Learn As We Go

By Shannon Smith Gonzalez

When my husband started med school, on his first day of orientation, I attended a spouse/companion/family session where we were told most couples don’t make it through this experience. That was hard to take in. Not only was it wrong, but it hurt to hear, and it felt counter productive to creating successful physicians. We decided to use it as motivation to work on our relationship right out of the gate. We WERE going to prove them wrong.

At the beginning, we struggled to find time together. We first met in undergrad and enjoyed so much free time! Now, we barely had time for dinner together. I began studying with him via flash cards, memorization games, and even became a standardized patient at school. I wasn’t allowed to work with him there, but they did teach me the criteria for which the students would be graded, so when the time came, I could be his patient (He aced this part of the test, by the way!). We needed time together and this allowed it while still accomplishing his study goals and neither of us felt that our time was being misused. Plus, it was fun. Only medical couples can have the awkward experience of having their spouse palpate them through giggles!

My husband studied a LOT. He had his heart set on anesthesia and had already decided he was not applying to a backup specialty (for the record, I do not recommend this, and I strongly encouraged widening his net). I was happy to study with him. I don’t work in medicine, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t learn some basics. Doing this gave me a strong base for communicating with him about his days rotating and at the hospital so the benefits have been two-fold! It also allowed us more time to do other things – have dinners together, or even just take walks, since memorizing can be done anywhere. It gave us some of our pre-med school lives back and all of the connection and relationship we had been missing.

Other than utilizing his study time to our mutual benefit, we knew we had to keep each other involved in our daily lives. For a while we used an app called Avocado. It’s really cute and I still suggest it. You can send kisses and hugs to your significant other and when you receive them, your phone vibrates in particular ways. What is special is that it’s only for couples. It’s a fully functioning chat app, but just for two. Now we use anything that works. Sometimes at the hospital WhatsApp is all that gets service, so we use that. I can send him quick messages, questions or photos and he can see and respond when he has time.

One issue that surfaced at the start of med school quite often was the distribution of work within the partnership. I feel that this is an issue I hear about a lot. We had this conversation multiple times to make sure we were on the same page and that we both felt we were being fair. He needed his time to be spent studying (his opinion). I needed to feel taken care of and to have a partner in my marriage (my opinion). Our resolution: I picked a few things that were really important to me to have him “be in charge of” and he picked a few for me. The rest we decided would be my responsibility most of the time (since I have either been working part-time or not at all) and when he has time, he will take over and give me a break. I have to say, it may not be even, but it’s fair. I haven’t taken the trash out in years and I couldn’t be happier! It was important to me that we didn’t become one-sided and resentful.

I also took the initiative to strengthen my personal bond with my in-laws. My father-in-law is also an anesthesiologist so he understands where my husband is now and my mother-in-law can relate to where I am. But it wasn’t just for me. My husband no longer has time to communicate with them a few times a week, so I do. We find comfort in each other. My husband likes that I keep up with them because I can fill him in and they love that I am willing to call and talk. My one phone call makes a difference for so many people!

Finally, I think the most important action we have taken has been to choose to be respectful and make the “mature, adult” choice for our relationship as much as possible. It sounds simple, but in practice, it takes a lot of thoughtfulness, compassion and compromise. We had to mature our relationship much faster than I feel many other couples do. We got married first semester of my husband’s med school career (take that orientation presentation!) so our “honeymoon phase” was centered on the innervation of this and the many pharma drugs to memorize.

I’m not implying we have always had it easy. We have had our ups and downs like everyone else. When we moved from Michigan to Chicago, my husband couldn’t get time off. I did everything myself and that was a serious strain. Many of you know already because you’ve done it, and maybe you’ve even done it with kids! But what we did that made a difference was making our relationship it’s own “thing” between us and nurturing that “thing.” It has needs to be successful and happy. It takes a lot of work and focusing on the thing between us instead of each other takes away a lot of the stress and negative emotion.

Being in a medical partnership can be hard, particularly at the beginning, but it doesn’t have to be! Find a way to participate in your partner’s life, use your joint free time wisely, and always lift your partner up.

Shannon Smith Gonzalez

Shannon Smith Gonzalez from a small town in northern New York. She and her husband were best friends in college until one night, he asked her to dance and they’ve been connected at the hip since then! Shannon has an MBA and background in business, customer service and human resource management.

4 thoughts on “Learn As We Go

  1. I love this!! Thank you for your wise, wonderful words! We, too, have been where you have been and it’s hard, but oh so rewarding if compromise is made and grace is given. My husband is a FP doctor and we also heard that we wouldn’t make it. Here we are 23 years and 4 kids later. The good times have far outweighed the hard times! God bless!

  2. Hi Sarah,
    Thank you for posting these awesome stories. I met my now fiancée in her 3rd year of med school at Michigan. We are now living in Madison, WI and she is halfway through her 2nd year of residency. It is so nice to know we are not the only ones who have hit a couple bumps along the way.

    Take care,

  3. What happens when you both are very busy. We both have careers. The person in this article does not work. I work full time. We eat dinner at 8pm by the time we get home, if we even eat together at all.
    Thank you.

    • Several generations ago, physician spouses were mostly wives, and most didn’t have jobs outside of the home. That’s just not true anymore, when most physician spouses have their own careers and many physician partners are no longer women. Each physician family has its own challenges and its own way of coping with those challenges. Physician Family is interested in ALL of your stories and your coping mechanisms. How DO you stay connected, despite limited time? Please share – and if you’d prefer to share privately, please reach out to us at editor@physicianfamilymedia.org.

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