Medical Student Perspectives: Love in the Time of Cholecystitis: Helpful Hints on Making Relationships Work During Medical School
Medical school is not easy. With lectures, rotations, class exams, shelf exams, and board exams, even remembering to eat can be a Herculean task; it can really take a toll on you. This is doubly so if you are in a relationship. Your partner is trying their best to support you at a point in your life when you simply cannot devote an equal share of time. He or she might be understanding and patient, but your insane schedule can affect your partner deeply. Although there is little you can do to change your medical curriculum, you certainly can work toward goals that help your partner to feel appreciated, loved, and equal.
I am by no means a love guru. I have made countless mistakes in my relationship with AJS and the women I dated before her. However, I learn from my missteps and try to improve upon them. So, without further ado, here are the five major relationship strategies that have kept me from sleeping on the couch for weeks at a time.
1. Everything in moderation-this includes your stories.
I remember a few months back when I went to see two roommates at a long-term care facility: one had Pick's Disease; the other, Creutzfeldt-Jakob. It was like hitting the neurology lottery. As soon as I got home, I threw down my things and started rambling to AJS about it. I mean, who wouldn't get excited about something like that? It turns out, almost everyone who isn't in medical school. By the time I was done with my story, 30 minutes had passed, and I had yet to even so much as ask her about her day.
Just as we tell our patients not to completely eliminate salt, sugar, or fat, we should try to moderate the information we give to our partners all at once. Try to keep your stories brief, especially to someone who is not in the medical field. They care about you and genuinely want to know about what you do, but it is not fair to exhaust them with information. Watch the jargon, too. It can cause a person who does not know medical terminology to tune out your tales.
2. They get it-you're busy.
There is one surefire way for me to see that AJS is less than pleased with me-she rolls her eyes. She recently asked me if I could squirrel away three hours to go to a baby shower three weeks from then. I instantly started on about an upcoming shelf exam and how I have not studied for it at all. I got the eye roll, the exasperated sigh, and the move to the next room. It was the Trifecta of Trouble and I earned it; she was getting pretty tired of listening to me whine daily.
Article author, Andrew Buchholz, and his girlfriend, AJS.
Your partner knows you are busy, and I'm sure that they have been more than accommodating. They've stayed out of your hair at the end of each block, picked up the slack with groceries and household chores, and generally tried to make your home life as easy as possible. There is no need to continuously remind them about it.
3. Create some traditions with your partner and stick to them.
Sundays are somewhat of a sacred day for AJS and I. We have our routine: sleeping in, a fun activity outside the home, dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, and an evening stroll through Philadelphia's Historic District. It is the one day that I put down the books and enjoy her company as she enjoys mine. This one day a week is carefree and gives us something to look forward to, as I am physically and emotionally drained the other six.
Having a devoted day reminds your partner that he or she is still a significant part of your life and that they are wanted and appreciated. Even if you cannot spare a whole 24 hours, any activity that the two of you do with each other can make a huge impact, especially if you make it routine. Here are some cost-effective activity ideas: museums, parks, second-run movie theaters, flea markets, apple picking at the local farm, open mic nights, bookstores, the zoo, or even paint-your-own-pottery stores.
4. Help out where you can-the little things go a LONG way.
I've done it all for AJS. I have bought her flowers, chocolates, cards, and jewelry that I could not afford. She appreciated all of it. However, none of those things has earned me a thank you e-mail or adorable text messages to get me through my day. The thing I did to earn her appreciation was the time I left the house early, as usual, but took the extra 30 seconds to set up the coffee maker and turn it on so she could have a fresh cup when she got up.
As I talked about earlier, your partner knows you're busy. Your partner is there to support you, so return the favor whenever possible. Simple gestures like making coffee, unloading the dishwasher, or leaving a little love note before you walk out the door -without being asked-can make your partner feel remembered, appreciated, and loved at a time in your life when you may not be able to afford the time and money to do bigger things.
5. You will have problems-TALK THEM OUT!
AJS and I see a couples counselor. This in no way means that our relationship is a failure. Simply having a third party provides insight and a safe space to allow us to work out the problems in our relationship, big and small. During the weeks that we don't have any have any pressing issues, we use the time to talk about our lives and our future. Talking freely and openly, and sometimes fighting, has made our relationship stronger than ever.
Even if you had all the time in the world to devote to your relationship, there would still be problems. It is important to discuss them with your partner sooner rather than later. Days or weeks can go by if you let them, especially with your 12-hour days on the wards. A small nuisance that can be easily addressed can potentially become a relationship-ending fissure if you let it fester like a diabetic foot ulcer. Get it out, and get it over with before it becomes a problem.
Every relationship is different, and your mileage will vary with these tips. However, the take-home message is fairly consistent regarding many medical school relationships: You have someone fighting in your corner. Your partner cares for you, helps you, and probably sacrifices for you. It is extremely important for you to remember that and make them feel like it is worth it. They certainly are!
Andrew Buchholz, MPH, MSIII
University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey
School of Osteopathic Medicine, 2013
(P.S. Feel free to send engagement announcements and/or wedding photos if any of these tips worked for you!)