Coping With An Overwhelmed Spouse

In last month’s article, we addressed the big elephant in the room during medical training: mental health. Most of our medical partners will experience overwork and exhaustion at some point during training. Considering the incredible amount of knowledge and skill they have to learn in a relatively short amount of time, coupled with demanding schedules and navigating medical culture, it’s not surprising that mental health is a huge concern and problem in our community. 

Mental health challenges manifest in different ways for different people. For some people, they will create and indulge in unhealthy habits such as consuming too much alcohol, using drugs to stay awake and increase performance, not sleeping or exercising, or developing issues with food consumption.

Some people become more irritable and easy to anger. They’ll lash out at those around them and usually most intensely with people that are closest to them. Their spouse and their loved ones will feel like they are walking on eggshells around them, trying not to trigger another outburst.

Others will get depressed. They will put up a wall, crawl in a hole, and shut people out. Trying to communicate with someone that has shut you and the world out is very difficult.

In reality, it’s likely that our spouses could express all of these different unhealthy coping strategies at some point during training. One rotation they’ll be depressed, another they’ll be irritable, the next they’ll all of a sudden feel better and be somewhat back to “normal.” The swinging of this emotional pendulum leaves those around them unsure of what to expect or what to do to support them. It also leaves the medical spouse without the support they need.

So let’s check in. How is your spouse/partner doing? If they’re struggling, how do you know if they’re experiencing general medical training overwhelm, a bout of depression, or something more serious? Check out last month’s article to help you gauge the situation. Please do not wait to encourage your spouse to seek out help if you sense that they need it!

And how are you? Really, take a second to assess your current state. Are things relatively okay and manageable right now, or are you completely overwhelmed and frustrated? Do you feel like you’ve figured out a way to handle the ups and downs of your spouse and their medical training, or are you feeling lonely and hurt?

To help you cope with and navigate through these ups and downs, let’s go through a little Medical Spouse Coping Strategy checklist.

  1. Name That Feeling

    When you think of your situation right now, or how it has been lately, what are some words that immediately come to mind? Words such as good and hopeful, or others like stressed, disappointed, lonely or worried? Put a name to it.

    When you get clear and specific with the emotion you’re experiencing, you create space between the feeling and yourself. Within that space you can begin to reclaim your power. If you know what you’re experiencing, you can start to figure out how you can work with it. You’ll also be able to see that it’s just a feeling, something that will come and go, and is not your identity. Of course, if you feel depressed for a significant period of time, please seek professional help as soon as possible.

    A way to navigate this process of naming the feeling and working through it is by leaning on teachers and experts. For example, Brene Brown in her new book, “Rising Strong,” provides a sort of a guide to developing self-awareness and emotional intelligence. I highly recommend giving it a read/listen and check out this page on her website where you can find her “30 Core Emotions” download to help you identify your feelings with more clarity and description. It’s a great place to start. So much good stuff in this book and on her website!

  2. Communicate Clearly With Your Spouse

    Next on the checklist is helping and supporting your spouse while also showing up for yourself. The goal you’re working toward is being able to ask for what you want and need, and along with your spouse, figure out ways for both of your needs and wants to be met.

    For you spouse: Tell your him/her that you want to know what they’re going through and experiencing. Ask what they need from you and how you can help. When you turn the tables and ask them, rather than tell them, they are more likely to respond positively.

    Continuing with the theme above, try naming the feeling your partner is experiencing. For example, “It seems like you are pretty frustrated today.” When you label negative feelings, they lose their power a bit and it gives your partner an easy way to start communicating with you. Similarly, if you do this with positive feelings, it magnifies them. “It looks like you had a good day today!” Cue conversation and connection.

    For you: Using your new vocabulary about your feelings, express those feelings to your spouse in a non-attacking way. This technique is actually called “non-violent communication.” For example, instead of saying, “You aren’t ever here! I have to do everything myself!” you could say, “I am feeling pretty lonely and hurt right now. Can we set aside some time with each other to talk through things?” It takes a good deal of practice, but if you work to express your feelings without blaming or shaming your partner, you’re a lot more likely to come together and find some common ground.

    Additionally, please don’t resign yourself and just “suck it up.” All that will do is create a lot of resentment. It will last for months or years and fester. As Brene Brown states in her previously mentioned book, “Choose a few moments of discomfort over years of resentment.”

  3. Don’t Try To “Fix It”

    In case you haven’t realized this yet, you can’t control your spouse! You cannot change their thoughts or behavior, make them act in certain ways or care about certain things. And if they’re feeling down in the dumps, you cannot get them out by yourself.

    What you CAN do is:

    Listen to your partner without judgement or trying to make it better. A simple way to do this is a technique called “mirroring” or “reflecting.” The idea is that you repeat back to them the essential parts of what they are saying to give them reassurance that you are fully listening. This often prompts people to continue talking and elaborating on what they are thinking, and it creates a feeling of being listened to which helps strengthen your bond.

    For example, if your spouse says,“Today was really hard. My attending yelled at me for showing up late to the surgery and told me to get out of the OR.” You could respond with “He yelled at you?” Or “get out?” These little techniques work better for continuing the communication rather than simply affirming “that sucks!” Alternatively, you can ask questions that can help keep the conversation going as well such as “What did you do after that?” Using this technique will help them feel seen and heard. It also sets the stage for them to process the feelings enough that they can start to look outward – toward you as their partner – and reciprocate the attention.

  4. Their Stress Is Not A Sign Of Your Relationship Failing

    This is important because it feels a lot like failure when you’re experiencing it! Try to remember that this is how things are right now, in this moment. It won’t always be this way. If you’re spouse is struggling, it’s not a sign that you have done something or that your relationship is falling apart, even if it looks that way through more problems and lack of connection. Take each situation for what it is, investigating it and not creating a whole story around it. What is really happening? What do you know for sure?

  5. Take Care Of Yourself!


    All of us will feel good at times and miserable during other times; it’s part of being human. The key to not only surviving, but thriving in your life, regardless of current circumstances, is making a commitment to understanding yourself and taking care of yourself. If you can work on developing self-awareness and inner happiness, you will not have to rely on someone or something to make you happy. You have the power to do that for yourself! It’s very empowering to be able to show up for yourself everyday, especially during hard times.

    You can view your goal not as “fixing your spouse” or “your situation” but more inward, by understanding yourself so you will know how to ask for help and better communicate your needs. Taking care of yourself first is no a small feat, but vital for better days now and for long-term happiness. For detailed ways to start loving on yourself, check on this previous article, “Self-Care Is Not Selfish.”

Life is not something to be suffered through. Everyday is an opportunity to discover, grow, learn, and enjoy! You are not a victim to your circumstances. Commit and choose to empower yourself, take control of your own life and actions. You’ll be amazed with how things around you, including your spouse, will begin responding in positive and joyful ways.

Amy Rakowczyk

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 husband is a Family Medicine resident at UTMB Galveston and did his medical training at The Ohio State University.

Amy Rakowczyk has 32 posts and counting. See all posts by Amy Rakowczyk