How to stay focused on medicine when your personal life falls apart

By Kristen Fuller, MD | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published December 16, 2022

Key Takeaways

I was in a serious long-term relationship during medical school. While applying for residency, we were going into a couples match, but halfway through the interview season, our relationship ended.

I withdrew from the match, and then decided to take a year off to go abroad. I re-entered the match on my own in the following year.

I don't regret this decision, as I spent most of the next year in India working alongside an OB/GYN—a very rewarding experience. But it was still one of the most incredibly stressful and heartbreaking decisions I have ever made.

The challenges of being in (and ending) a relationship

Maintaining healthy romantic relationships is difficult for physicians, due to the long work hours, the daily stress of the job, and the emotional toll of tending to sick patients and their families.

"When a relationship ends, it can be even more challenging to navigate as your emotions are heightened, potentially hindering your work."

Kristen Fuller, MD

A breakup or divorce impacts your personal life and may leak into your professional life. It may entail reallocating finances, such as in spousal or child support, selling your home, or having to move to a new location.

It can lead to emotional distress that may cause problems with your mood, concentration, and sleep patterns. These factors can affect how you interact with colleagues and patients.

How common is divorce among physicians?

Contrary to popular belief, studies show that divorce rates among doctors are lower than those of the general population.

In a study conducted by Harvard Medical School published in The BMJ, approximately 24% of participating physicians reported being divorced, compared with the 35% divorce rate of people who didn’t work in healthcare.[]

However, the research showed that physicians have a higher likelihood of marital discord than the general population, due to such factors as the “long and sometimes unpredictable work hours” and the stressful work demands of the job.

Related: Real Talk: The dicey proposition of dating your patients

Why are breakups especially hard on healthcare practitioners?

We feel like failures and experience guilt.

Many of us are perfectionists or Type A personalities, and when our relationships fail, we may take it personally. For example, we may feel guilty about not spending enough time with our partner or children, or play the “what if” game in our heads.

Our ‘superhero complex’ prevents us from asking for help.

"We spend our days helping patients, and as a result, we often perceive ourselves as ‘fixers.’"

Kristen Fuller, MD

When our relationships end, we may try to cope on our own or push our emotions under the rug to move forward. But these unresolved issues may resurface when we least expect them, such as in our next relationship.

It’s hard to make new friends, and we feel isolated.

"Physicians often have small circles of friends due to the rigors of our training and work lives."

Kristen Fuller, MD

When a breakup happens, our mutual friends may choose sides. Also, our stressful work schedules may make it challenging to socialize and form new friendships. Both of these scenarios can lead to isolation and loneliness.

We do not have the time or space to grieve.

Physicians are notorious for having demanding schedules, putting in long workdays, and experiencing draining, emotional patient encounters. As a result, we may feel that we don't have the time to grieve the loss of a relationship.

Our finances take a major hit.

Even though we are considered high-income earners, divorce frequently coincides with asset division, which means child support, alimony, selling off assets, and potentially splitting your income in half—even if you are dual-income earners as a couple. This can be stressful and could result in a hesitancy to enter into a new relationship.

Related: Real Talk: When the patient is someone you love

Healthy coping skills

  • Give yourself space to mourn.

  • Go to therapy.

  • Dust yourself off and consider this your chance to start fresh.

  • Confide the right amount with the right people.

  • Keep the rest of your life on track (professionally, financially, socially, etc.)

Read Next: Real Talk: When your career ruins your personal life

Each week in our "Real Talk" series, mental health advocate Kristen Fuller, MD, shares straight talk about situations that affect the mental and emotional health of today's healthcare providers. Each column offers key insights to help you navigate these challenging experiences. We invite you to submit a topic you'd like to see covered.

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