We’ve recently heard from several bar students and their partners about how stressful the current situation is. You’ve got the Coronavirus pandemic to worry about, the uncertainty of future bar exam dates and formats, social and political unrest, plus, social distancing is stripping everyone of their normal go-to measures for self-preservation, such as getting outside and socializing.
Here are some quick examples of messages we’ve received:
Dear Bar Exam Toolbox,
My partner really wants to be supportive, but they’re honestly just stressing me out even more. Normally, I would just do my own thing and study for the bar at my office, but since we are quarantining together, that’s not possible, what should I do?
Hi Lee and Alison,
My partner is so focused on the bar that our relationship is falling apart and they don’t even realize it. All we talk about is the exam. I get that passing is important, but I feel like a prisoner in my own home, and like everything revolves around this exam. Any advice?
If you’re a bar student, what can you do to make sure you’re not wrecking your relationship and alienating your partner? It’s not all about you, you know?
If you’re the significant other of a bar student, how can you support the future lawyer in your life while also maintaining a healthy relationship that doesn’t steamroll over your own needs and feelings?
In my work as a bar tutor, I’ve seen many of my students go through various relationship ups and downs. They’re inevitable. Studying for the bar is a tough process, especially for re-takers. Both sides of any partnership are under stress and pressure for very different reasons. Bar students can feel the pressure of potentially failing, worry over their future, and the stress of an overwhelming, never-ending workload. Partners can feel ignored, isolated, unfulfilled and de-prioritized, with the added bonus that their partner may be transforming into a monster before their very eyes.
What I can say is this: the partner usually is trying to be supportive, but it can be hard to know how to do that. And, most of the time, the bar student really is just consumed with the exam and their own mental processes, and not actively trying to be a terrible person.
Bottom line: bar students need to have some more compassion and partners need to know not to take brush-offs and stress personally. It’s not the partner’s job to take on any and all household responsibilities (although, anything you can do to free up your student’s time is greatly appreciated!). And, the bar student can’t think only of themselves for months on end (however tempting that may be).
Here are some common phrases that you might hear in your home these days, how to decode them, and what you can say to be more supportive. See if you recognize any of these:
“Ugh, I hate this exam, they’re not even giving us exact dates to plan for”
- This means: Commiserate with me
- Useful thing Partner can say: “Yeah, I hear you, this situation the worst, I can only imagine”
- Not-useful thing Partner can say: “We all have responsibilities we don’t enjoy and uncertainty to deal with, it’s not just you” (feels like you don’t understand)
“I’m never going to pass”
- This means: Encourage me
- Useful thing Partner can say: “You’ve got this”
- Not-useful thing Partner can say: “You’re so smart, you will definitely pass” (feels like added pressure)
“My back hurts”
- This means: Comfort me
- Useful thing Partner can say: “Come here, let me rub your shoulders”
- Not-useful thing Partner can say: “Maybe you should stretch more” (feels judgmental)
“Did X [shared responsibility] get done today?” (e.g. dog walking, dishes)
- This means: Help me
- Useful thing Partner can say: “I was just about to do that, I’ll take care of it”
- Not-useful thing Partner can say: “It’s not my job, you know, you could help once in a while” (feels like more stress)
“What should we do for dinner?”
- This means: Don’t make me figure this out
- Useful thing Partner can say: “I can make/order dinner tonight”
- Not-useful thing Partner can say: “I did dinner last time” (feels like a cop out)
“Did you hear about X [interesting thing]?” (e.g. Coronavirus, news, family or friend drama)
- This means: I’m procrastinating
- Useful thing Partner can say: “Yeah, if you’re on a study break now, let’s talk about that”
- Not-useful thing Partner can say: “You should probably worry less about that and more about studying.” (feels patronizing)
“Why did we have to quarantine together? I can’t handle you in my space anymore!”
- This means: I’m stressed about something that probably isn’t you
- Useful thing Partner can say: “What if we make this area your study corner and I will try my best to leave you alone while you’re on the clock”
- Not-useful thing Partner can say: “This isn’t fun for me either, I need a break from you too” (feels like pushing away)
“Turn down that noise, I’m trying to study, which is way more important than your TV/game”
- This means: I’m overwhelmed and need you to understand how much pressure I’m under
- Useful thing Partner can say: “Sorry about that, I will go in the other room”
- Not-useful thing Partner can say: “Just because your life revolves around this exam doesn’t mean mine has to, noise is normal, deal with it” (feels like you don’t understand)
“Just leave me alone. I want to be by myself”
- This means: I want space because I’m overwhelmed, it probably isn’t about you
- Useful thing Partner can say: “You’re right, let’s both take a break for a couple hours”
- Not-useful thing Partner can say: “Whatever, maybe we should just break up” (feels unproductive and dramatic)
And here are some from the other side:
“Maybe after the bar and Coronavirus we can do X [fun thing]” (e.g. take a trip)
- This means: There’s a light at the end of the tunnel
- Useful thing Student can say: “Sounds nice, but I can’t help with planning, surprise me”
- Not-useful thing Student can say: “I can’t even think about extra stuff right now, plus if I fail, I won’t want a reward” (feels dismissive and overly-negative)
“What show should we watch?”
- This means: I miss hanging out like we used to
- Useful thing Student can say: “How about something funny, you choose”
- Not-useful thing Student can say: “I’m too busy, I can’t decide everything” (feels like you are de-prioritizing them)
“You’re so smart, I know you’ll pass”
- This means: I believe in you, I support you
- Useful thing Student can say: “Can you tell me, ‘you’ve got this’ instead?”
- Not-useful thing Student can say: “Lots of smart people fail, you have no idea what I’m going through” (feels patronizing/alienating)
“Actually, I can’t do a movie with you, I have a video call happy hour with friends”
- This means: I’m trying to give you time and space to study (or maybe I need “me time”)
- Useful thing Student can say: “Oh, I actually hoped my reward for working hard today could be a movie with you tonight, maybe next time, you could tell me earlier so I can plan ahead?”
- Not-useful thing Student can say: “So, you’re going to leave right when I’m finally finished studying?” (feels controlling/manipulative)
“You used to be so X [nice quality]” (e.g. fun, positive, patient)
- This means: I’m unhappy with the status quo and worried this is the new you
- Useful thing Student can say: “Don’t worry, I’m just stressed out right now, this is hard for me too”
- Not-useful thing Student can say: “You’re not perfect either, you know” (feels combative)
“Wow, pajamas again today, huh?”
- This means: I’m concerned you’re giving up on yourself
- Useful thing Student can say: “I need to be comfortable when I study, it’s only a few more months”
- Not-useful thing Student can say: “I really don’t need pressure to look good while we social distance at home, give me a break ” (feels combative, and social distancing means Pjs for lots of people)
When in doubt, try to put yourself in your significant other’s shoes. Isolating at home is difficult for everyone on Corona lock-down, and most people in relationships are feeling at least a little out of sorts once in a while after sharing space with their partner almost 24/7 for months on end. The bar exam is already stressful enough for both students and their supporters, so a little understanding can go a long way!