Family affair

Doing an MBA can strain the strongest relationships. Here are some tips on surviving.

Nine months after Julie and Ian Thompson were married, he started his full-time MBA at Schulich in January 2007. Five months later, Julie started her part-time MBA at Rotman. Their first summer as a dual MBA couple left them with no time for each other, so they made a standing date for Saturday nights. They could stay home or go out — it didn’t matter. What did matter was the time together. “You’ll have a lot less time for each other,” says Julie of an MBA. “It’s a major shift in your life.” Ian agrees. “It would be tough if you’re the jealous type.”

For the Thompsons, knowing first-hand what the other was going through helped. Since Ian graduated in May, things should have gotten easier. But the economic meltdown has left him searching for a job. He wants to work in real estate or property asset management, but as investors run from the markets, it’s tough. Anticipating Ian would be working, Julie quit her job in May and transferred to Rotman’s full-time MBA. Now, with no income, the couple is using their savings, putting off buying a house, and cutting back. They’re not starving — but things aren’t as they imagined. Still, they say they wouldn’t do anything differently. If children were in the picture, it would be even more complicated.

That’s not to say couples with children shouldn’t take on an MBA. Sanford Lee and his wife, Voula Michaelidis, experienced their own marriage, the first year of their son’s life, and a pregnancy with their second of three children during Sanford’s 12-month MBA. They were used to a relationship where one partner worked while the other studied. Voula completed a master’s in education and a law degree, while Sanford started a career as a physiotherapist. He decided to complete his MBA at Wilfrid Laurier in 2005 when their first child was less than a year old because he felt it was better to be away when the baby’s memory wasn’t strong. “Of course, I felt guilty about leaving my wife and son,” Sanford says, “but I just had to keep in mind this MBA was for us.” Voula’s advice? “It doesn’t matter who’s doing the MBA, it’s got to be viewed as an investment for both of you,” she says. “Talk about why you, as a couple, are doing the MBA, what you both want from it, and what type of time commitment will be required.”

When one or both members of a couple embark on an MBA, they have to ask what the other person needs, says Jane Ross, an executive coach with the Kellogg-Schulich executive MBA. It can’t be a one-time-only event, either. Couples should check in regularly. Ross also suggests they not be worried by behaviour that’s out of the ordinary, as people react to stress differently.

Stress was something Michael Parkin was used to when he started his MBA at Schulich in 2006. While he worked as an engineer, his wife, Doriana, was busy pursuing her medical degree. She had just started her residency when Michael decided the time was right for his MBA. “We were just married, we had no kids, it kind of made sense because we had no expenses but ourselves,” he says.

The couple was surprised to find the MBA wasn’t as tough as they had anticipated. One reason: Michael had learned from Doriana’s example to make time for the relationship. That meant being efficient with homework and not socializing as much as other — single — classmates. “You have to prioritize,” says Doriana. “You have to be organized and structured with your time, and have the support of your partner.”

Today, Michael works in equity research, while Doriana is starting her family medicine practice. They’re balancing their relationship, a newborn son and two demanding jobs, with an unexpected lesson from the MBA: make time for what’s important to you.