the case is successful).

6. Get training in suicide prevention. I was certified through the QPR program for work and it came in handy a few times at home.

7. Encourage your partner to exercise in order to relieve stress.

8. Remember you are not alone. Bullying in academia is more prevalent than you think.

In your graduate wife journey, have you had to deal with bullying in academia? What have you done to combat it?

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