As a tour guide on interview days for my school, the most frequent question I am asked is: “What’s it like to be married — or to pursue a relationship — while in medical school?”
This question is understandable. More than a year ago, I was asking the same question to medical students I met during my interview days, apprehensive about how school would affect or change my relationship with my husband. It is a valid concern: when something we’ve worked so hard to achieve seems all-consuming, how is it possible to still be a human being with outside interests, including a healthy relationship, when those relationships also take considerable time and focus?
Our solution was fairly simple. A tremendous help was keeping an up-to-date calendar. We keep it in our hallway, where I write my exam schedule and any other school-related activities and commitments so that my responsibilities and free time are clearly communicated. Every Friday night is our designated “date night,” by my husband’s request. Something so simple — that designated date night on the calendar — makes me feel appreciated, especially when I feel as though I have not been a good wife or partner because of academic demands. This designated date night also gives me something to look forward to — a welcome reprieve during difficult weeks.
Sometimes those date nights are just a movie, or just dinner at a favorite restaurant. Sometimes it is dinner and a movie at home. Sometimes it is a walk in the park or a drive in the country. The activity is less important than the time we spend together. No matter the activity, while on date night I try to keep two promises to myself: no cell phone, and no talking about school. This is not a perfect system, but when issues come up, we adjust. Even if the following week is an exam week, my grades have not suffered because I take this time out of my schedule to focus on something that is important to me other than school .
When discussing school cannot be avoided, my husband has been wonderfully supportive. He is an engineer, so we are a two-scientist couple (as opposed to a two-physician or two-physician-in-training couple). He still understands the value of biomedical science, and for that I am grateful. He encourages, facilitates and reinforces my learning by asking me to explain what I’m learning. We can have conversations about things outside of medicine, which I feel keeps me grounded, and keeps me intellectually curious. He reminds me that medicine is not the only thing in this world, while also encouraging my ideas and dreams. He also has the uncanny ability to inject laughter into my day, especially during stressful weeks. Our date nights are exactly what I need to rejuvenate my studying, my drive for success and my marriage.
There have been plenty of instances where we did have miscommunication issues, and the first year of medical school did put some strain on our relationship. If I had an exam on Monday, I would use my entire weekend to study notes, work practice problems and continue to review. My husband didn’t complain about it to me, but I know he must have been disappointed that I did not always have free time on the weekends to have adventures like we did before I matriculated. Those were the instances when guilt ate away at my resolve; luckily, those instances were few and far between. Part of what works in our favor is that I am attending medical school “at home,” near friends and family, so that he has friends nearby and hobbies to pursue when I need to study. However, that does not mean we were immune to obstacles and difficulties throughout the year. We needed a way to communicate and compromise.
I am committed to my marriage, and I am committed to my education. It has not always been easy to balance both, but it has worked so far in my career as a physician-in-training. What has worked for us may not work for anyone else, but the idea is the same: while the study of medicine is a monumental task, there is time to nurture relationships… if you prioritize that time. School is demanding, but having a healthy marriage is vital to my success, because I cannot be a successful medical student if I do not sometimes put myself first and take care of my own interests. My relationships with my family, friends and husband are vital parts of who I am, and need to be nurtured. Being successful in medical school takes time management, dedication and focus; so does maintaining a healthy relationship. Prioritizing date night has been one element of my medical school journey that has kept me sane and fulfilled.