5 keys to a successful long-distance relationship during medical school

When my husband Brian started first-year of medical school at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, I jettisoned off to Thailand to spend a year teaching English and traveling.  We figured if we were going to date long-distance, why not go all in? Why not ensure that we were a full 12 hours apart, on literal opposite sides of the world. What can I say? We like a challenge.

And it was a challenge. We really had no idea. Being 12 hours apart meant that we could never speak between the hours of twelve and seven because one of us was invariably asleep. And our waking hours could not have felt more different or disconnected. He spent his days learning anatomy and dissecting in a cadaver lab, and I spent my days teaching small Thai children how to speak English and eating at the local fish market. He existed in a world of esteemed professors in white coats, and I walked through a world of esteemed monks in orange robes. Those first few months abroad almost cost us our relationship.

Living in the same city (or on the same continent) is not an option for every couple, especially couples that include a medical student. Some significant others of medical students choose not to or cannot move when their partner gets accepted to medical school in another city. This truth is often the first time the couple understands what it means for medicine to call the shots, at least logistically. Long-distance relationships are incredibly difficult under the best circumstances, and medical school amplifies it. Relationships grow when couples experience new things together and strengthen their emotional bonds. Long-distance dating prevents the formation of new joint experiences and often forces couples to focus on relationship maintenance rather than growth. Brian and I made it through that difficult year apart, but we had to learn the hard way what it means to connect when you can’t go out to dinner together, sit and read together, or get a hug when you need it. Here are the things that matter.

Make an effort because otherwise, it won’t happen. Going from effortless conversation in the same room to long-distance communication is difficult. Early on, Brian and I realized that we could no longer assume we’d find to talk whenever. It wasn’t working. Things came up. We finally instituted weekly Skype chats on Tuesdays at 7:45 a.m. my time, 7:45 p.m. his time so we could see each other’s faces. In hindsight, this feels obvious, but we were used to having easier access to one another so took us longer than it should have to implement this tactic.

Memorize each other’s schedules. Do not just have each other’s schedules, learn them. Memorize them. Be able to reference them. The more you know about one another’s day-to-day life, the more connected you will feel.

Connect with the little details of your partner’s life. Before moving to Thailand, I visited Miami and saw Brian’s apartment, met his new friends, and got a sense for his routine.  That early visit made a huge difference; being able to picture where Brian spent time made me feel connected to his life. Of course, Brian couldn’t just stop by Thailand to see and experience my surroundings and routine. And I could not bridge that gap over the phone. That disconnect only disappeared when Brian visited me over winter break. If you can, visit each other’s surroundings early in the long-distance separation. That early experience anchors the relationship in the shared understanding of one another’s worlds and makes subsequent conversations more engaging.

Be OK with a weekend in. And while we’re on the topic of visiting a long-distance partner, let’s talk about what those visits look like. There’s something that happens when long distance partners visit each other. Where once they could easily spend a weekend catching up on homework or watching a Netflix marathon, those everyday experiences become completely unpalatable when visiting a long-distance partner. Why would I travel all the way to see you so we can have a completely mundane weekend?! When I returned to the US and had not yet moved to Miami, we felt that way. Visits felt more like entertaining a guest than spending time with a partner. Cut yourselves a little slack. Relationships are built on the tiny day to day moments that weave our lives together. Certainly, the two of you should make an effort when one of you visits the other. But give yourselves permission to embrace the everyday aspects of your life during those visits.

Decide that you will embrace the small things. Tell your partner via text that you hope they have a good day. Randomly let them know that you’re thinking about them. Tell them when something reminds you of them. Tell them you would rather be with them. Better yet, send a hand-written letter. It will knock their socks off, because who does that? You will have to manufacture the tiny moments of connection that most couples take for granted, and with medical school threatening to steal all of a student’s time and energy, these small moments take on vital meaning.

Long-distance medical relationships will never be easy, especially with a medical student. They require intentionality, consistency, and ninja-level communication skills. But it can be done. Good luck to you.

Sarah Epstein is author of the upcoming book, Love in the Time of Medical School, and blogs at DatingMed.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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