For many student spouses, medical school can seem like a time “in limbo.” You are waiting for something, but not quite sure for what. Perhaps it’s waiting for med school to be over, waiting for the next move, or waiting for your partner to be titled Doctor and start their career.
Perhaps you’ve left family or a job to be with your spouse during medical school and you’re waiting to return. Maybe you don’t want to dive into anything new when you know you might be moving in a few years.
And then there’s the day-to-day waiting. Waiting for your medical student to finish lecture, finish studying, or be released from a clinic day. Generally, waiting for them to be available to spend time with you.
At times, there will be less waiting and you will have a good amount of time with your partner. Surprisingly, you may find they have more time than expected around the end of the year holidays and during the summers. Other times, you’ll barely get to see them, or if you do, you won’t feel like you have their attention or affection. Their mind will be on all things medical school.
During times of limited availability, very quickly you might feel like you’ve been pushed down on the list of priorities. Where do you fit in with all they have going on? It’s easy to start feeling very disconnected from your spouse, which can lead to many different emotions such as loneliness, depression, anxiety, bitterness, and resentment.
So the question is, how do you take advantage of the limited time you have with your spouse? How can you continue to enjoy each other, have some fun, and stay connected, while also being flexible with the demands of medical school?
Making time for each other
First, come together and discuss ways that you can make time for each other – both in small and big ways, now and in the future. What are the ways that you show you care about each other? Is it through communication, gifts, affection, or something else? A resource for discovering your preferences as well as your spouses is a book by Gary Chapman titled, “The 5 Love Languages.” If you know what actions help you feel loved and supported, it’s easier to provide those to each other.
Additionally, here are some fun ideas to consider. Can you set a reminder on your phone to text for a little bit during a break or at lunch time? Is there a weekend coming up where you can plan a special outing together? What about a bigger vacation with some of the extended time off periods? Maybe one of your upcoming dates could include brainstorming together to discover what you both are interested in and would like to do. You might be surprised with how interests can change over time!
Second, another way to make time for each other is for you, the spouse, to help give the medical student encouragement and permission to take a break. This can be a delicate thing, because you don’t want them to feel like you’re criticizing them or that you don’t understand how much they have to do. For example, if you say, “You never take a break and you don’t have any time for me,” the student might end up feeling like hanging out with you is just another task to complete on the never-ending list of “to dos.” That is no fun for anyone!
Instead, try helping the student understand that you want to feel like a priority without making it a task. How can you work together to make each other feel loved, supported, and connected even during the busiest times? Asking each other is the best way to figure this out. You both want to feel cared about and want to spend time together. How can you do this together, as a team?
Also, remind them gently that in order to perform well, they need to take breaks and recover. They have so many things to do that they will be easily tempted to keep working and working and working, but rest is important, as well as social time and physical activity. When might there be opportunities to break for a bit? Even if it’s for a short amount of time, like a 15-minute walk around the block together?
When plans change
Even though plans may be changed or canceled, make them anyway! It’s important that you feel like you have a life outside of medical school and that you can still take advantage of social opportunities and fun activities even without your partner. Of course, you want them to be there with you, but if you wait for them, you will quickly be on the road to loneliness and resentment.
Make plans and understand they may change. If they do change, don’t wait. Schedule a new event. See how you can turn the cancellation into something still enjoyable for you. Do your own thing, see if a friend can hang out, or call a loved one on the phone to chat.
When your partner needs to cancel – whether they feel really far behind with projects and studying, they forgot about some meeting they had to attend, or they are not released from their rotation at the time they expected – acknowledge them and ask when they can reschedule.
It’s hard to do, but try to let it be okay for them to change plans in order to meet demands of medical school and maintain sanity. Tell your partner that of course you’re disappointed because you wanted to spend time with them, but that you are doing your best to be understanding. Ask when they can reschedule or when they would have time to be together (even if it’s finding another activity).
It’s helpful to think of plans more as opportunities you are setting up rather than a project or “to-do” to be completed. The point of planning activities and events is not to carry out the plan, but to spend time together and have a good time!
Family and Holidays
’Tis the season for family events and social outings! Take advantage of those days off and holidays. You will most likely be the one that has to make the plans and arrangements, but it will be nice for both of you to get out together, see loved ones, and feel like part of your community!
There may be times when you have to explain to family or friends why your spouse is unavailable to attend an event or take a long vacation to visit, and it will be hard for non-medical friends and family to understand. Medical school is a whole different world and they won’t be able to truly understand what you and your spouse are going through. If your spouse is not available for a family and friend outing, remind them that you and your spouse are just as disappointed as they are that your spouse will miss the event. Then ask your family if there is a way to adjust the plans to include your spouse, or on your spouse’s end, is there a way for them to be available for part of the time if they can’t attend the whole event?
In the end, you’ll have to take the driver’s seat in making plans for you and your spouse, as well as with family and friends. There will be times when those plans are cancelled. However, you will have more times when the events happen and you are able to enjoy being together. These times will be so precious and so important for your relationship. Be flexible with plans, but strong in your commitment to continue coming together and investing in your relationship!