Letter to All B-School Significant Others

An adaptation from the new book Case Studies & Cocktails by Carrie Shuchart and Chris Ryan

Dear S.O.,


After what has probably been an agonizing period of watching your loved one study for the GMAT or GRE (or maybe even both), scour the Internet for information on schools, write draft after draft after draft of silly essay after silly essay, and then wait for a decision, your loved one has finally been admitted to business school!

No doubt, you have played a part in his or her success. You both deserve kudos. Whether you are married or not, you are involved. It’s important that you know what you and your partner are signing up for if you want your relationship to survive business school.

We are here to tell you all the stuff that your beloved B-school admit needs to know but a) either doesn’t know yet or b) doesn’t know how to tell you. Please recognize that everything here is said with the best of intentions. Relationships do survive B-school, and we want yours to be one of the triumphant ones.

1) The next two years are not about you.

One key lesson that your partner will (hopefully) be learning in business school is that all partnerships are about compromise. Sadly, you will probably have to learn this first.

Your partner’s focus is going to be all over the map for the next long while–classes, activities, recruiting, travel, etc. He or she will have a very erratic schedule. Projects will take longer than expected and involve other people whom you will hear about constantly and sometimes see at your home. Abilities will be doubted, career plans will change. In all likelihood, you will have to bear the brunt of the frustration and anxiety that your partner experiences.

Thanks for having your partner’s back through this time. You will be asked to provide any or all of the following: financial support, emotional support, life-management support, and even bodily support (after a night out). It will be an unbalanced relationship during this time, and the best you can do is accept it as such, trusting that in times to come, your partner will be there for you. If it helps, have a discussion with your B-schooler about how you will balance things over the long haul. And, ideally, the haul will be a long one.

2) Your partner is not picking other things over you.

Business school, done right, is all-consuming. You may be thinking back to your own college or graduate school days, when you had a few hours of class, a few hours of work, and plenty of time to participate in whatever activities you wanted.

MBA programs, while seemingly similar, are actually very different. While classroom hours are limited, class projects can extend far beyond normal working hours. Having to work around the schedules of five other people often means that a business school student has to make sacrifices within his or her personal schedule. Moreover, things that feel like recreational activities, from clubs and company presentations to social events, are integral parts of the MBA experience, and attendance should be considered mandatory.

The last thing you want to do is make your partner (already super-worried about debt burdens and job prospects) feel guilty for having to choose between you and school priorities. He or she may not realize all that you are giving up now but you will be thanked aplenty later. (We’re insisting on it.) On a related note, prepare yourself to hear a lot about various classmates and learning team members. Don’t assume that any of them are a threat to your relationship.

3) Happy Hour is a class.

It’s Thursday night at 10 p.m. Do you know where your B-schooler is?

  • TiredFemaleMBAStudent

    You are so right! I am going through bschool right now and it’s brutal on my marriage. My husband is super patient and supportive but he also gets frustrated during days when I’m stressed out and am barely eating. It also doesn’t help that he’s getting paid more than me for not setting foot in a university and having his insurance professional designation paid for in full by his company while I’m paying for my MBA out of pocket. My losing a ton of weight from the pressure is also weighing down on him a lot. being a woman in bschool is even tougher because you have a house to think of and care for, meals to plan, grocery lists to create, etc etc etc. I will be sharing this article with him to show him that we’re experiencing something that is very normal and that very soon (in a little over a year), it will all be over and we will be stronger than ever as a couple!

  • JA1984

    This “letter” justifies the aggressive, excessive, and obnoxious behavior that permeates b-shool and consulting, and promotes the unapologetic submissiveness of one partner under
    the other. Not healthy for any loving relationship. Significant relationships (not
    the ones being built on a golf course/networking— predicated on some type of
    personal financial gain or security) are not a business. They take equal time,
    care, and cultivation, for growth. And time, cultivation, and patience, are
    inherently not efficient.

    The heir of self-importance is frightening and telling in this letter, as if the “partner’s” entire existence has been to support the other through a two year program. This was written for the business student, and should have been titled “How to maximize your closest human Asset”. Nevermind the partner’s own career and emotional needs. But what else would you expect from a book called Case Studies and Cocktails.

