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Sustainability: How Your Partnership Can Survive and Flourish During a Medical Education and Career

Happy New Year from Student Doctor Network! I have always loved the beginning of a new year. It’s a time to reflect on the past, look ahead to the future, find a fresh perspective on your life and situation, and create new wishes for yourself and your family going forward. There is an electricity that surrounds us and gives us hope that not only can we achieve what we’re dreaming of, but we can also find more happiness and fun in our lives.
We as medical school spouses experience unique challenges that test our personal grit and the strength of our relationships. We sometimes may feel like we have to work a little harder than others to live our lives the way we envision and to find the happiness we know we can have while navigating the demands of medical training.
When I was in the throes of the most challenging part of medical school with my spouse, I thought a lot about “sustainability.” When things got really hard, it felt a bit scary and un-nerving. I wondered if our lives were always going to be that challenging. I wondered if I’d ever be able to have a “normal” life again.
I started questioning the longterm prospects. Was it still going to be like this in three months? What about for the next several years? Sure, people say you just have to “get through” medical school, but then what? It didn’t seem like the hardship would end after medical school. What about residency? What about a lifetime of being a doctor’s spouse? Was I always going to feel second to medicine and always have to sacrifice more than I expected?
Maybe you’ve had these same concerns, and unfortunately, there are no easy answers to these questions. There are no guarantees of how the future will work out and if we’ll have the happiness we hope to have. However, if we decide to focus our attention on all the what-ifs and the fear, we can have a harder time getting to where we want to be in our relationship and in our personal happiness.
When times are good, it’s easy to feel like everything will be okay. But it’s in the moments when you enter into a dip that your perseverance, and your commitment to yourself and your partner, will be tested. Our goal is to be able to stay engaged in these hard moments as they come, instead of pulling away. How can you address whatever challenges that arise, working together with your spouse, as a team? If we can pause for a moment, and look past the medical training, we can more easily focus on ourselves and our partnership instead. You chose this person to live your life with for a reason. Focus on that bond, and work from there.
The phrase, “lean in” comes to mind. Even when you and/or your spouse are feeling frustrated, hurt, or upset, the goal is to lean into the discomfort and really figure out what is going on instead of trying to escape the feeling and avoid the underlying problem.
Even more important to the sustainability of your relationship is your personal sustainability. It’s vital to give special effort to address your needs – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Take a moment now to stop and reflect on your life and current habits. How are you taking care of yourself? What are your current coping mechanisms during hard times and are they sustainable? How are you coping with the demands of a medical life? Are they helpful in the longterm as well as the short term?
It is very common to turn to coping mechanisms in the short term that could actually have a negative cost to ourselves and our marriage in the future. For example, methods of coping like unhealthy uses of alcohol or food, as well as destructive ways of thinking, are really comforting in the moment (we all have our vices!), but can lead us exactly in the wrong direction of where we want to be.
Our thoughts can be the most powerful tools in creating sustainability of our own happiness and that of our relationship. Following thoughts of blaming and envy, telling ourselves a story about victimhood, or creating drama and catastrophizing, can greatly decrease our happiness. These thoughts are totally normal and we all have them from time to time, so what can we do? We can start by becoming aware of when they appear, and realize that we can take away their power. It reminds of me that old parable of Two Wolves:
A grandfather is talking with his grandson and he says there are two wolves inside of us which are always at war with each other. One of them is a good wolf which represents things like kindness, bravery and love. The other is a bad wolf, which represents things like greed, hatred and fear. The grandson stops and thinks about it for a second then he looks up at his grandfather and says, “Grandfather, which one wins?” The grandfather quietly replies, “The one you feed.”*
Details on how to find and develop positive coping mechanisms can be found in a preferred self-help book, with a professional, with a trusted mentor or a spiritual advisor. We all need support through good times and bad. Reach out!
Additionally, here are links to previous Medical Spouse Survival Guide articles that can help you get from questioning to flourishing in your life and your relationship:
1. Create a support network for yourself. “Find Or Create a Medical Spouse Support Group.”
2. Improve communication with your spouse by clarifying expectations. “Defining Your Expectations.”
3. Continually work to see situations from different angles and find fresh perspectives. “Not Ours Anymore – Sharing Your Doctor Spouses.”
4. Work to have the life you want right now, with the partner you love and in the situation you’re in, by making the most of your time together. “Making Time For Fun
We, as medical student spouses, are some of the brightest, most resilient, and most capable people around. We rise to the occasion again and again. We can adapt and flow, find new grounding over and over again, and see glimmers of hope and make them shine. It takes a special kind of person to not only be understanding of the medical school journey, but to live in its intensity and uncertainty from moment to moment, and from year to year. We are able to do the work so we can have what we’re dreaming of, and have the lives we envision with the spouse we’ve chosen, during medical school and beyond!
Check back in February for our next article on a biggie: finances.
Happy New Year!
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*The One You Feed. “Tale of Two Wolves”. <http://www.oneyoufeed.net/tale-of-two-wolves/>

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Amy Rakowczyk is a medical spouse, mother, writer, singer, and former voice instructor. She currently resides in Galveston, TX with her husband and two young daughters. She enjoys helping other spouses navigate the world of medicine and actively participates in support groups and activities. Her hus... Amy Rakowczyk is a medical spouse, mother, writer, singer, and former voice instructor. She currently resides in Galveston, TX with her husband and tw...