I met my wife in the winter of 2011. I don’t actually remember the moment we met, but I do remember that once I noticed her, I couldn’t get her out of my mind. We were athletes on our high school swim team and for the first year we were together we swam in adjacent lanes. I remember she wore a Speedo one-piece that looked like a pastel stained glass window and a yellow swim cap that never seemed to be able to contain all of her hair. When I was a Junior and she was a Sophomore, she tried to ask me out, and in my infinite stupidity, I said no. I was scared and wasn’t sure I was ready for a relationship then, but in the spring of the next year I saw her dancing with another guy at Prom and all fear and rationality rushed out of my mind. She had a particular way she used to curl her hair, and when she spun, those tight blond curls would fly out and settle over her face when she stopped. I had long before stopped dancing to better watch her spin, and when she brushed that hair out of her face and looked at me something shifted in my stomach and I felt like I was going to vomit. I think it was at that moment that I first realized that I loved her.
This article isn’t about her; it’s about us. Every relationship is different, and there is no right way to be in a relationship in medical school. In this article and the one that will follow, I’ll describe some of our personal challenges and how we overcame them. At the end of the day, it’s about knowing your priorities and where your significant other stands in them.
We got married on May 27th, 2017, in the summer before I started medical school. In the time we had been together she had tolerated my constant worries about being accepted to med school, listened to my grievances about MCAT studying, and helped me with my coursework (she is much smarter than I am). Now we were starting on a new phase of our relationship—the med school phase—and as everyone would have us believe, it would test the very foundations of our relationship. At my school, they had a special orientation event for the parents and spouses of incoming students, and in it, they warned them that we would be very absent and that we would be under a lot of pressure and we would need all the support we could get. From their presentation, it seemed that an attitude that ‘the med student comes first’ prevailed, and it implied that it was the family’s duty to accept this.
To be honest, I think the strain that medical school puts on a relationship is more a function of the student’s ability to adapt rather than the significant other’s ability to endure. One of the significant things that I have realized in my first year of med school, was that school was not an excuse to treat her poorly. We might not be able to go on many dates, and I didn’t have time to help with much of the housework, but when we were together, I had an obligation to be fully present and to show her that I loved her. Eventually, we settled into a pattern of spending about an hour a day just being with each other. It didn’t matter what we did, only that we were together while we did it. This attitude that school was not the end-all, be-all was what helped our relationship flourish.
There were times when I was under a lot of pressure and took it out on Hannah, but I tried to never fall into the trap of thinking it was justified. I viewed it as my responsibility to deal with my stress so that I could be a good partner to her, and if I couldn’t handle whatever I was dealing with, I needed to ask her for help in a constructive way. I will be the first to admit, however, that my ideals do not always line up with reality. We have fought more in this past year than at any other point in our relationship, and I’ve played the “I’m in medical school” card a few too many times for it to actually mean anything. But this conflict isn’t necessarily a sign of a troubled relationship, and I might even go as far to say that this is a natural part of medical school and of marriage. Despite these tribulations, it remains critical to recognize the validity of your partner’s experiences and to realize that any amount of suffering you endure doesn’t negate any stresses that your significant other might be feeling. This was another vital realization during my first year: that if Hannah needed support I would give it, regardless of the situation and regardless of my own mental To Do list. It might have resulted in a few more late nights and a few points lower on some tests, but ultimately I think it proved both to Hannah and to myself that she was truly the most important thing in my life.