    Sadly, this is from one of the more respected consulting firms.


    —Sentiments echoed 100%

  • useful insight
  • B-School Wife

    Exceptionally disappointed that McKinsey would share this as a *helpful* article for SOs of b-school kids. Thanks!

  • Kip

    Well said! You are not just a binder full of b-school spouses! I agree with your take.

  • JDspouse

    I am a b-school spouse who has been bombarded with messages similar to these by my husband’s very-demanding business school. I am a law student at a similarly demanding law school, and live in a different city from my spouse.

    One point that (I do not believe was raised) is that this article tacitly assumes that the b-school partner has the dominant career. I hate to sound like a bitter b-school spouse, but this troubles me for 2 reasons.

    1. You teach an important lesson: if you want career success, you have to make life choices, and both partners have to be on board. But you ignore the harder question of how to make life choices, or if there even are life choices, when both partners want career success. For some of us these are questions we know we’ll need to address. This may not be so clear for students whose partner has a less-demanding career, and these articles seem to make the potentially marginalizing assumption that the next two years need not be just as much (or more) about the b-school student supporting his/her partner than vice versa. Whether the partner is a doctor, engineer, or executive assistant, this assumption might be untrue.

    2. We should be especially careful about these messages because a majority of b-school partners (or at least spouses, at least at my husband’s school) are women. The challenges career women face are difficult; from the get-go, many people assume we are going to drop out of the workforce or are not as ambitious as our male counterparts. Those of us with equally ambitious spouses worry that, if not yet, we will compromise with one of these options in the future. Messages about grinning and bearing the burden of a bschool spouse just compound the guilt a partner with a career already feels as she watches stay-at-home bschool wives more effectively meeting traditional expectations. I expect repeated messages of this ilk have invidious effects in the long term.

  • Agree

    I found this letter to be open and accurate. Business school is extremely demanding on the student and the significant other; if these issues are not discussed beforehand it can lead to misunderstandings, fights, and break ups. When my now ex husband was admitted to b-school neither of us understood the time constraints that would take place out of the classroom as my grad school didn’t have as many outside obligatory events such as networking at happy hours, presentations to corporations and projects that would take much longer than expected leading to not much time at home.

    Six couples from my ex’s class were divorced by the end of the two years (including us). Some were because the students found a “like-minded” classmate that they grew closer to as the amount of time students needed to spend together increased, other’s divorced because the significant other realized they couldn’t handle not seeing the other person and not knowing if this would be the same down the road.

    As someone who has been through the process, I believe it is extremely important to discuss what business school will be like and how to effectively handle the various pressures that will arise.

  • Anri

    I agree with EM and B-School S.O. that the tone of this article is condescending, no doubt, but the variety of responses has also surprised me quite a bit. It’s clear that the issues pinpointed are good ones, but that SOs have different reactions to the way they should feel about the bschool experience.

    I wrote a lengthier response to this article (including why I break out into hives when people use business jargon to describe relationships) for this site:


  • MBA 13

    *pardon the typos*

  • MBA 13

    Interesting enough I receive a packet in the mail about Vanderbilts EMBA program on their schedule they have a family barbecue a class partner day, another family barbecue, as well as a EMBA a prom. It sounds as if they are on to something.

  • MBA 13

    Perhaps relationship workshops should be instituted. Im trying my hardest not to become a statistic.

  • MBAWife

    I do not believe that this article was condescending nor disrespectful. It’s honest. S.O. attending business school is an extremely sensitive subject. People responded negatively to someone telling them that they need to take a back seat for a while regardless if they already know they need to take a back seat. Hearing it sometimes hurts. Whether you want to believe it or not, business school causes many couples to break up, and your marriage/relationship is not immune. Regardless if we already know how hard it is going to be, business school S.O.’s must work hard to keep the points in this article in mind. I challenge many of you who responded negatively to take a second, breathe, and attempt to refrain from being offended. If you already know everything, then this article doesn’t apply to you and move on. But I’m willing to bet that many will every once in a while forget some of these points and it will negatively affect your relationship or cause you to live with bitterness. Refer to this article every once in a while to keep you grounded when things get hard. Keep in mind your responsibility in your relationship knowing that your S.O. who is in business school will probably not be consistently doing their part. That’s hard to hear and to deal with, I know. That is really what this article is saying. Not to offend, but to encourage you to hang in there because the success of the relationship during this time really depends upon you.

