So You Married a Physician…
By Julia E. Sotile, MSW, LCSW: Mary O. Sotile, MA, LPC; Wayne M. Sotile, PhD.
Our years of experience working with physicians and their families have taught us that medical couples (both one- and two-physician couples) who transition into and out of medical training deal with a similar dynamic: Each life change comes with joyful anticipation, and each soon results in a “reality collision” that can unsettle any couple. In each case, the relationship dynamics are somewhat predictable. Here’s what we have noticed.
Most couples, medical or not, enter into a marriage and/or life together with a sense of awe. This seems to be particularly true for spouses of physicians. Physicians are (appropriately) revered in our society as smart, powerful, well intended people; people worthy of awe.
But what happens when the excitement and novelty of beginning a life together subsides? What happens to the awe? From the work we have done with countless medical families we have learned that this awe tends to settle into a slightly different version of reality. This reality may take on different forms during different stages of life, but for young medical couples entering into a life together, so often this reality comes as a bit of a tidal wave. Take for example, medical students or residents and their spouses. While the student/resident gets swept along by his or her training curriculum, the life mate may be left to navigate an unfamiliar city with no shepherding presence. So often we hear of physician spouses struggling to adjust to this new reality, and to accept that the awe that once characterized their thoughts about life as a spouse/mate of a physician seem distant to feelings of loneliness and longing for days past.
Most young medical families today are also face with tremendous financial strains and the shock of educational debt. For recent graduates, the reality of a six-figure educational debt, coupled with the “fall from power” that comes with transitioning from senior resident to youngest member of the new group or department unsettles the anticipated “now, finally, we get to celebrate that we’ve made it!” In fact, so many young medical families are overwhelmed by a new reality of “turns out we are just getting started!”
Here’s the good news: Countless couples navigate these transitions and come out stronger for having had the experience. Here are a few guidelines we have taken from the many couples who have allowed us into their lives during these challenging times:
1. Be realistic. The challenges of work/life balance are never ending, and this juggling act is a code that is never cracked. The key is to learn how to appropriately care for yourself and each other, along the way.
2. Keep your eye on the meaning of the journey. Remembering that you are engaged in a noble profession and that, as a couple and a family, you are contributing to the world may sound homespun, but it is key to avoiding demoralization and resentment.
3. Now is as good a time as any to stop “waiting until.” How can we relax and enjoy ourselves and each other when we are on a journey that never stops? That is the medical couple’s gauntlet.
4. Accept that it’s not all about medicine. Relationship dynamics are predictable and manageable, doctor or not. (Much more about this topic will appear in our forthcoming columns. Stay tuned for information about the keys to building a resilience toolkit that can safeguard your relationship, even amidst times of a major transition.)
Physicians today arguably face more work/life challenges than any prior generation. But, here is some more good news: Physicians and their mates tend to be extraordinarily capable, intelligent, high achieving folks. The keys to successfully navigating these challenging times are accessible, tangible, and applicable for you and your families. We hope that you will continue to work to take care of yourselves and one another, and that you will always make efforts to reconnect or continue to embrace that old feeling of awe.
We welcome your comments and insights.
Julia E. Sotile, MSW, LCSW
Mary O. Sotile, MA, LPC
Wayne M. Sotile, Ph.D.
The Sotiles are founders of the Center for Physician Resilience, in Davidson, North Carolina, an organization committed to fostering resilience for physicians, medical families, and medical organizations. Over 10,000 physicians and medical families have engaged in their unique, time-intensive coaching/counseling process. They also speak internationally and provide consultation to medical organizations. For more information, visit them at www.TheResilientPhysician.com