Your partner’s residency is hard for you both, but it is possible to both survive and thrive throughout it! Finding happiness and success while your partner is in residency comes down to a handful of simple lessons, at least in theory if not in practice.
1. It’s your residency, too. It’s a simple but powerful departure point: residency is both your partner’s job and a significant period in your life together. Your partner’s residency will affect you, and they should understand that because while nobody will deny that residency can be brutal for the physician, it can be hard to accept that it will also alter your life in powerful ways. It’s how you manage it together that will make the difference.
2. Manage your expectations. This has been both the most challenging and the most important lesson for me throughout my husband’s residency. The hospital will dictate much of your partner’s time and energy. So when planning anything from what time to eat dinner to attending an event three months away, it’s healthy to assume that you may have to go it alone. Which leads me to number three …
3. Don’t wait. The greatest thing you can do for your own self-care is to use this time to explore your independence. Find the things that bring you joy outside of your relationship and pursue them. Plan day trips with friends, go to concerts and gallery shows, take a class, check out new or favorite restaurants. Don’t wait for your partner to be available or to be in an easier rotation or to be done with residency for you to enjoy your life. You may be partners, but that shouldn’t stop you from cultivating your own individuality.
4. Communicate. Your time with your partner will, in all likelihood, be less than you’d prefer. What’s more, the time you do have together might be filled with other more pressing issues for your partner, like fulfilling the first of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But your needs — to be heard, loved, understood, supported — are no less important and are crucial to a healthy relationship in the toughest times. Work together to keep open lines of honest communication and find the modes of communication that work best for both of you (whether it’s device-free conversation over dinner or texts with emojis and gifs throughout the day).
5. See a therapist. If your insurance is kind enough to cover mental health, take advantage of it. It is not because you are sick or damaged or need to “get better,” but because the closest person in your life will not always be available to support you and listen to you, and a lot of the emotional work may fall on your shoulders. A good therapist can go a long way in making the residency experience easier to bear.
6. Find a community. Whether this comes in the form of family, a good yoga studio, coworkers, a religious community or an established group of physicians’ spouses, having people who care about you as an indivual can help make residency a meaningful period in your life. Even if the people in your circle of love can’t personally empathize with your experience, they can love you and support you all the same. Additionally, having people in your life beyond your partner who you love and support can help you focus your energies beyond yourself or your home where your efforts may not always be recognized or reciprocated as much as you’d like.
7. Resentment happens. It is not uncommon for residents’ partners to feel resentment. The emotionally and physically demanding work can and will intrude on your relationship in ways that will be hard to negotiate and will. Here’s the catch: You can resent aspects of the program and still love your partner and their choices in life. You can support your partner’s passions, their dedication, their hard work even while you complain about yet another missed dinner or late night. Your partner probably hates those parts of the job, too, so be clear about what inspires the negativity and focus your energy instead on the person you love.
8. Listen to your limits. Being a partner of a resident will mean the occasionally imbalanced division of labor in the home (both physical and emotional). You might end up taking care of yourself and your partner more often than you’d like, shouldering responsibility for chores around the home, managing your finances, and even raising your children. Or, if you’re like me, you’ll want to dedicate more time than you have to work and volunteer organizations. But recognizing your limits can help you find the sweet spot between thumb-twiddling boredom and head-spinning over-commitment. How do you do it? You say “no” every now and again.
9. It’s not a competition. When you have a bad day, your feelings are valid. Even if your partner is on a particularly grueling rotation or just had a really rough case, it doesn’t negate your experience or emotions. This is a lesson that both partners will need to learn so that you can support one another in the face of your personal challenges.
The same applies to friends, family members or residents in different specialties. When someone shares their own personal challenges with you, you can remember that even if it seems trivial based on your own experiences, it is not trivial to them. You don’t somehow “win” by having a harder life. You “win” by being supportive and empathetic.
10. Above all, it’s temporary. My husband often says, “Nobody becomes a doctor to be a resident.” Depending on the length of the residency and the training in total, it can be extremely hard to maintain this perspective. This really challenging time for both of you will come to an end, and you both will be stronger for it.
Nashira Pearl is a music teacher who blogs at How to Surthrive.
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