  • Ranpouva08

    This was amazing! I plan on framing this the second my SO gets into MBA school and I start nursing school! brilliant!

  • MBA 13

    This is a very agonizing time for me, my girlfriend decided she wanted to go to law school and it’s absolutely killing me. Perhaps I should order this book, hopefully it can help.

  • Johnnie Welker

    I don’t find any issues with the tone of this post. Let’s be honest here: there is a say in business school that most relationships don’t last past ThanksGiving.

    We are human beings for godsake, for some reasons we may not stay with someone, that reason may be called Business School, or long distance, or you name it. Business School is like anything else, an event, and if both partners cannot make it work, they just can’t; and move on.

  • Chris Ryan

    And just to repeat —

    We meant absolutely no disrespect to anyone. I really do understand what a partner goes through, and it’s far from easy. We have real respect for you — both prospective students and partners — and for the challenges ahead.

    I apologize to anyone offended by our tone. We didn’t mean to talk down to anyone or appear condescending.

    Sometimes, you do have to laugh about it, though. When my wife told me that she had a wonderful classmate named Romeo and that she needed to study all day Saturday with him for an exam, we both broke up laughing. (For the record, Romeo’s indeed a fantastic guy — shout out, R!)


  • Chris Ryan

    I’m really sorry to see that some folks found Carrie’s and my tone in this letter off-putting. What we tried to do in our book was strike a balance between serious and light, and maybe in this case we went too far toward the snark.

    I would hate for the underlying message to get lost, though. My wife is now in nursing school, which has been as intense for her as business school was for me, so I’m presently reminded of what’s at stake when one partner goes to graduate school while the other is in a support role.

    Carrie’s and my main point is for you and your partner to have real conversations about the issues. If our letter provokes you to show your S.O. this thing and say, “Look how stupid these people are!” and you two discuss your plans and your real concerns in a meaningful way, then we did what we wanted to do. We absolutely don’t want anyone’s relationships to come under strain, let alone fail. Having seen that happen in real life, though, we would rather err on the “shout-from-the-rooftops” side than not. We don’t think at all that b-school is license for the student to take advantage of the partner. Just have the conversations up front — and throughout, so there are no misunderstandings.

    Our larger purpose in writing Case Studies & Cocktails was, and is, to help you get through business school successfully. I’m looking forward to hearing more reactions, both positive and negative.

    Chris Ryan

  • NS

    Em, and B-School SO,

    I agree with both of you that perhaps some of the wording in this article was not as carefully chosen as it could have been, but the essence of the message is important and in my opinion fairly accurate. I should disclose that I am a current part time MBA candidate in a top program (not to brag; just to convey the weight of the demands upon me) and work full time. I have the profound luxury of having gotten into a program conveniently located in my city not far from my office and home. I also do not have children. So perhaps my experience isn’t as grueling for my partner in some ways. But that’s not to say that most of the challenges mentioned in the article are not still intact.

    Although I take a issue with the way some of this is articulated, I don’t disagree with the sentiment. From the time I started, and for the next couple of years, my patient and supportive partner will have to put up with my being unavailable for him, his friends and his family; socializing on a regular basis, mostly with men; lack of attention to his pursuits (because I can barely keep track of mine); stress-induced bad attitudes; and general inequality in the household responsibilities and duties. When I first started, one of the deans told my orientation group the most important thing I’ve learned so far: We may spend less time with loved ones as we work toward our degree, but we must committ to be 100% engaged in the moments we do spend with them. This experience isn’t about my partner, but it’s not really about me either. It’s about sacrificing now to make the future more promising for both of us, and by doing this I am working toward my goals, but also, ultimately allowing him to meet his down the line. He understands that, because we talk openly about it. My coursework is constantly on my mind, day and night, but he has found that some of it interests him too and we have many dinnertime discussions about brand strategy and cost-vs-accrual accounting. Not bad for a musician.

