Reader question #108: Jealousy and Law School

a guy in a suit with a headache
How I picture law school.

Dear Captain Awkward,

My boyfriend and I have both just started law school in different cities, and I’m having trouble adjusting to the change in our financial situations.  For the last couple years we have been living together, making roughly the same (small) amount of money.  I’m going to a good school and have gotten some scholarships but I will be graduating with at least $50,000 in debt, and I expect to be paying it off for many years since the field I’m interested in is not exactly lucrative.  My boyfriend got a scholarship that gives him a full ride and very generous stipend at a top school.  He’s brilliant and hardworking and amazing, and he totally deserves all the good things that are coming to him, but it’s been a little tense between us lately because A) I can’t help being sort of jealous, and B) he’s not being particularly sensitive about the fact that he’s won the law school lottery.  I am having trouble figuring out where A ends and B begins, and how to deal with it.  

First off, I am definitely feeling not-related-to-the-BF anxiety about going into debt.  But there are also things he’s doing that are making me feel worse. He’s never been particularly focused on making money, and he’s not fazed by the prospect of debt, so he really doesn’t empathize with my concerns about my financial situation.  He also sometimes makes jokes about how non-selective/non-impressive my school is; I know he thinks it’s all in fun, but I don’t find them funny since objectively, his school IS more selective and they DO have more resources.  This is compounded by the fact that as we talk, I feel like I’m making more of an effort to learn about his new friends/classes/school than he is to learn about mine.  And, it often feels like he’s one-upping me when I talk about my circumstances and he follows up by comparing them to the better options/well funded opportunities he has.  But then again, I’m also kind of hypersensitive to these issues by now, and I don’t want him to have to tiptoe around my feelings just to state a fact about his school or his life at school.  I want to just be happy for him and the good things that are happening to him but it’s hard. MEANWHILE we’re both totally caught up in the excitement of settling in at our respective new schools, and I know that as we transition into a long distance relationship we are going to need to work hard to stay close to each other, and I don’t want to poison this by flipping out about money issues or developing an inferiority complex.  I feel like this calls for some combination of attitude adjustment on my part and better communication on both our parts but I don’t know how to get there.  Any advice?

I think you guys need a tough, honest conversation and then a break from talking about law school.  I don’t know which order those go in.

The tough, honest conversation goes like this, probably as a direct response to something he says that ticks you off:

I am happy for you. You deserve everything good that is happening for you.  But I can’t help being jealous. That’s not your fault, and I’m working on dealing with it, but I need you to not make “funny” comments about how much better your law school is than mine.  Also, just because you are not worried about money, I AM worried about money and debt, so I’d appreciate some more sensitivity from you about that – it’s not a “funny” joke, and I’m not overreacting when I express anxiety about it.”

You’re not poisoning the well, or, if you are, you’re not the only one.  He’s also poisoning it when he dismisses your concerns as not a big deal, and he will continue to poison it if he treats his incredibly lucky break as proof that he is somehow more awesome than you.  I mean, is he going to pay back all your loans?  Is he going to shoulder all the travel costs of your long distance relationship?  Is he going to always make sure you are fed and have a roof over your head?  You have that in writing?  Then by all means, stop worrying about money!

The taking a break from talking about law school is a tough one, since you’re in law school and it’s all new and shiny and you’re both going through this enormous change, and really, what else do you have to talk about?  But you can’t settle in and be fully happy and satisfied with your program if you’re constantly comparing it to his.  You need to delete the idea of his program as a possibile alternative from your mind, and focus on your own education.  Start from the assumption that you are exactly where you are supposed to be and this is exactly how it is supposed to work.  Make sure that you are making friends and investing fully in your own experience.  And sometimes when you talk with your boyfriend, change the #@*$! subject.

That sucks, because he wants to share his experiences with someone, and that’s a valid thing to ask for within a relationship.  But if he’s not asking you questions and he’s constantly one-upping you when you do share stories, that’s really not cool.  And you shouldn’t have to abase yourself during these discussions just because his school is somehow “better.”

I guess this is where I ask you:  What’s your plan for how this all works out when you’re done with school?  Do you guys both have your eyes on the prize of being together in the same place, each practicing your own brand of law and being happy, and this really is just a temporary separation? What are your plans for summer internships – can those happen in the same place? Can you keep your conversations focused on stuff you share besides school – sex, shared memories, plans, other hobbies – at least for a little while?  Can you take a break from talking to each other for a few weeks and let yourself really settle in without damaging the relationship?  If you raise the things that rankle you, does he hear you or tell you you shouldn’t be worried about it?

I’m hopeful that the commenters will have better advice than I do.  What I know is that 1) long distance relationships are hard 2) law school is hard 3) trying to pretend you are cool about something you are not cool about is REALLY hard – The price of a relationship isn’t having to always be the bigger person.  So whatever solution you come up with, let it be one that lets you go easy on yourself and be honest about what you need.

