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Marriage in Medical School: A Memoir (So Far)

During my senior year of college, I asked my girlfriend to marry me. We had been together for almost three years and planned to get married the following summer, since we were both graduating in the spring. The timing seemed perfect to start our new life together. There was just one minor problem: in the fall, I was planning to begin medical school.
While engaged, we dealt with a mixture of apprehension and excitement about marriage. The typical questions asked by engaged couples–questions like, “Where will we live? What will our source of income be? How will we make time to see family? How will our relationship change?”–were the same questions we asked, except with the additional uncertainty of medical school. We had learned how to juggle our relationship with the demands of college, but we were unsure about how it would change while I dealt with the great challenge of medical school. (Neither of us were oblivious to the “horror stories” surrounding medical school and its required time commitment).
Augmenting our own fear were the advice and warnings of many friends and family. We were often asked how we planned to balance our time and what our financial situation would look like. We were warned by many that it would be difficult, that my wife would “never see me,” and that most medical students live in a constant state of anxiety and have very little free time. What is interesting about most of this advice is that it did not come from medical students or physicians; it was provided by well-meaning people who cared about us and our situation, and probably wanted us to have a realistic view of what we were getting into.
I am now six months into medical school and seven into marriage, which certainly does not make me an expert on either. However, I can at least speak from some of the experience which I previously lacked, to refute–or at least clarify and quantify–much of the advice I was given. Some of my reflections may be unique to my situation, but I would guess that many married couples with one or both spouses in medical school would testify to the truth of what I am offering. Here are the things I’ve learned from this half-year of being married while in medical school.
Yes, it is possible to do both. Perhaps this one was obvious from the introduction, but I would like to definitively state that it is possible to be married while in medical school. One of the biggest surprises to me upon beginning medical school were the number of my classmates who were also married. By no means were married students the majority, but it was definitely not uncommon. Many people fear the whole idea of getting married while in medical school, afraid they will not have enough time for both. I would counter this by suggesting that medicine is by nature a busy career. Medical school, in all likelihood, is not much different in terms of busyness than residency, fellowship, or a career as a physician. Because of this, delaying marriage or avoiding it all together (provided one desires to get married, that is) is futile in the long run. Life does not (typically) slow down; instead, we must learn to adjust to different schedules. This is true for all medical students, regardless of relationship status. Marriage in medical school is possible if it is a priority and if it is nurtured; if having a busy schedule is the issue, then timing of marriage is not relevant.
Marriage requires prioritizing. In college I felt a great desire–and often great pressure–to be involved with many different activities and organizations. While many of these were fun and many were even required for a strong medical school application, I also had a girlfriend and eventually a fiancée. Our relationship was important, so I sometimes had to make sacrifices for the benefit of our relationship. This continues to be true in medical school and marriage; I sometimes sacrifice social events with the school to be with my wife. I believe this practice has been very important to maintaining a healthy marriage. Further, I have found it enjoyable to spend time with friends who are not in medicine; this keeps me balanced in many important ways. My wife is one of those people not in medicine; it is refreshing to talk about non-medical subjects with her on a regular basis.
Sacrifice goes both ways. On the other hand, sacrifice is sometimes (often) demanded of my wife, who might need to give up a free weekend with her husband every few weeks because of a Monday test. We have had to sacrifice weekend trips to see friends or family, or even weeknight outings, because of my commitment to medical school. My education has been a significant financial sacrifice, as well–though it is an investment which will eventually pay off. The “horror stories” are true in the sense that medical school does demand a lot of time. They are not correct in assuming a student will never have time for anything, however. Despite these small sacrifices, we have still managed to make time for the things most important to us: seeing our families, visiting friends, and enjoying the occasional date night.
Having support is crucial. It is no surprise that with a difficult endeavor, particularly one as long and challenging as medical school, having a support system is essential for success. This support can come from many places, and probably should come from a variety–support from classmates, from professors and school administration, from family, and from non-medical friends. I have found that my wife’s support has made an incredible impact on my well-being through school so far. She helps me to maintain relationships outside of school, as well as provides me with a constant source of encouragement. Additionally, any extra help around the house is nice, especially on those days right before a test!
Marriage is difficult, but worth the investment, much like medical school. I have grown a lot in the last six months, but I recognize how much more I have to learn. Some might discredit what I have written here, based on relative inexperience. These critics might be right, too–I don’t yet know how we will handle preparation for boards, third year clinicals, or away rotations. However, I know if we continue facing the new challenges together, making success in our marriage as important as my success in medical school, we will find a way to do it, just as we have so far. The hard work and intentional effort required daily for medical school have helped me be a better husband, and marriage has taught me a lot about empathy, compassion and commitment. In this way, marriage and medical school are more than a difficult combination; they are truly compatible and mutually beneficial.