For physicians, what can be gained from a healthy romantic relationship?

By Alpana Mohta, MD, DNB, FEADV, FIADVL, IFAAD | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published August 22, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Physicians face unique challenges in balancing demanding careers and fulfilling relationships. 

  • We need partners who can stand together through the highs and lows of our profession. 

  • For physicians, it's more than worth it to prioritize a romantic partnership. A supportive partner in a medical marriage provides emotional stability, mutual support, and resilience in life, contributing to overall well-being and a healthier, more fulfilling existence.

Back in the late 70s, when Dr. Michael Myers, a psychiatrist and expert in medical relationships and physician health, began his lectures on marriage, he used a cartoon as an icebreaker. It depicted two physicians having lunch in the hospital, and the caption read, "Show me a doctor whose wife is happy, and I'll show you a man who's neglecting his practice."

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and we find a transformed demographic landscape, says Dr. Meyers in a review in Western Journal of Medicine.[]

Why some physicians struggle in relationships

Around half of the physician workforce is female, spouses may be of any gender, and many physicians have partners instead of married spouses. Despite the changing times, one can't help but wonder if the underlying sentiment of the cartoon caption remains relevant today. 

Are physicians still caught in a dilemma between their professional obligations and the needs of their families? 

Healthcare professionals often grapple with the demanding nature of their profession. We dedicate ourselves to healing others but sometimes forget to mend our own hearts. The rigorous nature of medical training during residency can be toxic. Specialties like neonatology and high-risk obstetrics, notes Dr. Myers, are notorious for disrupting the work-life balance.

The book The Medical Marriage highlights that physicians often bring particular traits to their relationships, including emotional detachment, perfectionism, compulsiveness, poor interpersonal relations, workaholic tendencies, diminished playfulness, and an exaggerated sense of responsibility and doubt.[]

As quoted in The Well-Being of Medical Relationships, an e-book produced by the Alberta Medical Association, Dr. Myers states, "It is impossible to give lovingly and graciously to a relationship if you are exhausted and have not had enough time alone."[] 

What is a healthy relationship?

A thriving relationship necessitates a sense of harmony, collaborative effort, shared decision-making, and collective aspirations.

Multiple factors, including love, affection, sex, companionship, communication, financial security, intimacy, and commitment, influence this union's quality. It involves accomplishing daily tasks and dreaming together about the future. 

Benefits of a supportive partner 

Dan Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, contributor to The Well-Being of Medical Relationships, points out that true happiness stems not from merely being married but from being in a happy marriage. Conversely, an unhappy marriage leads to unhappiness, amplifies stress levels, and contributes to adverse health outcomes.

Here are some other benefits to sharing your life with another:

Mutual support

Although the quality of being supportive is significant in any couple's bond, it takes precedence for relationships within the medical field.[]

Becoming a physician involves sacrificing time and energy, accumulating substantial medical school debt, dedicating 7 or more years to training and education even after college, and enduring grueling 80+ hour work weeks during residency. Furthermore, the mental strain of exams like the USMLEs, MCAT, and board exams adds to the stress.

Appreciation for roles and responsibilities

Successful medical marriages thrive on recognizing and valuing the crucial roles played by each family member, such as sharing household responsibilities, offering emotional encouragement, and assisting with child-rearing duties. 

According to research published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, supportive partners and the absence of conflict between work and personal roles are the most critical factors associated with high marital and parental satisfaction in physicians.[] 

Emotional stability

"A supportive partner provides emotional stability, a listening ear, and a sense of balance in our personal lives."

Alpana Mohta, MD, DNB

Starting the day with a conversation, hug, or kiss from a partner is emotionally grounding. It reinforces the sense of not being alone and the opportunity to reconnect with a loved one after a challenging workday.

Health and longevity

A study cited in a Harvard Health publication revealed that married men had a 46% lower mortality rate than unmarried men, even after considering other risk factors.[] Marriage is associated with improved dietary habits, physical activity, and reduced engagement in risky behaviors, such as excessive drinking and smoking.

Another study revealed that married individuals have a reduced risk of cancer-related mortality, ranging from 12% to 33%, compared with unmarried individuals.[]

This lower risk is believed to be partially attributed to the social support provided by a spouse, which helps share the burden of the diagnosis and potentially alleviates feelings of depression and anxiety.

The spouse may also be instrumental in seeing that the patient gets to their appointments and adheres to treatment.

Shared values and experiences

Couples with aligned priorities and aspirations share common values and goals. As noted in The Well-Being of Medical Relationships, roughly 40% of physicians choose to marry from their profession. These relationships face challenges in balancing work and personal life, but they also offer advantages.

It takes resilience, communication, and a relentless pursuit of self-care to safeguard the sacred bond between you and your partner. Remember, dear doctor, that just as we tend to our patients’ well-being, we must also nurture the flame of love that fuels our own lives.

What this means for you

Our passion for medicine, noble as it may be, can consume us, leaving us with little energy for the intimate connections that sustain our marriages. To cultivate and maintain relationship intimacy, it is crucial to prioritize self-care and not feel guilty about working fewer hours, taking vacations, and dedicating time to your family.

Read Next: How to maintain personal relationships during residency

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