Med School can be a trying time for people in a relationship. Demands on time and the stressors of day to day classwork can cause the most friendly people to become irritable and if you’re not careful, this can poison a relationship. In this article, I’ll lay down a series of 4 strategies that I think have helped me maintain a healthy relationship during my first year of med school. If you’re interested in reading more about my personal story, see my previous post, “Love and Medical School.”
Set aside time for your partner
During the first few weeks of med school, I was neurotic. I would get up and immediately begin running through flashcards until it came time to go to class whence I would leave with barely a word to my wife. I used to resent the time she ‘demanded’ and when we were together I would be multitasking on some academic pursuit. At the time I thought this was a price that had to be paid for success, but as the weeks wore on I became more efficient and I was able to accomplish more in an ‘easy’ day than I had in my most fervent days in the beginning. I also began to recognize the sheer amount of time that I wasted in a day, whether on Facebook or YouTube and after a while I made the connection that I could easily devote my built-in leisure time to my wife. Knowing this, we made a commitment to spend one full hour with each other in the evening, and at this time I pushed myself to be totally present. This drastically improved our communication and once I realized that things would still work out if I devoted a few minutes here and there to relax with her, I stopped resenting the time I spent away from studying and began enjoying her company as much as I used to.
Recognize that their lives can be stressful too
Med school is legendarily difficult, so it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that because you are under this much pressure, no one else has a right to complain to you. I saw a meme once that summed this up perfectly: two figures were looking for their med student friend so they decided to call out “boy, I sure have a lot of work to do this week!”, and upon hearing this the med student character burst through a wall to say “you think you’re busy?!” and spout off a litany of ridiculous things that he had to do before tomorrow after not sleeping for 36 hours. This was passed around my school the first year and it was so funny to us because we all recognized that unbridled, self-righteousness in ourselves. I especially was guilty of it, and I had to make a conscious effort to put myself in my partner’s shoes when she was telling me about a stressful day at work, or the classwork that was piling up. Even in med school, you do not have a monopoly on suffering and it is essential to recognize and validate suffering in others.
Have an honest conversation about expectations
An uncomfortable fact of med school is that you won’t be able to maintain the same level of social engagement that you once enjoyed. I’ve gone weeks without seeing my family despite living in the same city, and during test weeks it’s very difficult for my wife to convince me to sit still, let alone go out on a date. At first, this was extremely frustrating for her, but as the semester wore on we eventually sat down and had an honest and wide-ranging conversation about what each of us needed from the other. Like all good compromises we ended somewhere in the middle and I promised to consciously take time off from studying in order to spend time with her, our friends, and our family, and Hannah promised to accept that a large portion of my time had to be devoted to school. Without these hard conversations, we would have likely spent countless more nights fighting. The gradual pushing and pulling of our expectations that occurs during an argument occasionally land on a workable compromise but more often it prolongs the issue and creates animosity than a frank conversation early on would have prevented.
Find unscheduled opportunities to help
It’s one thing to recognize that you are not the only person who is suffering during med school, but this notion doesn’t mean much unless you act on it. Setting down a list of expectations is a great way to show that you value your partner by pulling your weight, but it’s the small things that really show that you love them. For example, Hannah and I hate doing the dishes with a passion that exceeds almost anything else in our lives, and as a result, we’ve divided this chore up equally so that we have to alternate who has to do them every day. This kind of makes it a zero-sum game. On any given day someone will have to suffer, so whenever I get the chance, I make sure to do them myself to save her the trouble. I don’t do it to be ‘fair’, or because I think I have more time on a given day, I do it only because I know it will make her day a little better, and that is worth it to me.
When I got into med school, many people told me that it would test the foundations of your relationships. Those strong relationships would get stronger and weak relationships would break. Maybe this is true, but I’ve found that like all the advice I received about med school, this needs to be taken with a grain of salt. I would be hard-pressed to categorize our relationship as either strong or weak, but I can say with certainty that the work we have put into it has only brought us closer over the past year. When you choose to prioritize anything, you implicitly decide to make sacrifices to achieve that particular goal, and as in all other things, these sacrifices don’t need to be painful, just consistent. I hope these strategies will bring you as much success and happiness as they have brought me. Good luck!