Unique Challenges of Dual-Physician Relationships: 9 Ways to Reduce Stress and Improve Companionship

Posted on July 27, 2022 by Alan Morse, VITAL WorkLife Consultant, Ph.D., BCC

Updated July 27, 2022

Dual Physician Relationships

Working with healthcare professionals for over 30 years, I’ve had the unique opportunity to observe first-hand the incredibly positive relationships and yes, even happier marriages, that have developed between physicians and their physician partners. 

I’ve watched my medical colleagues flourish as spouses and parents and still find the strength and energy to excel in their professional roles. Just recently, two physician colleagues celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary and they both agreed that marrying each other was “the best life decision they ever made!”

However, as a practicing clinical psychologist, I’ve seen relationships involving physician partners become distressingly toxic­ with poorly managed emotions leading to angry conflicts. At times, those conflicts culminating in physical abuse and bitter divorces for those couples who married. The pain and regret that result when physician partners can no longer tolerate each other not only has a detrimental effect on their mental and physical health, but in many cases can have devastatingly negative impact on their medical careers.

The unique challenges faced by dual-physician relationships (DPR’s) are real and need to be acknowledged as potential risks. Just listen to what a previous client of mine said about her ex-husband after a contentious divorce,

“I should have at least married a psychiatrist because clearly, I must have been completely out of my mind to ever have agreed to marry a surgeon who ruined my life and my career!”

Given the strongly expressed but diametrically opposed viewpoints voiced above, it is very likely that both perspectives regarding DPR’s may have a degree of validity. We know that every relationship evolves (or dissolves) through several stages. Yet, it may be safely assumed that each physician in the relationship began the relationship with positive expectations of connection, mutual trust and a sense of affection and companionship. In fact, according to the Medscape Physician Lifestyle & Happiness Report (2022),1 approximately 80% of the more than 15,000 physicians surveyed saw those initial relationships lead to a marriage commitment. 

Every DPR is Unique

Even more telling is the fact that despite the well-documented demands and stressful responsibilities of a career in medicine, approximately 25% of female physicians reported being married to a doctor and close to 16% of the male physician respondents also married another physician. With long, irregular hours, professional/ personal stressors, a higher risk of burnout and any number of logistical challenges related to training and practice opportunities, are these DPR’s realistically looking forward to multiple wedding anniversaries or are they as my client eloquently suggested, “out of their minds?” 

Call me an optimist, but with the information available for today’s doctors and the excellent resources currently available to physicians and their families, I going to suggest that each doctor in the dual-physician-marriage or cohabitating relationship should start a secret fund for future anniversary or major milestone gifts!

The first recommendation is to remember that every DPR is unique. Some physicians are in the early stages of their careers (and relationships) when they are going to be faced with serious choices regarding training opportunities and medical specialties, as well as determining living and working locations. Other physician partners and their families will have to adapt to address the multi-faceted demands that having children require. Lastly, there are going to be long-standing physician couples who will have to balance work transitions and retirement decisions. So, rather than attempt to address every concern, the goal should be to identify a few unifying themes to guide your journey together.

Implementing a Wellness Approach for your Relationship

Let’s start with identifying ways you will be able to implement an overall wellness approach that allows you to proactively build your resilience and reduce the negative effects of the stressors that you can control. This strategy will serve you well in a profession that is constantly bombarding you with challenges over which you have no control! Consider the following factors associated with well being that deserve your attention2:

  1. Physical Health: Practice healthy self-care and model healthy choices for your partner and your family. Recognize the need for adequate, restorative sleep, a healthy diet and a scheduled exercise program.
  2. Emotional Health: Lean how to recognize and utilize your emotional states as sources of information to guide your behavioral choices. Remember that even though you experience a wide range of emotions, you are always going to have to take responsibility for how you choose to express those emotions!
  3. Reduce Stress: Don’t forget to add programs and practices that enhance mindfulness, relaxation and reduce stress that fit your lifestyle and preferences.
  4. Seek Professional Help: Never underestimate the benefits of mental health services for yourself and/or your partner and family. Accessing mental health benefits, such as counseling or peer coaching , is no longer seen as a sign of stigmatized weakness, but an intervention that is evidence of insight and strength.
  5. Spiritual Health: Whether in a formal religious environment or on a more individualized level, expanding your sense of purpose and meaning in life is truly beneficial.
  6. Professional Health: Recognize that while a 50/50 work-life balance is now seen as a myth, it is to your advantage to focus on attaining a healthier work-life integration.
  7. Environmental Health: Never underestimate the advantage of spending time in nature. Don’t just “think outside the box,” “think outside!”
  8. Financial Health: Start early to discuss and design a strategic plan to manage your finances in the present and plan for your future financial security.
  9. “Everyday” Health: As practicing physicians, spouses and parents, the following suggestions may be helpful:
  10. Make time for each other: Plan a date night when possible with no “work” conversations allowed.
    • Stay organized: If it’s not on the calendar, it’s not going to happen! Multiple schedules for work, chores, school activities, and other demands are recommended.
    • Accept help: Childcare, household assistance, yard work, transportation and eldercare are just a few of the areas where assistance is not only recommended, but imperative. Utilize your VITAL WorkLife Concierge services to alleviate stress.
    • Have backup plans to your backup plans: Murphy’s Law (“Whatever can go wrong, will!”) is alive and well in dual-physician households.

We Can Help

No matter the unique challenges of your relationships, VITAL WorkLife is also here to support you in whatever stressors may be impacting your relationship, at home or work. For counseling, coaching and other resources contact us at 952.230.5109 or 77.731.3949 (toll free), through the VITAL WorkLife App or contact us online.

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