    The bottom line is that business school does not inherently make your spouse/partner feel superior to you, nor is it carte blanche for two years of blatant selfishness. Regardless of the demands on his/her time, you deserve respect, attention, and to count equally in the partnership (regardless of whether your partner is able to be around as much as you’d like him/her to be) – that much is nonnegotiable. It takes effort and communication from both parties. Furthermore, you may find that some of his experience opens your mind (and enhances your social circle) as well.

    You’ll find a way to make the lifestyle change work and, the way I see it, s/he will likely eventually have the opportunity to reciprocate your patience and support. At least I will, when, in a few years, my partner goes to grad school himself. And I sincerely look forward to the day when I can support him in his pursuit of achieving his goals, in the same way he is supporting me as I work toward mine.

  • MBA’13

    I am heading to B-School this fall, and my partner is joining me. The writers of this article suggest that many relationships won’t last because partners are somehow blind to the fact that an MBA is all-consuming.

    I’d like to assume that most partners aren’t blind. Mine isn’t.

    I am focused on my career, but I could never imagine putting it ahead of the person I love. Luckily, my partner knows this, and when the two years are over, we will have the same type of relationship that existed prior to the MBA. I am sure of it.

    Maybe the folks who wrote this article don’t have that type of dedication, or surrounded themselves with people who valued work and money over family and love.

  • B-school SO


    I second your thoughts. I too would have preferred a more respectful tone. I am just hoping that my own partner does not come out of an MBA program thinking that he can talk to me in this manner.

    That said, I found reading this piece valuable regardless because while there is a problem with the form, the content is true. It is in the vein of “hope for the best, prepare for the worst” and a good reminder of what may come.

  • EM,
    Thanks much for your thoughtful reply. In publishing this excerpt from a new book, Case Studies & Cocktails, no disrespect was ever intended. We just thought it was an interesting and somewhat provocative piece about a subject for which little is written.

  • Em

    I found this article to be rather condescending, and would appreciate a perspective on the partner experience from an actual partner. Any wife, husband or significant other who spent hours proofreading essays, reviewed countless GMAT questions, and shared every heartbreaking rejection or exhilarating acceptance, understands that the MBA process is rigorous…from start to finish.
    We also understand that we are signing up to stall our careers, move across the country, look for new employment and hope for new friends, all while knowing that we will see very little of our loved ones for the next two years. Thus, to speak to partners as if they were children does little to abate our anxiety.
    Furthermore, while we realize that our students will need to socialize and spend many hours away from us, to perpetuate the crass moniker “Married But Available” is an insensitive dig at devoted partners who are already uneasy about the separation.
    I look forward to reading this site everyday, as it makes me feel included in my partner’s experience. I, in turn, hope to feel a little more included, and respected, by this site’s articles in the future.

  • B-school SO

    This is precisely what I want to discuss with my B-school-bound husband and also why I am not too keen on a career path that will require him to behave in the same manner for the next ten-twenty-forever years. B-school is just the beginning. The same mentality propagates and continues well into the lives of B-school graduates. If you noticed the frequent references to sacrifices and short ends of the stick in regards to SOs, I imagine you realize why I am not too thrilled with the prospect and while I am prepared for this life-style in the next two years, I am decidedly against this being the modus operandi of our life. You also notice that the mysterious payout that the SOs are supposedly getting is never once mentioned. What is it, I wonder? Personally, I am more inclined to make financial sacrifice over sacrifice of time because, believe it or not, I like my husband and I don’t think a nice apartment/car/wardrobe/whatever is worth more than being able to leisurely walk around Manhattan, for instance, or take a bike ride or whatever together. Of course I can do these things without him and, trust me, our kid and I will but I think it is a shame to set yourself up for missing out on time with your family and it is not fair for any one of us.