The demographics of medicine are changing. Almost half of all graduating medical students are now female, which means that our medical communities are seeing more and more male spouses and partners of female physicians. Dual-physician marriages are also becoming more prevalent, and same-sex partnerships are increasingly recognized within our community.
With these evolutions, fewer medical marriages/partnerships consist of the traditional dyad of a male physician and a stay-at-home wife. Even so, some of the long-held assumptions about this traditional pairing still exist, and modern partnerships, especially male medical spouses, may feel like they are experiencing the brunt of these outdated stereotypes.
So what is the experience like for male medical spouses during medical training and beyond? Do they have the same experiences and challenges as female spouses? And do they have the support they need during this journey?
The Male Spouse Experience
Since I am not a male spouse, I turned to interviews and research to help gain an accurate picture. A detailed, albeit limited, research study was conducted in 2010 that provided some good insight into the experiences of male spouses. You can read the full report here. It’s actually an interesting read! Through looking at this report, as well as interviewing several male medical spouses, general themes emerged.
The overall consensus was that the male experience shares many common themes with the female experience. The biggest obstacles were lack of time with your spouse, division of duties, and feeling “second” to your spouse’s job.
The biggest difference was that male spouses tended to feel more protective over their wive’s careers, meaning that people often assume that they, as the male, are the doctor in the relationship (prevalent both outside and within the medical community) or people assume that their wife is support staff like a nurse or MA. One spouse told me that he used to say his wife “worked in the hospital” out of humility, but then started saying “she’s a doctor” because people would always assume he meant that she was a nurse.
Male spouses also often have to defend their own abilities, livelihoods, and contributions. Many males said that when people learned that their wife was a doctor, they were impressed, but then would turn to them and ask in a condensing way, “And what to you do?”
The need to defend yourself became especially apparent in the case of stay-at-home dads. Male spouses who are the main caretaker for the family felt like being a stay-at-home dad was more confusing and odd for people than being married to a female doctor. The traditional role reversal is still challenging for many people to wrap their minds around, whether you’re in medicine or not.
For males who have careers of their own, unless they too were a doctor, they often felt like their career was considered “just a job” compared to their spouse’s. One spouse said, “Hers is a career, mine is a job.” They were expected to be always be flexible and felt like they had very little control over their own time. Everything had to revolve around their spouse’s medical schedule and duties.
But there was a positive side as well! Most male spouses said that they were so amazed with their wives and felt very proud of her accomplishments. They said it was also nice to have a medical professional in the home and they enjoyed being challenged intellectually by their partner.
Career and Life Balance
The reality for male medical spouses, just like female spouses, is that they will become “the default” for all responsibilities that are not related to medical training: household chores, organizing events, managing and maintaining relationships, caring for children—pretty much “all the things.” It’s way too much for one person to be responsible for, especially since most spouses either have their own careers, work part-time, or are a full-time parent, but we are asked to do it anyway!
We may start feeling resentful, but then also a little guilty. When we look at what our spouses are going through, it’s hard not to feel like our stress and demands pale in comparison. They’re working 80+ hours per week, have numerous extra responsibilities and studying, and are completely exhausted. Many medical spouses feel like we should take on all the other stuff, even at the expense of our own health. It’s important to keep yourself a priority and figure out systems that not only get the jobs done, but support you during the process.
An important key is to carve out time for yourself to do something you enjoy. Maybe that’s exercising, having periodic guys nights or coffee with a friend. Community can be the best form of medicine for spouses!
The other key is carving out time for you and your spouse. You’ll have to schedule in time together. As one male spouse said, “It’s not spontaneous or the most romantic to have to schedule in specific time together, but if that’s what we have to do right now to have time together, I’ll take it.”
Whether you have kids and your own career, or you’re a stay-at-home dad, you’ll be the one that will have to be the most present and available for the children. Your spouse will be so busy with medical training and have such a relentless and inflexible schedule, that you’ll have to deal with the kids’ “stuff”—the sicknesses, practices, appointments and shuttling kids around, etc. It’s easy to start resenting this, but try to remember that this is a phase and it won’t always be like this. Better balance is possible down the line.
For couples who are both doctors, the research study and the interviews both pointed out that there was greater understanding of the demands of each other’s schedules and that most of the couples had full-time help with childcare such as a live-in nanny or had family nearby that was responsible for a large portion of their children’s care.
Where Can You Find Community?
As a female spouse, I wondered where male spouses find support. There are organizations, blogs, and podcasts for “doctor’s wives” but what about for the guys?
Most of the male spouses I spoke to found support through other medical spouses, neighbors, and if they are parents, through playgroups with other parents. Many of them were fortunate enough to have other male spouses or stay-at-home dads amongst their medical and neighborhood communities. If you don’t have this built-in support, ask around or do some research to see what’s available. If you can’t find anything, consider starting your own group. Even if it’s with just one other person to start, that’s something!
The male medical spouse experiences similar themes to all medical spouses. Being a medical spouse, regardless of gender, comes with personal dedication, flexibility, and a resilient attitude. We all must be independent and willing work with our spouse’s training being the biggest driving force in our relationships, homes, and social lives. Once training is completed, you will have more choice over how medicine dictates your lives and schedules, but for now, it’s important to find enjoyment in the process by creating systems and by prioritizing self-care. We, as medical spouses, must take care of ourselves during training too. We are all in this together!