It happened again over the holidays. Your Great-Aunt Bertha made another snide comment about “how nice” it must be that you don’t need to work since you are married to a doctor. Or your annoying cousin Steve asked what it feels like to be “less of a man” because your physician wife earns more than you do. Did you respond to their judgements and comments calmly or was there an argument over the turkey? Over the history of this column, we’ve talked about some of the challenges of being a medical spouse. For this final installment in the series, I provide some tips on how to handle awkward comments about your life.
Married to Medicine
What comes to mind when you think of a “doctor’s spouse?” Does a certain image, type of person, personality, or status come to mind?
Even though decades have gone by and being in medicine looks quite different now, there are still some residual assumptions that exist when society envisions a “doctor’s wife”. For a doctor’s husband, many people still seem initially surprised by that idea. We might not be able to put our finger on the exact assumptions or expectations, but they are there and we may at times be compared to that example.
The expectations likely stem from some point in the past when being a doctor was one of the most highly paid careers could pursue. This created a higher social status for the doctor and their family. Couple the monetary payout with the ability to heal people at a time when healing seemed like magic, and doctors developed an almost god-like image to some generations. They catapulted to the top of the social hierarchy system with money, recognition, and special ability. The spouses that accompanied these doctors were in turn expected to rise to the occasion by looking and acting a certain way, befitting a more privileged status.
Even though times are different now, you may experience some comments that surprise you or leave you unsure of how to respond. Below are some of the most common assumptions other partners have experienced and how we can navigate them, one awkward encounter at a time.
“You married a doctor, that must be nice!”
The implication here is that you “have it all” and your life must be so much easier/better than everyone else’s. You must not have the same struggles and problems as other people. You possibly won’t be able to understand what it’s like for “the rest of us.”
If we look a little deeper into a comment like this, I think we’ll discover perceived socioeconomic differences between you and the other person. By being with a doctor, you must be part of a different group, different from them. They assume you likely will not have the same values or experience the same life stressors or challenges. Additionally, perceived privilege and elevated socioeconomic status can be intimidating for people.
How to Handle this Comment
Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. The fact is, you DO have an opportunity to live a very different life from most of the rest of the country. Your biggest stressors and the things that keep you awake at night are going to be different from the average person.
While it can be uncomfortable, the best response is to be upfront about the difference but not dwell on it. Focus on opening yourself up to connecting with the other person and any perceived differences will start to fall away.
“I do feel very lucky to be married to Jamie. She’s a great doctor! But I want to know more about your new electric smoker – what have you made recently?”
“You hit the jackpot being with a doctor! You must be rich!!”
The reality here is that our doctor significant others will make a very good amount of money sometime in the future. It will be a salary that most other people will never get to experience. There will be a point when you can live with much less financial stress and burden. You can have more of the things that you want than the average person – as long as you are smart about your money!
The important point here is that most people aren’t aware of the financial burden we take on before that large salary arrives. That financial burden is also unlike the average person. Most people don’t have $200-$500K in loan debt when they enter into their professions. In order for people to understand how the future financial payout is a long time away and that there’s a great deal of financial stress before then, we can politely and honestly be open about the financial realities of this profession.
If people learn that you won’t be making a large sum of money until after all the training is completed, which could be years and years away, and then you’ll have to pay off all the debt, they may be able to relate to your situation a little better.
How to Handle this Comment
Try something along the lines of the following.
“We feel very fortunate to be going into a well-paying profession, but we’re feeling the pinch now. You should see the size of our student loan bills!”
If the person seems curious and wants to know more, it’s okay to be open about the range of debt accumulated by medical students/residents. You can also discuss the financial and emotional stress you experience or you see in medical training. Let people see the human side of things.
“Why do you work?” (or the opposite) “And what do you do?? Hmmm??”
The first comment is rooted in the idea that working is hard and if you don’t have to work, why would you? If you have a good amount of money rolling in, why not just hang out and enjoy it?
If reality TV has taught us anything – or the depression, addiction, and suicides among wealthy and celebrity figures in our country – money does not equate happiness or fulfillment. Even if we have all the money in the world, we as humans need purpose and meaning in our lives. We need something to contribute to and be apart of.
We as medical significant others are privileged that we can be more selective on how we spend our time. Perhaps we have the ability to stay home with our children, take a lower-paying job that we absolutely love, devote our energies to volunteer work, or build our own businesses. Being with someone who has a secure income creates a great opportunity for us as their partner to explore our interests as well.
The second comment addresses the idea that your spouse would upstage you with a “more successful career”. This is outdated thinking. Your partnership is not a competition. It’s something that you both are contributing to.
How to Handle this Comment
A simple response can be best here.
“I’m so thankful I have a choice in how I spend my time. I have a number of interests and pursuits.”
Leave it there and if the person is interested, they’ll ask for more details, “Like what?”
This is also a good opportunity to turn the focus back onto the other person and show interest in hearing about their interests and goals.
“Is your wife/girlfriend a nurse?“
If your significant other is a female, many people will assume she is a nurse or other medical support staff, not the doctor.
How to Handle this Comment
“That’s a common assumption, but she’s actually a physician. Did you know that almost half of graduating doctors are female?”
How to Find Your Way
Whatever comments or assumptions you encounter out there, it is important to be honest with people. You can gently help dispel inaccurate assumptions and expectations of medical families.
In addition to providing polite yet honest responses to people, it’s important that you find your own voice, style, and priorities as a medical significant other, regardless of social expectations. As the saying goes, “comparison is the thief of joy”. It can rear its ugly head outside as well as inside our medical communities.
Eventually, as a medical family in your community, you could find yourself in a position of some authority – whether you want it or not. People will likely listen to you and respect your opinions. They may want to model themselves after you. It’s a great responsibility and can be used to create positive, meaningful change into our communities.
As potential influential members of our society, I hope we all will strive to use our future position and financial abundance to cultivate an authentic life for ourselves and our significant others, while also helping lift up our communities by sharing our gifts and talents. If we step into this role will our full sense of self, true to who we are, paired with a desire to serve others, we can help make positive and lasting change.
And hopefully avoid some arguments at your next holiday meal!