Spouse supporting the other through professional school

It seems to me that a common storyline that I had heard when I was younger (and it pops up in fiction from time to time) goes something like this: John and Jill get married. John wants to be a doctor or a lawyer. So, Jill slaves away as a nurse (or waitress or shop clerk, but usually something fairly skilled) in order to pay the bills (and pay tuition) while John goes to professional school. It takes a great toll on Jill, but she does it becuase she expects to reap the rewards of John’s increased earning potential. Once John graduates, of course, he trades Jill in for a younger, or prettier, or more upwardly mobile model.

This scenario, more or less, was a significant factor in the “professional degrees as marital property” debate in divorce law. I was reminded of it over the weekend reading about Wendy Davis and her of, as she calls it, “loose” and “broad” language to promote a personal narrative (I am not looking for a debate on Wendy Davis). As I understand the “new” and more factually accurate narrative, she more or less lived out the role of “John” is the above scenario (except that her husband sounds more affluent and added in was giving him custody of her children).

Now, I finished law school only a few years ago; so I understand that the world is much changed. But the people that I attended law school with were heavily debt-funded, their spouses were often in graduate or professional school themselves, and, even where one spouse was working, I never got the sense that they were sacrificing their present in hopes for a better future. Of course, being a recent graduate, I also have no idea how many of them will get divorced as soon as their last loan payment is due.

So my question is: Is the scenario above still common? Was it ever all that common? If it used to be, but is no longer, common, why did it change? Or am I just naive, becuase while my wife worked while I was in law school, most of our bills were paid by the loans that my salary is going towards paying off?

I know quite a number of people doing that, though I don’t think necessarily they see it as sacrifice of one partner. But for example one friend is a teacher and her husband is nearly a surgeon. He is never home, he works all the time. Because she’s a teacher she has good hours and spends lots of time with the kids. If they divorced, I think it would be reasonable that his education is considered marital property, because if she wasn’t willing to go through all this it wouldn’t be possible for him. She likes her job and is proud of it, but she does sacrifice a lot which allows him to pursue this career. Maybe she would make different choices if things were different, who knows?

Education here doesn’t cost what it does in the US, so they’re not in debt or anything.

My first instinct is to tell you that really, it all depends on how you define “common”.

Although, I could buy that there is a greater tendency these days for marriages between two people in similarly high-powered professions rather than one Doctor/Lawyer/Businessman and one Homemaker/Stay at Home Mom/ Nurse/teacher . . .

Thirdly-- why or how did things change (if they changed?)?

Americans have become way more tolerant of debt-- especially home-owning debt and educational debt. I don’t know why or how this has become true-- I don’t know if the educational loan industry is the chicken or the egg-- but I have heard several times on the radio that the average college student is graduating with staggering amounts of debt-- debt he or she may never be able to pay off.

And then you add loans for a professional degree on top of that?

But the flip side is that the guy is never home and works all the time because he has his partner who is working less and able to take care of the “homemaking” aspect while supported by his money. Now when they get divorced, he still has to work all the time but his money is now going to an ex-spouse rather than to someone who is homemaking for him.

I supported my spouse through graduate school (PhD). The biggest sacrifice I had was that of any two-career family - turning down opportunities because they would require us moving (and her not finishing the PhD).

My parents followed this scenario, except without the divorce part. My mom referred to it as “getting her PhT”. (Putting Husband Thru). My mom was a legal secretary until my dad graduated.

Of course this was sixty years ago. Both my wife and I worked full time while she got her MBA, but I was the wage earner when she got her M.Div.


These days it would be difficult to support someone with a waitress job or a teacher’s salary. Twenty-five years ago I put my husband through medicine, but I was working as a professional myself (engineer) and during his 5 year residency he was paid around half what I earned, which helped us avoid any debt.

Another reason it might be less common today is that people are getting married later, so many taking post grad degrees are single. In which case mommy and daddy are footing the bill or they are loading up lot of debt.

Lots of couples do this, especially DINKs. My married best friends essentially took turns with their degrees: her undergrad, his undergrad, her masters, his second undergrad, her phd, his masters… Seems to be working well for them.

As a counter example to the woman working while hubby gets his degree, my husband’s salary let me get my masters with no debt, which we both consider a massive contribution to the family. In fact, if he hadn’t been able to do so, we were seriously considering me not getting it at all - it wouldn’t really have been worth it. Now he wants to do school himself, and I’m all for it.

Your scenario sounds more like a Reader’s Digest plotline than a common occurrence. There are probably some human leeches, but as a grad student myself, I’ve observed most of my married colleagues are both either both in school, paid by grants/assistanceships, or otherwise both working and contributing financially. I am in engineering so there may be more of us in research/teaching positions than in other fields.

They also often live apart, and actually miss each other, making the whole “trading up” thing look completely unrealistic…

My mom supported my dad when he got his degree. After they divorced, my mom was bitter about how hard she worked to make sure he went to college (she had already graduated college when they married). She felt like she took a big risk and lost.

So she was pretty worried about me when she found out my newlywed wife was starting grad school right after we got married. She based this on her own experiences, and told me she was concerned about the possibility of my wife divorcing me after I supported her through grad school. My wife found this understandably offensive- her education was being paid by a grant, and if she wasn’t living with me married she would have continued to be living with her family like she did when she was in undergrad.

With the amount of income tax we got from filing jointly, plus her stipend, it was basically like she was working a low-paying job. Now she graduated and she makes much more than me, which takes off a lot of pressure from me to work lots of overtime (since we can make more money working less hours collectively now). So I think it is a fair trade.

My husband worked extra so I could get my BSN, then sox months later he quit work and started school full time. I still have student loan debt, because even with his overtime we didn’t make enough to support us and pay for school, school extras, keep the 2nd car running, etc. I was so glad I made enough money nursing that we didn’t have to borrow for him to get his degree.

OTOH, I always maintained family insurance and he invested in retirement. I would be seriously pissed to find myself put out in the cold when that time comes.

I know quite a few doctors that hit mid forties and dump the practice family and start a new one. Probably no higher than the general pop, as it seems like the majority* of people my age are on their 2nd (at least) marriage. There’s always some feeling of ‘I gave up blah blah for you, and all I got was this stupid t-shirt’.

*im referring to people I know personally, and not the whole world.

In some states, including New York, I believe, a professional degree obtained while married is considered a marital asset. As such when a divorce occurs, a valuation of the future income that degree will generate is part of the calculation of the divorce settlement.

So trading in your spouse that helped you obtain that degree for a newer different model, can be very costly.