Monday, August 27, 2012

Romance intersects law student loan debt

I just came across an ABA article entitled:


Has Student Loan Debt Impeded Your Romantic Relationships?

Even before I read other commentators' answers, I knew my answer was a big fat "yes."  Before I explain why, let me give you a flavor of the responses. Here's what one respondent wrote:

"Six years ago, when I was beginning my third year of law school, I was lamenting how I had put my romantic life on hold until after graduation and the bar exam. The fact that I knew I wasn’t going to be dating anyone for at least a year seemed incredibly cruel.

But it got worse. I really struggled with the bar exam and with finding well-paying work. Now it’s been five years since graduation and the combination of low income and high student loan debt have put my romantic life on hold for six years now. Six years!

Imagine meeting attractive women, but not being able to ask them out on dates, lest it turn into a relationship—simply because you know you can’t afford it. It’s really weighs heavy on the outlook for my entire life."

Now, I realize that law grads aren't the only ones whose grad programs and post-grad debt loads stress and limit their romantic lives. However, as a group, law grads do experience some significant obstacles.

  • Their grad programs are predictably and consistently demanding. 
  • The stress and time burden of law school often displaces the time and resources needed for romantic relationships.
  • The critical nature of their training sometimes bleeds over into their perception of the behaviors and motivations of themselves and others. The newly-forged abilities to confront and argue don't always stay in the cage, either. 
  • Many of them graduate with exceptional debt loads, not uncommonly between 120-150K. 
  • Many struggle to find any employment, adequately compensated employment, or employment within the law: sometimes for years or more after graduation.
  • The jobs that are in the law and adequately compensated are often extremely time-demanding and stressful; many romantic relationships are strained by these pressures.
Many of these motifs were evidenced in the responses.

Though most commentators addressed the tension of adding a large debt to the liabilities of a potential partner, my story addresses the side of the grad student him/herself.

I felt frustrated by how long I had to wait to be able to even job search after choosing to go to law school.  I decided to attend law school in October of 2007, and first became capable of advertising myself as a licensed attorney one month before 2012, over four full years later. (I took the LSAT in November 2007, applied in the spring of 2008, began law school in the fall of 2008, graduated spring of 2011, took the bar in July 2011, and took the attorney's oath in December shortly after learning I had passed the bar: that's about as fast as you can do the process). It is difficult to earn money during the summers or during grad school due to the course load and the need to complete externships. Bar prep takes three months of full-time work. Waiting on bar results takes a full four months. And in addition to the opportunity cost of earning income, the bar costs 2 grand, bar fees .5 grand, and bar prep 3 grand.  Graduating into a long-saturated legal market means the job prospects are lackluster.

For me, these ingredients combined to produce an indebted and stressed law grad. Yes, I had the security of knowing I could go home to Idaho if I needed to, but I had long since deliberately left behind the live-with-your-parents-at-28 approach, and had no interest in pursing a life in Idaho.  Yes, I was able to scrape together some meager partial employment sufficient to keep me afloat. Yes, a year later I was blessed with a fantastic and adequately compensated position. In the meantime, though, I floated from place to place to save on rent, lapsed medical insurance, used the internet in libraries and coffee shops, job searched until my list of information interviews bled my pen dry and, worst of all, feared the day I'd lack the ability to make my student loan payments.

For me, there's an intimate relationship between my self-esteem and my ability to pay my own bills. I have no children, and my mind and body are healthy and capable. I have three degrees (Biology and MPA too) and over 20 years of formal education. There was no place in my personal narrative for an individual in my position to fail to pay my own bills. Some debt is fine, (as a general principle home or education investments are rational) but defaulting is failure. Now, this view may be neither reasonable nor charitable, perhaps, but it was my view and my proximity to broke wore heavy.

During this period I dated a steady girlfriend for over a year. We were an excellent match and enjoyed each other very much. We communicated well, and she was supportive of the significant faith transition I was going through at the time. She could care less about my financial condition and was more than willing to have me live with her (at age 31, she'd been employed full-time for four years, was pursuing her master's degree online in the evenings, and had bought a home). An avowed gender egalitarian, it didn't bother me that the better financially-positioned partner was female and I male. However, there was still a hesitation I just couldn't shake: one that had nothing to do with her.

Then at the end of one very romantic night, she proposed marriage. There was no particular reason to say no: I loved her, we both wanted family, we were real with each other and we have similar religious, geographic, and socio-economic backgrounds: hell, we met on eHarmony for Allah's sake! [It doesn't hurt that we communicated well and both spoke each other's love languages (words of affirmation and physical touch), and that she's very attractive.]

But I couldn't say yes. To propose or agree to marriage, for me, required a foundation of financial self-confidence. Not necessarily funds, mind you: though it would have been tight, we'd probably have been okay on her salary until I found steady, higher-dollar employ. And it wasn't that I demand wealth: I've never been terribly interested in money outside eventually having enough to pay middle-class expenses. No, the bankrupt account was not our combined net, but instead my self-confidence: that integral part that refused to turn a blind eye to the ever-present bottom line. For me, I had to be confident I could pay my own bills before I could make an important life decision like marriage.

My partner didn't understand. To her, "love was her whole happiness" (thank you Bublé); why would a temporary spat of underemployment coupled with student loan debt matter more than that? Even after I explained what I was experiencing, she figured something else was the problem, and worried about what that else might be.

I tried. For months. I lingered locally, hoping for either a job or a change of confidence, but eventually I broadened the net of my job search. She was so accommodating, she was even willing to move to where I wanted. Eventually, she tactfully raised the question of marriage again. Long before she brought it up, though, I had already spent weeks agonizing about it.

I remember those days, soul-searching and sometimes crying in sadness or frustration during my runs along the riverbank. Something inexplicable smoldered within me: an anger at myself and the system perhaps, that I had spent so much money, time, hope, and opportunity cost for a credential that rewarded me so meagerly in the one area I really cared about: having a predictable source of income adequate for an above 20K/yr lifestyle. I don't know, maybe it was shallow: but this I do know, that inadequate employment/income was the primary cause of my marital hesitation.

I knew how much she wanted to marry me and I knew I wouldn't be ready until I had a few months of drinking from the healing waters of an income stream that I had earned. Plus, I felt I had to be mobile enough to interview in other areas, and I knew I couldn't afford interstate trips after seven straight years of school followed by seven straight months of under/unemployment. I wanted to lessen her pain and restore my confidence canister, so I broke up with her and launched a two-month programme of couch surfing, informational interviews, hundreds of job applications, and contract work in another state.

Now, nearly nine months later, I am two months into a fabulous job with a top-notch manager and a stellar work culture. My girlfriend moved on long ago. I am just now seeing the light: I feel I'll be ready to open myself to a potentially marital romantic relationship at some point in the next month or two.

FWIW, that is how this law grad's student loan debt impeded his romantic relationships.

See also:

Call Me Maybe When Your School Loan Is Paid In Full

Is Law School Loan Debt Ruining Your Love Life?


  1. As a side note, having recently completed one round of graduate school, I don't think those significant obstacles you've listed are unique to law school graduates. I'm in between MA and PhD programs, have similar debt, and have secured only 3 part-time jobs. I work 50+ hours per week, and have no health care and no job security. It's just the new normal, I guess.

  2. It breaks my heart, Brad! I feel for you. I wish you the best. The good thing is, you've got a lot going for you and as you find yourself ready to break into a new, exciting relationship, you will most definitely find someone who will be as equally eager to jump into a relationship with YOU--debt and all. :)


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