13 thoughts on “Reader question #108: Jealousy and Law School

  1. I hate to say this, but I’ve been in this exact position, and it killed my soul slowly.

    I got in the better school, but he got in the school with more resources. I took on a crap load of debt; he had a full ride. Because of his relative income, it made more sense for him to get a full apartment while I just rented a room. I traveled back and forth to live in “our” house on weekends and lived in a very cheap room with no heat and limited kitchen/bathroom access.

    He made friends. I befriended them too. He never met my friends, who were small in number because I was always traveling around. He began spending big money on shit we could not afford: a TV, cable, beer. I was living on noodles, lentils, and rice. I was stealing lunch.

    Then his friends began to develop feelings for each other. I’m not sure when sex started, but it did. He opened a secret credit card and began to spend not just his income, but money neither of us had – $4000 in credit card debt, all in road trips, dinners at restaurants, visits to the big city. I asked him to come visit me sometimes so I could have some weekends to develop friendships. He did this, a few times, and spent the whole time complaining about what a drain it was to be with such uninteresting people when he had a lot to do and more interesting friends back home.

    It wasn’t just the cheating, or the money, or the sense that his university valued him so much more than mine valued me. It was all of it, that I was worthless, that there was no one in the world who could care for me — not a partner, not friends, not family. It was so completely miserable.

    And then we broke up. Divorced, actually. And slowly my life got SO MUCH BETTER.

    If someone makes you feel awful about themselves, chances are they aren’t going to rebound into a nice zone where they are generous and polite and pleasing again. They will probably get worse. Keep an eye on your boyfriend. If he’s beginning to silence you, to cancel your life experience, or to blow you off, don’t worry too much about it. What kills your soul in jealousy and pain will feel sooooooo good after its gone.

    Not saying it’s gonna happen, just recommending that you look at it so you can recognize it if it comes. Unlike me, who tried to pretend it wasn’t there, and stayed 2 years too long.

  2. Both started law school in different cities? I hate to be Senor Buzzkill, but there is no way this relationship is going to work. Long-distance relationships are hard enough, much less one where you’re going to be stressed by school and meeting all kinds of new people.

    1. It en’t necessarily so, Senor.

      Two dear friends of mine were in a long-distance relationship for years (due to law school, even!), and are now currently married and expecting their first kid. And it was HARD on them! They took a break from each other, saw other people, and ended up marrying each other anyway.

      I think what’s going on with the LW is that the relationship isn’t going to work the way it used to. There are many ways in which it may still work out. There are many ways in which it may not work out at all. But it will never be exactly like it was before law school.

      Which is where Tough Honest Conversation comes in. Good luck, LW! May the outcome of that talk lead to your most awesome possible life!

      1. I think you helped my point – your friends broke up and saw other people! OK, they were pulled back toward each other later. I’m not saying “Long distance + Law school = You’ll never get married!”, but that it’s almost impossible to make their relationship work given the current circumstances.

  3. I can’t speak to long distance law school relationships and their viability so I won’t. I do, however, know a thing or two about uneven finances. While I don’t have this exact problem, my husband makes more money than me and due to the industries we’re in he always will. Starting salary for him was not quite twice what I’m making after putting in 15 years on the job, not to mention he’s never had student loan debt while I’m almost halfway through paying mine off.

    He didn’t get it when we first got together. Not that he didn’t know I was making peanuts compared to him, just that it didn’t click with him why I always suggested cheaper things when it was my turn to pay, or why I’d object when he wanted to get tickets to that concert for us/take another vacation/something else we’d have to pay for equally and I would say I really couldn’t afford it. He never said, but the look on his face was always that I was ruining the fun. He’d happily buy lunches and drinks and really, whatever caught his fancy because he could, while I was counting every dime. I tried to keep up for a while and pretend but that really didn’t work. And yeah, like you I was jealous that here he was, just meandering along, not rich by any means, but never once worried about how he was going to make it those last few days of the month.

    Eventually I sat him down, showed him my expenses and debt and such and explained where it all came from and it really opened his eyes. It stopped a lot of the assumptions about what we could and couldn’t do, and when it came time for us to merge finances and plan our wedding we could both come up with a plan for paying for things where we both contributed but in a fair way according to both our earnings/debts. I’ve had to let go of the fact that the choices I’ve made in life have led me to earning less and having a more physically demanding and less valued job than my husband has. I feel less ‘kept’, he feels less like a bank.

    My only advice to you is like the Captain says. You’ve gotta talk to him. It’s all shiny and new for both of you and he’s all caught up in what he’s been given and forgotten to take in account that he’d making you feel like crap by essentially gloating. Sit him down, show him what you’re dealing with financially, and start planning a weekend or some time together. I hear law school is brutal on your time, but are there any breaks you can count on where you can get together? If you focus on planning that it gives you something else to talk about besides school, and you can lay down ground rules and such so one person isn’t doing all the travel. I’m going on the assumption here that he’s a good guy that’s just let some great luck go to his head and needs a reality check.

