How to maintain personal relationships during residency

By Kirstin Bass, MD, PhD | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published April 15, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Residency can pose challenges to relationships due to the long hours and emotional intensity of this job.

  • Healthy personal relationships are one of the most important factors in keeping residents happy (and sane!) during this challenging time.

  • Maintaining relationships during residency may require creativity: Scheduling time together and communicating openly can help.

Personal relationships are a lifeline during residency, but how do you nourish and maintain them when you are working long, emotionally intense hours, which often leave you feeling overwhelmed or drained?

Most residents rely on family and friends for support to get through these difficult years, but the work demands can strain or change these relationships.[] Common impediments to relationships during residency include:

  • Long work hours

  • Insufficient sleep

  • Time constraints

  • Work-related stress

These factors all contribute to a poor work-life balance, which in turn can result in relationship problems. This is unfortunate, as supportive personal relationships are known to positively influence health and happiness.

During residency in particular, supportive personal relationships can help maintain a sense of balance and well-being, and fend off depression.

Make time to connect

While relationships are complex and individual, one key aspect to helping any relationship thrive is being aware of what makes it work.

One thing most relationships need is time—time together and  time to connect. Of course, finding that time can be difficult during residency. Strategies to consider:

  • Sit down once a week with your partner or other loved ones to review schedules and plan designated time(s) to connect—which might be a date night, or a 2-minute phone call.

  • When time cannot be found, it’s still important to connect. So get creative! It might be texting (when you have a minute) to say you miss them and wish you had time to see them. It might be leaving out a travel brochure for your partner as a reminder that, although you can’t spend time together now, you will in the future.

Whatever time can be found, scheduling and prioritizing it can help maintain relationships.

Ways to foster good feelings

When you can’t spend lots of time together, try to foster feelings of connection and appreciation with your partner or loved ones. This may take some creativity—and different things will work for different people. Some ideas are:

  • Leave notes to let them know you’re thinking about them.

  • Bring small, personal gifts—like their favorite breakfast croissant—to show you care.

  • Help out with a project; even if you’re not working on it at the same time, it’s something you can do “together.”

  • Listen to what’s going on in their life, and encourage them.

  • Be fully present and attentive when you’re together; listen attentively, and ask questions.

Tell them you appreciate their being in your life—sometimes, that’s all that’s needed.

Communication is key

Communication is a key aspect of any relationship. During residency, it’s important for you to share with others what’s going on in your life—and be receptive to what’s going on in theirs.

Having friends or partners to open up to and lean on during residency will help you get through these years. It might be useful to consider taking a partner or close friends on a tour of your hospital or clinic, if possible, so they can experience first-hand the environment they’re hearing so much about from you (and better understand your stresses).

The challenge of meeting needs

Finally, for some relationships, it may be that you cannot provide everything the other person needs—or they you—but you can support each other in finding other ways to meet these needs. One way would be locating or creating support groups tailored to the issues you find most challenging. 

Many places have groups centered around “surviving residency with children” or support groups for “spouses of surgeons.” Sometimes, the key to maintaining a relationship during residency is to figure out other outlets or avenues to get needs met.

What this means for you

Maintaining strong personal relationships during your residency years isn’t easy, but it’s vitally important for getting through this trying time. While the work will keep you busy, foster warm feelings through kind gestures and good communication, and do your best to meet others’ emotional needs.

Read Next: Building a support system inside your residency
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