Medicine, perhaps more than any other career, is renowned for demanding so much time and attention that it leaves little room for anything or anyone else. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that some studies suggest that doctors’ long-term romantic relationships actually tend to be more resilient than those among other professions.
Part of the reason may be that physicians tend to marry a bit later in life and to be more educated than average Americans, both of which are associated with a lower risk of divorce. The financial rewards of a medical career also mean that childcare and living expenses are not as frequent a cause of relationship strife.
Of course that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges: There are challenges in any relationship. But recognizing the most common issues that doctors face while sharing a life with loved ones is also the best way to deal with those issues before they cause real damage.
MAKING TIME FOR EACH OTHER
Perhaps no other facet of being a doctor poses as big a test to a happy home life as hours spent at work—in training, on call, in surgery, traveling to medical meetings, etc. But intimacy isn’t automatic.
In a 2013 survey of over 1600 spouses/partners of U.S. physicians, published by the Mayo Clinic, “mean time spent with partners each day” was the number-one factor associated with relationship satisfaction. Consciously deciding to make time for each other may be the hardest but most important step of all to keep a relationship happy, as well as letting oneself admit that family success is as vital to overall well-being as is career success.
Scott Simon, M.D., a neurosurgeon at Orthopaedic & Neurosurgery Specialists in Greenwich, CT, notes that he chose his specialty based on what he wanted to do, but made his practice decision based around the life he wanted to share with his wife and children. “My wife hates when I travel, so I didn’t choose academic medicine, with all the conferences and speeches,” he explained. “I didn’t want a long commute, so I chose to practice near where I live, so that I could schedule time with my three children and my wife. I try to partition my life as much as possible, not scheduling procedures on certain afternoons so I can be the one to take my kids to their after-school activities."
As one spouse of an ophthalmologist noted, “Time pressures affect everyone today but each person in a family needs to let each other know that they matter. Doctors are trained to act invincible, but your family needs to see your kindness, your generosity.”
That idea that medicine can’t be everything came through loud and clear in a study conducted at the University of Michigan Medical School aimed at identifying “best practices,” in essence, for successful personal relationships among physicians and their life partners. Relying on each other for mutual support and sharing values—whether it’s a focus on integrity, on hard work, on the value of raising children--was often what first drew couples together and helped them stay together, said Monica Lypson, MD, professor of internal medicine and assistant dean, graduate and medical education at Michigan.
In in-depth interviews with 25 physicians and spouses in both single- and dual-physician relationships, Dr. Lypson and her colleagues also found that it didn’t matter whether a couple embraced traditional family roles or not; what mattered was that those roles were clear. Who does the bills, who does the housecleaning, who is the children’s primary caretaker--what mattered was that there were agreed-upon responsibilities. These don’t necessarily have to be formalized, but there have to be realistic arrangements and expectations. “What was fascinating was that these specific issues were raised by same-sex couples as well; it’s not a question of gender but of role clarity,” Dr. Lypson explained.
CAREER: RESPECT NOT ROYALTY
The one “red flag” that the University of Michigan researchers identified was “super-career syndrome,” in which a physician’s self-importance, the notion that he/she is saving lives every day and that the other person’s concerns or career just can’t match up, becomes an overwhelming obstacle to truly connecting with others. Simply put, docs who don’t have outsize egos make better partners. And they help a family cope with their absences.“When my husband was in training, we had two young kids and he was basically in ‘survival mode:’ on call for 24 hours, then off for 24,” recalls Madeline Simon, wife of neurosurgeon Scott. “I had put my own career as a children’s-book illustrator on a slow track, taking on just one long-term assignment at a time and working from home. We made it work because the candle wasn’t burning out of control on both ends, but there were definitely times I felt like a single parent. But I knew I could be the anchor in those years, that we had a future we both cared about.”That balancing act may be the essential glue of sharing a life together. “Successful partners repeatedly told us that they ‘acknowledge the benefit of being a physician to our relationship,’” said Dr. Lypson, “but overvaluing that career contribution, whether it’s prestige or financial rewards, can definitely derail home life.”
When Dr. Lypson recently presented her relationship study at grand rounds in Michigan, the room was packed—and the online conversation among med students, professors, docs, is still going strong. That’s a clear sign that doctors, of every age and gender, recognize the importance of home life in spite of—or perhaps because of—the career responsibilities and stresses they face.