A Relationship Therapist’s Advice for Academia


According to the world-renowned relationship psychotherapist, Esther Perel, we are seeking from our romantic partner today what “an entire village” once used to provide: We want reliability and comfort, but also adventure and transcendence. This seemingly conflicting expectations of romance is creating dissatisfaction and unfulfilled desires amongst couples.

Our skyrocketing expectations manifest not only in our love life, but also in our work life. As academics, we are expected to be good researchers and teachers, but in addition, competent public speakers, managers, administrators, mentors, and leaders.

The problem, however, is that when it comes to promotion within academia, our research contributions weigh much heavier relative to the other factors: education, impact, leadership, and patient care (for those in the health sector). This means that for those interested in career advancement within academia, research ought to be their primary focus. For students wondering why some of their teachers take forever and a half to respond to your emails, this is part of the reason.

To remedy this imbalance, various Dutch public knowledge and funding institutions are currently working on establishing a new Recognition & Reward system; the principal aim of which is to adjust how academics are promoted by putting the weight of the other factors on par with research. As an academic, who very often prioritizes education over research, I initially found the idea of R&R extremely appetizing. Upon some reflection, however, I started to worry about possible unintended consequences: For instance, just as we are expecting more and more from our romantic partner, will we be expecting too much from academics? 

Surely, there are All-Star academics amongst us, versatile and capable of excelling in all areas, but between you and me, I am not one of them. The Dutch knowledge institutions would be quick to clarify that their expectations are not for all academics to become superheroes capable of doing it all, but merely to create more balanced pathways towards promotion. It is human nature, however, for people to measure themselves relative to others. Once we start measuring academics not only for their research outputs, but also for their education, impact, and leadership, the pressure and the expectations for academics to perform across all metrics – however self-inflicted – will inevitably increase. This is a potential red flag.

At least in the context of relationships, Perel’s prescription for partners seeking to “have it all” is for couples to give each other enough space and freedom to be autonomous and to stay curious. Funny enough, I suspect that that is what academics will also need to thrive. My slightly curbed enthusiasm aside, R&R is a promising initiative, but in order for it to be successful, academics should also be given more time and space to simply think and to be curious.

Mark Kawakami, assistant professor at the Faculty of Law

A Relationship Therapist’s Advice for Academia
Mark Kawakami