    The last thing is that I assume you’ve chosen your branch of law for a reason. Once you break through the other side of law school it’s going to be very satisfying to be working in your niche doing what you want to do. Remind yourself of that and how your school, while not perfect, is going to get you there because you’re going to kick ass and take names until you get to where you want to be.

    Yowza this is long.

  4. I have to admit that the competitiveness implied in his responses raise a red flag for me. He got what he did in part because of his talent, but as with everything else, a fair amount of luck goes into it. Exploiting that luck to create an artificial superiority to those around him – particularly his SO – does not bode well for his future relationships. This conversation may be significant not only for you but for him as well. Those bragging rights take quite awhile to earn; getting into college is just the first step in a very long line of obstacles.

  5. The LW’s boyfriend has yet to pass the bar exam. There are plenty of bad lawyers who graduated from Harvard. A bit of humility wouldn’t hurt him. I know that it’s not a quality that is taught in elite schools. I know, because I went to one. The amount of contempt from the faculty for “regular” schools was staggering and completely uncalled for – I’ve met plenty of talented and hardworking people who went to less how-brow places but who could kick some of my classmates’ asses.

    But at the same time, he’s being fed a lot of propaganda right now: from the faculty, who are probably making snide comments about “lesser” schools, and older students who are making even less of an effort to conceal their snobbery. I’m not sure how you go about breaking that kind of bubble he’s in.

    Coming from someone at such a “lesser” school, he may dismiss your concerns. It may be that the only way for him to learn he’s not as good as he thinks is the hard way, in which case, DTMFA. Then again, I have a very pessimistic outlook on life. Maybe he loves you enough to listen to you. In any case, good luck.

    1. Oh, I forgot about “prestigious school self-propaganda.” You’re making me flash back to freshman orientation in undergrad. Did you know that the Georgetown School of Foreign Service Class of ’96 are the greatest people ever to have lived and that we have a unique ability and duty to shape the destiny of the world?

      1. I’m sorry, but surely you mean the 117th class of the Ecole Supérieure de Physique et Chimie Industrielles de la Ville de Paris, which is superior to all the other Ecoles de Physique et Chimie Industrielles de la Ville de Paris?

        Yeah, snobbery: a universal phenomenon that transcends borders, languages and majors. Like love, in a way.

  6. Uggghhh, this issue sounds super annoying. I’m probably the wrong person to comment on this letter just because I avoid these types of things by flat out refusing to date anyone in the same field as me, actually… so caveat lector.

    In my opinion all of this hinges upon both of you learning to see your schools and career paths as different, not better thing and worse thing. If he can’t get there too, whatever “attitude adjustment” you make is unlikely to have an effect on this problem. It sounds like there are a couple of facts you could use to encourage this – you are interested in a different kind of law than he is, for example. Could you just be like, “Dude, this relationship and/or conversation is not about who is the better law student and future lawyer”?

    Anyway, break out the canastas and mariachi outfits and call me Senorita Buzzkill, because I believe the two of you have a seriously difficult row to hoe here. I say this as someone who’s getting a Master’s degree in a competitive profession, where the program actively encourages students to look at each others’ work and say, “Anything you can do, I can do better”. And to identify deeply with our profession and school. It is fun, but you are constantly eyeing your friends and frenemies and asking yourself, am I better or worse than this person? Plus, developing a philosophy that will inform your future career, and kind of thinking that people who approach it from a different direction are full of shit, whereas you are clearly awesome.

    What I’m saying here is that if you can see this heading in a direction where you look at him and think “What a spoiled corporate shill” and he looks at you and thinks, “Well that starry-eyed do-gooder is always going to be poor” plus each of your entire law-school posses will back each of you up on each of those assessments, thennnnnnn I don’t think this is going to work out.

  7. I can speak a bit from personal experience here: law school was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, and it will fill damn near all of your time. It will narrow your focus to survival.

    Long distance relationships are very difficult in the best of circumstances, and it will be difficult to keep this relationship alive.

    More than the talk about the disparity of schools/finances, you need to have the talk about what you want the relationship to be while you’re in school, and what the end game is.

    I wish you luck.

  8. I was just about to send in a question about being bitter because my BF earns more, even though his job isn’t any more difficult than mine. (I suspect he gets more money because he’s a man, but that’s another issue.) I just can’t seem to let it go. I count how much more money he makes in a year and what I could do with that money. In my head I list the ways my job is more demanding. I try not to let him see it, but I know he knows I’m bitter. I’m afraid I’ll start resenting him about it. I should just let it go, I know.

  9. My partner works at University You’ve Heard Of, and I work at University You Probably Haven’t, so I feel a glimmer of recognition here. Talk to him. He may not realise quite what an ass he sounds, or he might be so giddy at getting the affirmation of his intellectual ability he’s always craved that he’s forgotten you have your own struggles.

    It’s VERY important that he makes the effort to meet your friends, because if he is not actually a git, the fact that your friends are OK despite being at a less prestigious school will act as a kind of inoculation against the worst strains of snobbery.

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