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Expectations: Defining What You Can Expect With Your Spouse

Updated September 6, 2021. The article was updated to correct minor grammatical errors.

Expectations. The subtleties between two people often go unexplored and rarely discussed, but play a huge part in determining the happiness of the relationship. We all have expectations in our relationships, as well as assumptions, but as the partner of a medical student, you get to add in the complicating factor of medical school.

Many will tell you what to expect in medical school: that your partner will be working and studying long hours and will have an ever-changing schedule. We can grasp this idea in theory, but what does the reality of long work hours and a changing schedule look like for you as the medical student spouse and the relationship as a whole?

People will also tell you that medical school is “hard” but “you’ll get through it.” The confidence that you can “get through it” is a bit comforting, but how do you “get through it?” Is there anything you can do to actually prepare yourself? What can you do if you’re already in the middle of a challenging experience?

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Let me propose the idea that most of your perspective (and therefore your overall experience) will rely not upon what you and your partner expect from medical school – long hours and a changing schedule – but upon what you expect from each other while going through medical school. What you were able to expect before medical school, may be very different once your partner is in medical school.

Before we get to defining and clarifying your expectations, let’s first look at what your new realities may look like:

New Realities

Your spouse/significant other’s new reality: Long days of studying, attending lectures, taking exams, trying to prove to highly skilled faculty that they are capable while likely feeling completely incapable sometimes, plus running at a consistent stress level of 10 out of 10, all while trying to maintain your relationship, have friends, eat, sleep, take care of normal household tasks and errands, and have some leisure time to let their brain and body relax.

Your new reality: Long days of not seeing your partner, or if they’re home, watching your spouse sit at the computer not knowing what they’re doing (studying, writing a paper, messing around on Facebook?) all while you are cleaning, cooking, preparing, and trying to take care of other responsibilities, whether that be your own work items or family items. If your spouse is studying at home, he/she will be around, but not available. They’ll be too distracted, too tired, too busy, or too stressed. Planned events and hangout times may get postponed or canceled. You might wonder what you’ve agreed to and how long it’s going to be like this – just through medical school? What about residency? What about their whole career?

Defining Your Expectations

Given your new circumstances, one of the best ways to prepare is to spend a bit of time clarifying what your previous (and thus lingering) expectations have been (either intentional or not), and how that may be different now in medical school. Then as a team, discuss what you can expect from each other and decide on how to proceed.

Some expectation categories that you may want to discuss are:

•Time together and how you want to spend it
•When a difficulty arises, how do you want to communicate that to each other given your new time constraints and limited opportunities to spend quality time together to fully discuss any issues?
•Who will be in charge of what tasks (see below)?
•What are the priorities in your relationship and how can you put those into action on a daily basis?
•How you might be able to incorporate your own life goals into the relatively fixed timeline of medical school and residency, recognizing that you may move again (and again) in the next several years for their training.
•Kids. Have them? When? Lots to discuss here.

Then you can discuss some specific tasks that need attention and designation. Below is a list you can use to start your discussion. You can also use this list to make your own, and from there, have a conversation about how these tasks will be completed.

•Will you work and contribute financially while your partner is in medical school?
•Who is in charge of the following household items?
-Tracking finances and budgeting
-Cleaning
-Grocery shopping
-Meal planning and meal preparation
-Laundry
Kids (if applicable) and their various needs and activities
-Car and home maintenance
-Gifts for friends and family
-Researching and booking travel
-Coordinating and planning social events

Through your discussions, you’ll have the opportunity to communicate concerns, make decisions, and also feel acknowledgment for all the responsibilities that may be left up to you to assume. Together you can decide who will do each task. If neither of you has the time or desire, discuss alternative solutions.

Do you want to hire someone to help? Would having a house cleaner come every couple of weeks help relieve some of the burdens? Do you have a friend that really likes to cook, and would like to make a little extra money, who could make a couple of meals for your family each week? Get creative to find ways for tasks to get done. The goal is that the “to-do’s” can be completed without leaving anyone resentful about doing them.

Perspective Shifts

Additionally, there are some perspective shifts that you can make that will greatly help your happiness, as well as the happiness of your partner and your relationship.

As unfair as some situations may seem, see if you can keep the overall goals of your partnership at the forefront of your mind. For example, if you want to have date nights and do hobbies together, the sacrifice to have time for that is that your partner won’t be able to help with other tasks at home. They only have so much time, so when there is free time, how do you want to be spending it?

Another perspective shift is trying to remember that when someone is under extreme pressure and stress, they are not going to act like their best self. This in no way gives them license to act however they want and be disrespectful. It is just a reminder that little snaps and behavioral oddities may happen and they are not necessarily a sign that something bigger is going on or that the relationship as a whole is in jeopardy.

Discuss and handle issues in a way that works for your relationship that has the following sentiment in mind: “You are stressed, and you’re taking it out on me. That’s not okay. Do you need some time alone, or is there something I can do to help you?” Keeping this mindset is very challenging, but it will help you address and focus on the situation at hand and keep it from escalating.

The last perspective shift to consider is that during medical school, and down the road in residency, you won’t be able to rely on your spouse to fulfill all the roles you need in your life. The biggest one is friendship. Your medical student partner will not be available to you like they may have been in the past in this department. This is why it is very important that you find a support network and a family member or friend that you can rely upon and confide in, especially in your lowest moments and with your deepest struggles. You will want to share those with your partner, and you will have opportunities to, but not always when you need it. Find a friend to lean on who is always available.

Communication

Communication is probably the most important key to keeping yourself sane and your relationship strong during medical school, and unfortunately, it is one of the most challenging ones to implement. Communication is difficult when you see your partner very little and/or have very little access to them. How can you both express your needs, concerns, frustrations, and hurts? Is there a system that might work for you?

For example, some people use professional advice from relationship experts via counseling, books, or podcasts. Other people might want to try out using a shared journal. You can write down a few things, pass them along to your partner, and give them time to respond.

Others have a different approach, but regardless of your communication style and strategy, you may want to prepare each other before bringing up a sensitive topic. For example, “I know you’ve got a lot going on right now, but I have some concerns I wanted to discuss with you. Can we spend 10-15 minutes together sometime today so I can tell you what’s going on?”.

It’s really hard when you’re upset to communicate in this way, but it could be the best way for communication to actually take place and allow any issues to get resolved.

Conclusion

Please remember that medical school has a varying schedule, which means, you WILL have times that feel spacious. You will see each other a lot and can go on dates and even vacations. All of this “expectations” discussion is just to prepare you for the times when that is not the case.

I’ll conclude this article with a reference to a post that can further help you navigate how to go about “getting through it.” Sage advice from someone who’s been there. It’s geared toward moms, but anyone who is a medical spouse will be able to relate. It’s called “A Letter To Moms Whose Husbands Work Long Hours.”

Also, remember that you’re never alone in this experience. It’s hard to reach out, but be brave and seek out the support you need so that you can not only “get through it” but have some happiness and well-being in the process.