Andy's Brain Blog Advice Column: Should You Date In Graduate School?

Dear Andy's Brain Blog,

I am midway through the second year of my graduate program, and over the past couple of months I have gotten to know a girl in my cohort very well. At first we started just by hanging out a lot, but one night we both got pretty jacked on some Nutella spiked with Smirnoff Ice and before I knew it things got out of control. It quickly escalated into kissing, necking, holding hands, and heavy petting, although we kept it PG (-13). Although I had the time of my life that night, and although I have had this same scenario happen with several girls before, something feels different about this one; it doesn't feel like just another fling, but possibly the prelude to a full-on relationship. 

However, I am conflicted: How much should a man dedicate himself to a relationship, if at all, when there are the pressing concerns of classes, teaching, writing, and research? Would it be best to break it off before it becomes too serious? Or, if it is to be pursued, how should it be approached?



Dear Brad,

Let me begin by stating it is perfectly normal, and not weird at all, for a manboy of your age to begin experimenting with odd cocktails of sugary products. But first let me address an unasked question: Why should you trust me with relationship advice? Well, not to brag or anything, but I have run a (half) marathon, I have no major diseases, and I have read over a dozen novels, including the complete oeuvre of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Beverly Cleary. The depth and breadth of my reading, combined with extensive travels throughout the upper American Midwest and two provinces of Canada, has granted me unique insight into prepubescent sororal relationships, the finer points of horse trading, and how to recover from crop damage following a hail storm. Most important, I have become an observant scholar of relationships between the sexes - as Tolstoy would put it, the tragedy of the bedroom - and this endeavor has granted me an eagle-eye view over the landscape of your squalid desires.

To illustrate the deleterious effects of falling in love, a peculiar phenomenon of which you seem to be at risk, I share with you a letter - ladies and gentlemen, an honest-to-god, handwritten letter! As though you need any more evidence of the madness wrought by such primitive emotions - recently received from one of my colleagues at a neighboring university which described his sinking into the turbid ocean of his own lust, the unfortunate result of a series of trysts and resulting hanky-panky with a post-doctoral student working in another lab, which, instead of draining the cisterns of his lust, whipped him into a frenzied passion. Besides the irritation provoked by the omission of any question as to how I was doing - the letter was, in a sense, one prolonged, histrionic soliloquy directed toward an uninterested audience - I was shocked to hear of the level of absorption and mindless passion to which he had fallen (he would have said risen). He enumerated, in painstaking detail, the features and mien of his lover; the slender, supple, opalescent skin of her bare arm; those vermilion, pillowy, textured lips rising to meet his upon awakening from a fitful, sleepless night; and above all, serving as two bright nodes in a trinity of passion, a pair of milky peaks bedighted with brilliant orbs; incarnadine, inexhaustible wellsprings of his bliss, the very thought of which was enough to send a rill of excitement down his spine and terminate in a limpid jet of love.

Exhibit two has no ocular evidence, but rather rests on a memory; old, but still intolerably vivid. An acquaintance of mine in college, living in an adjacent room, once let down his guard and fell completely, hopelessly, stupidly in love with one of the first girls that he met. He once had the gall to stop me on my way out the door to a morning class merely to tell me of his first kiss shared with the object of his desire; he described how, as they talked one night, he had gradually pulled her closer to him, as if by the force of God, and how she began to talk more rapidly and at a higher pitch the closer they were drawn together, before a brief and pregnant silence; and then - a thousand comparisons between the expectation and the reality, a bubble of ecstasy bursting in slow motion - their lips met.

After that, he was a changed man; his grades went to pot, he claimed to see the world in a different light, and he began to go so far as to read and write poetry under her intoxicating influence. It was, from my perspective, a silly and infantile episode in his life; and lest the reader think that this was some innocent, puppy-love affair, let him know that I was, on several occasions, rudely awakened early in the morning by the sounds of strenuous intercourse. After they broke up - as inevitably happens under the demands and expectations of such powerful emotions - he was a wreck for months. His personal hygiene fell into desuetude, his appearance became slovenly and repulsive, and one could see, at a glance, that where he was once brimming with untamed eros, he was now spiritually detumescent. I hardly talked to him since that catastrophic episode, although one time he did manage to corner me and, still under the influence of a fevered mind, tell me that what had transpired - kiss, relationship, breakup, all - was one of the best things that happened to him. To this day, I cannot help reflecting on that puerile outpouring without a feeling of contempt.

As has been shown, love can lead to such dangerous feelings as inklings of the Eternal or the Infinite, along with all of their concomitant inspirations to do simultaneously heroic and stupid things; feelings that there might be, in fact, a deeper and greater reality beyond the pale of the daily grey. All of this, of course, is pernicious nonsense, and should be avoided accordingly. And, lest anyone forget, falling in love also leads to a pathological form of self-forgetfulness, spawning powerful and conflicting emotions such as a deep concern for someone other than the self, painful feelings of both tenderness and possessiveness, and the stirrings of insensate jealousy. How is it, I ask, that any serious student is supposed to concentrate on their work with all of these inchoate feelings spurring them to blind insanity?

However, if you have already crossed the Rubicon and find yourself increasingly enthralled to another, there is still hope to break the emotional ties before they become so entwined with your own being that to sever them would be, in effect, an amputation of the soul. After all, what the composers and poets and painters seldom mention is that, in the beginning at least, one can fall out of love as quickly as they fall into it; and I therefore recommend that, during one of your more lucid moments of reasoning - perhaps when the clouds of your mind have been dispelled after a particularly vigorous congress - it would be both fitting and proper to bring up a sensitive topic likely to introduce divisions between you and your lover; politics and religion being the two examples that most readily come to mind, although I am sure you can find others. It is best to exploit these divisions early on, as I have observed several miscarriages of the natural order of relationships in which two individuals, having known and cared for each other for several years, no longer find these differences to be grounds for breaking up, nor do they even find these differences to be of much importance at all; instead, these differences are seen petty and trivial compared to the emotional and physical well-being of their partner.

By all means, do not let this happen to you. Reader, I have seen men and women worked up into a passion - literally, a sensuous passion, far more intense than that effected by the most possessive jealousy or the most animal lust - over differences such as those described above. For maximum effect, of course, it is helpful to have an entire group of people, and instead of a difference per se, have them all hold more or less the same opinion in solidarity against an invisible opponent; as I have observed such groups, with their perceived moral superiority and righteous indignation serving as a highly volatile fuel, require only the faintest of sparks to overthrow their vaunted reason and ignite a general conflagration of directionless emotion. I once read somewhere a dull intellectual describe such events, in which each individual has a similar opinion, lightly adopted but firmly held, as arising from a combination of ignorance, dishonesty, and a pusillanimous desire for social acceptance; but in any case, the point here is to tap into that same atavistic, tribal mentality, in order to alienate and distance yourself from another, lest you find yourself so emotionally involved with this person that you are unable to easily assign them to a category.

In all, best to nip this in the bud straightaway, and immerse yourself in your readings, research, and teaching, lest you lose sight of what is really important. Relationships, love, marriage, et al. is for saps, as is self-evident to any reasonable observer; and if any of this is to be engaged in at all, it should only be for health purposes, without any resulting attachment, similar to a day at the spa. One of my friends recently sent me a copy of a book called The Red and the Black, by a man named Stendahl, saying that it would help me understand such trivialities; but in my hands, it was merely a lump of valuable matter. I hear that several young readers entering college are beginning to 'discover' Stendahl; I wish them joy.