The running joke in medical circles is, “How do you hide money from a surgeon? Tape it to his kid’s forehead.” A bit crass, but many residents will agree that time is a finite resource and studying eats up most of it. So how do residents maintain relationships when books, patients, and cell phones receive more attention than most significant others?
Here are 5 tips on surviving the relationship struggle:
1. Establish a “24-hour rule”
Tracy, a 2nd-year radiology resident says, “Instituting this rule meant that I must hear from my boyfriend in some form once every 24 hours, whether that was actually seeing him or getting a one-word text message to prove that he was still alive.”
In setting standards of communication, Tracy took the guessing game out of whether her significant other was ever going to reach out. A simple acknowledgement in the form of, “Hey babe, busy day but I’m thinking of you,” goes a long distance in comforting separation anxiety.
2. It’s the small things
If you or your partner are going to be gone for long stretches of the day, you can demonstrate your love by committing yourself to small acts of appreciation. Investing in one another through action is key, especially when all he/she may be able to see is the end result of a chore, a cute note, a tilled garden, or even a happy dog when they get home. Austin, a 3rd-year cardiology resident says, “I can’t stress the little things enough–if you’re leaving at 4:30AM to be rounding by 5, leave a note for your SO telling him/her how much you love them/have a great day/I’ll be thinking of you. Send an email from work when you have a few minutes of downtime. Shoot a text. Pick up beer on your way home. When you are wiped out, this can be difficult, but trust me, it goes a long way in maintaining a relationship through residency. Bonus advice–keep doing this after residency–it keeps building a relationship, no matter how long you’ve been together.”
3. Compromise is key
Sometimes the stresses of residency blind you to just how lucky you may be to have found love. Taking the good things for granted is life’s curse, not just an aspiring physician’s. But you can avoid allowing the responsibilities within your career to override the importance of a full heart by taking a moment to logically process actions or words that may otherwise offend you — if you tend to approach situations with a knee jerk sensibility.
The world doesn’t revolve around you, despite what Snapchat may be trying to teach you, nor does it revolve around your significant other. You’re both entitled to overreaction, bad days, moments of despair, annoyance, judgement, and absence. There is no perfect formula to a relationship, but a great way to ruin one is to dictate a “your way or the highway” approach. Shoot for harmony through compromise; an allowance for notes to clash from time to time is healthy.
Greg, a doctor of OB/GYN has these words of wisdom, “There were times he and I spent lots of time together, times neither one of us had free time, weeks we had to live apart, days we never saw each other due to his training and work demands. There were also times my work drew me away from being available and I expected him to understand, which he will admit now, it took some adjustment for him. He really believed the world revolved around him. But he learned that, in fact, the world only revolves around the sun. I think in a relationship, you have to BE THERE for your spouse when THEY need you and vice versa.”
4. Make time
To be in a relationship is a choice, especially when you’re confronted with one of the most time-consuming chapters of your life. But that aside, there is a major expectation that many fail to recognize while in a relationship and it’s this: your significant other will want to see you. For some, this is a difficult reality to accept and that difficulty is obviously compounded for residents because one doesn’t simply create time where there currently is none; however, you can make time where there will soon be some.
Meeting for dinner, a walk around the city, cuddling, holding hands… These are the moments that are most important in life; your sanity in the midst of residency will be greatly improved for making time for more of them. “The other part of keeping a relationship healthy is you need to schedule time together. It takes a lot of the spontaneity out of the relationship BUT it also helps to have something to look forward to and it ensures that you guys have a time when you’ll both be together.” It’s much easier to schedule dates in the future than it is attempting to rewrite regrets from the past.
5. Listen and Communicate
“Even when you are exhausted, if you are not at work, do your best to be present in whatever time you have together. Ask questions about his/her day (or the past few days). Don’t just use that time to dump about how exhausted you are and how work is so difficult. He/She knows. Bitch about work to your colleagues, not your SO.” Jennifer, a 1st-year pathology resident, is right. Be present. Listen. Communicate.
Understand that if you and your partner are lucky enough to be sharing physical space with each other then YOU can take charge of a situation and make them feel loved and safe to show vulnerability; it doesn’t always have to be the other way around. A massage, a caress, a kiss, loving words, an open ear, offering a shoulder to lean on; these are things you have the power to manifest in the moment and leading by example may allow your SO to reciprocate. Obsessing over a missed hour of studying, or what your attending may have said to you is a waste of energy. Period. It’s negative energy that could be better spent taking the form of adoration for someone who thinks you’re pretty neat.