Maintaining A Relationship When Both Partners Are In Medical or Graduate School

Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner

My boyfriend began medical school the same fall I began graduate school. We met the year before when we were both still awaiting our respective medical/graduate school interviews and acceptances. To our surprise, we had both applied to one of the same universities in the midwest before meeting each other. To our even bigger surprise, we were both accepted to that university. Coincidentally, this university was the top choice for us both, and we were St. Louis bound together. (Go Cards!)

The beginning of that academic year was quite the transition for us independently and as a couple. I searched the internet for advice on dating a medical student while in graduate school and found plenty of articles related to supporting a boyfriend/girlfriend while in medical school, maintaining a relationship with a medical student, and what to expect as a medical school spouse. Sure, those articles were insightful, but what about when the other half of that relationship is also pursuing a graduate degree and is equally short on time and under pressure?

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Although it might seem like it at times, you are not the first couple to embark on this type of journey together. As a new academic year begins, hundreds of couples will start medical/graduate school in relationships with fellow medical/graduate students. If you are or will be one of these students, below are some practical lessons we have learned along the way:

You are a team: This took us a little while to figure out, but once we did, it was a game-changer. There will inevitably be some very, very busy weeks. If your schedule is anything like ours was/is, your busy weeks will rarely be the same weeks. There will be times when it feels like you are putting in more effort than your partner, but thinking this way is only hurting you both. So don’t. Don’t keep score. Approach the tough times together. Take the time to really listen to your partner when something is on his/her mind, make decisions involving the both of you together, split the costs of dinner/groceries, and when your partner has had a busy week or has an exam the next morning, make dinner, do the dishes, and take out the trash without expecting something in return. Fight for your partner, not against your partner. You will be much stronger for it.

Do not compare your relationship to others’: Everyone’s twenties look so different. Some of your friends may have bought a house and a dog, got married, and started a family, while others are traveling across America in a van converted into a home, starting their own business, or backpacking across Europe. The key? Do not compare your relationship to others’. This is hard, as we live in a connected world that provides us with glimpses into people’s lives at all times via apps on our smartphones. But relax! Have confidence in you and your partner’s decisions to invest in yourselves and further your education at this time in your lives. You are dually establishing a foundation for meaningful and successful careers—ones that you can build upon and ones that will support you both in the future. Your time for buying a home and traveling the world together will come; it’s just not now. And that’s okay!

Let go of expectations: Your time is not your own anymore and neither is your partner’s. The demands of medical/graduate school are intense and more often than not you will both find yourselves rolling with the punches. Sometimes lectures last longer than scheduled. Sometimes meetings get postponed. Sometimes your partner’s 10 hour shift turns into a 12 hour shift. Some things are just out of your control. Accept that your plan for a big date night might not happen. Your new date nights can come in the form of doing laundry together, studying side-by-side, or taking a walk through the park simply just to get a breath of fresh air before returning to reality. Cherish the time you have together, no matter how mundane it looks. Again, this time is temporary. Your fancy date nights will come.

Communicate, and I mean really communicate: Between lectures, working on research projects, attending meetings, and preparing for exams, you both have a lot on your plate. School will take up a majority of your waking hours and therefore, it is important to stay up to date on each others’ endeavors. Doing so will 1) allow you to support each other most effectively and 2) help you both to establish a more realistic “routine” with each other. Let your partner know about an upcoming week of night shifts well in advance. Give them a heads up when you might not have cell phone service in the hospital. Tell them about upcoming group projects and project due dates. Communicating these things will hopefully lead to smoother transitions and avoid any unintended misunderstandings.

Be selfish with your time together, but don’t forget to make time for family and friends: Your free time is already limited and therefore, your free time together is even more limited. Nevertheless, it is always important to make time for your family and friends. Your family and friends love you, support you, and also help to make these years bearable. It is important that they know just how much they mean to you. Prioritize those relationships. Take time to grab coffee, schedule phone dates, send cards, etc. It is likely that most of your family and friends are outside of your field. Spending time with them is also a great way to recharge and to be reminded about the life outside of your academic bubble.

Make the little things the big things: Your partner isn’t working a 9-5 with a comfortable salary and benefits; he/she is on a student budget too. This is a time for quality over quantity and just because you guys are getting Chinese take-out rather than a steak dinner at a five-star restaurant doesn’t mean it can’t be special. You might opt to watch a Netflix movie rather than catch an IMAX movie premiere, take a Saturday morning hike nearby rather than book a weekend getaway, or try out a new dinner recipe rather than take a cooking class. There are plenty of ways to make your time together count without spending an arm and a leg.

Join the medical school’s med spouse/med significant other/med wives group: This is advice for the non-medical partner in the relationship. If your university has a support group for medical students’ partners, join it! You can have all the support in the world but not everyone understands the journey that is dating a medical student if they aren’t experiencing it for themselves. Joining a group like this gives you a network of significant others who are experiencing a similar journey as you, who can offer you meaningful insight into the unique situations you find yourself in, and who can truly empathize with you. Additionally, this is a great way to make new friends, especially when your demanding schedules seem to make this nearly impossible.

It’s true what they say: the days seem long but the years sure seem to fly by. We hope these tips are helpful to you and we wish you the absolute best of luck during these years, both independently and as a couple!