How to Maintain Healthy Relationships in Your High-Demand Medical Profession

Posted on September 14, 2015 by Leigh Anne Godfrey

Updated June 15, 2021

For every physician or provider working long hours under tremendous stress, there is usually a spouse, life partner or even a few close friends who are frustrated by the lack of time and attention they. Add children to the mix and the problems compound exponentially. For many physicians and providers, it's a revelation to discover the stress, and sometimes absolute chaos, they're experiencing at home aren't particularly unique. Physicians and providers are typically less apt to share their problems with their peers, so many operate under the impression they're the only ones experiencing difficulties balancing work and life.

What are the problems differentiating medical marriages and relationships from their non-medical counterparts? One commonly cited difficulty is many of the personality traits contributing to physician and provider success – such as perfectionism and self-sacrifice – can also present challenges in personal relationships.

Perfectionism at Home & Work

Most physicians and providers have gotten where they are by being hard on themselves, pushing themselves to their limits and being very self-critical. There may be an unconscious expectation their spouses, children and friends will share the same work ethic and desire for perfection; not realizing those qualities may be inherent to their own personalities.

Perfectionism can also create conflict with spouses or life partners who view the home as a place to kick back and relax rather than a zone of continuous improvement. Perfectionism and the real world don't always mix well. While we would definitely want our brain surgeon to be a perfectionist, it’s a much less desirable quality in a partner.

Conversation or Consultation

Quick, efficient, problem solving is a clear expectation for the physician or provider at work. When a patient presents with a problem, there's an expectation the medical professional will provide knowledgeable advice – and the patient will be grateful for it. When they leave the clinical environment and find a spouse, partner or friend wanting to vent about a problem at home or work, many times they jump straight to trying to diagnose or solve the problems rather than simply providing a sympathetic ear or lending support and encouragement.

The clinical detachment physicians and providers master in medical school often gets in the way of empathetic listening and intimacy.

Managing Expectations

Physicians and providers who form relationships prior to or during medical school often have an agreement that their “real relationship” won't begin until the rigors of training are behind them. Whether it's a dual-medical professional relationship or one member is non-medical, the medical student/intern/resident often gets a pass on household chores, can't or isn't expected to be available for family and social events and comes home too exhausted to provide much in the way of fun, comfort or support.

Many spouses and partners begin experiencing frustration when what they thought was a temporary situation continues as the struggle with the demands of practicing medicine and paying off medical school debt replaces the rigors of medical school, internship and residency.

For some, overwork is a matter of habit. They have to make a conscious decision to carve out time or do things differently. For medical professionals with heavy on-call schedules, it could be an issue throughout their careers.

Whether or not an individual can live with the demands of being married to, or in a relationship with, someone who's married to their work, is an issue people in relationships with physicians or providers often have to resolve for themselves.

Unresolved Marital Stress: A Spiral Effect

For many physicians and providers, home is not an oasis from stress, it is a cause of stress – and it becomes a vicious circle. The more they throw themselves into their work to avoid going home to an angry, disappointed spouse or partner, the angrier their significant other becomes.

As with any marriage, many conflicts in medical marriages/relationships are simply conversations that haven't happened. If most of a couple's 'conversations' quickly become arguments, it may seem counterintuitive to suggest more conversation as the solution. However, short of divorce, it's the only thing with the potential to alleviate the situation. Talking about frustrations and disappointments with some agreed-upon plan for resolution is critical, even though it is not necessarily easy."

We Can Help

For couples in medical marriages who find themselves unable to resolve conflicts, of short or long duration, there's help through Physician Well Being Resources. Physician Well Being Resources, available through VITAL WorkLife, includes unlimited telephone consultation – available 24/7 simply by calling 877.731.3949. Physician Well Being Resources solution also includes free, face-to-face counseling – for you, your spouse or life partner and your family members – with master's and doctorate level professionals. Physician peer coaching is also readily available.

Happy, intimate marriages and relationships are powerful stress reducers for individuals who are able to have them. We're here to help physicians, providers and their family members create and maintain satisfying relationships with each other.

Medical spouses and life partners are encouraged to take advantage of this solution. There's a common misperception that physician and provider families have it made. We've helped many medical families improve the quality of their communication and their time spent together.

Call VITAL WorkLife at 877.731.3949, or access resources through your VITAL WorkLife App, anytime day or night, for the support you need.

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