Surviving Residency Medical Spouse

9 Tips to Survive Medical Residency as a Spouse

Let me encourage you, friend. 

I have been where you are. 

My husband’s days in his Orthopedic Surgery residency ended in June of 2016. 

But, encouragingly, from where I sit today, I can tell you that my husband and I agree that what we both experienced feels so worth the times of struggle. Powering through those long five years, retrospectively, was completely necessary to get to this place of comfort, of greater peace, of greater security, and of accomplishment. Knowing that residency was the only path to get where he is (we are) now, changes the way I view that past experience, as hard as I know it was then. 

So, SPOILER ALERT:  it will be worth it. 

Now we just need to get you, my friend, from today to THAT day. That day when you, too, realize it was worth it.

I’m giving you all of the medical residency survival tips I wish I’d have known for making it to the end of this residency journey a stronger, sharpened, and more successful team. 

Practice Gratitude  

Focusing on what there is to be grateful for can lead to greater happiness and less negative emotions around the residency experience. There is, in fact, good here. Quite a bit of good, actually. And when you feel bogged down by the length of never-ending residency years, or the loneliness and unpredictability of resident spouse life, it can help to acknowledge the hidden gifts of this time. 

Can’t think of many off the top of your head? Here, I’ll go first: 

  • The opportunity for collaboration with your spouse to survive the difficult days together, strengthening your bond and ability to work together as a team.
  • Access to the vast and incredible world of medical research and knowledge. 
  • The opportunity to develop meaningful connections with other medical spouses, faculty and spouses of faculty, and meet individuals you may not otherwise meet.
  • The opportunity for increased personal growth and confidence through the learning of new skills (home repairs, household management, managing finances, caring for family in a new way, etc).
  • The opportunity to attend incredible events like graduations and interview dinners.
  • The opportunity for your spouse to develop mad skills at something few people know how to do that will help a lot of people: medicine.
  • Protected vacation time. Period.
  • Getting paid a salary (versus the medical school years).

And these are just a few examples! I’m sure you can add to this list if you give it some thought. 

Be Realistic About Your Expectations

I’m all about the real-talk, so here we go: As downright depressing as it sounds, being realistic about your expectations is probably one of the most helpful mindset changes you can make, especially early in residency. Personally, I honestly thought residency would be something similar to a continuation of medical school, and boy, was I wrong. This meant that initially, I was disappointed when my husband was away so much, and I had a hard time understanding the new levels of emotional strain he was enduring.

Retrospectively, I would have more quickly altered my expectations for the amount of time he would be around in the evenings, the amount of energy or positivity I should expect from him, and for the amount he would contribute to household chores, etc. Obviously, your spouse still needs to treat you well (that’s a given!), and be a good human, but if your expectations about the other aspects of life are closer to what your spouse can actually deliver, you will be much less disappointed in the whole shebang. 

Trust me. Your spouse wants to be home just as much as you want them to be. They want to sleep in the bed with you every night. They, too, dislike their pagers. If given the choice, they actually would probably even PREFER to be home tackling a chore list instead of writing the 45 notes or endless responses to patient questions in their work computer system.

So I think it’s reasonable to give them a little bit of a break, especially during the most challenging rotations, which often means reframing those expectations.

Recognize That the Situation Is Temporary

When faced with any significant challenge in life, you come out on the other side as a different version of yourself. Every person handles a challenge differently. Some get more introspective, others get argumentative, others close themselves off from loved ones. Some cope by spending more time outside, or with their dogs. It’s easy to take their change in behavior personally, and then use that against them. (*guilty*)

My encouragement in response to this, is that in my husband’s case, once he was getting sleep again and his schedule was less draining than it had been, he almost immediately snapped back into the person I always knew him to be. But now he had become a more resilient, knowledgeable, and technically-skilled version of himself, with maybe a slightly more guarded heart after walking with patients during their days of suffering and tragedy.

Few things devastate me more than marriages that don’t survive residency. It’s just that, well, I don’t consider this time to be a true look into what your full life will be. This is just a temporary moment in time; a blip in the radar of your lifetime together. If you don’t like the person that your spouse is in residency, please communicate about it, try to work on it together, but also have faith that when they are sleeping more and are less emotionally drained, they will bounce back into someone who more closely resembles the individual that you know and love.

I think about myself, and what I was like when my babies were newborns. I was in complete survival mode, clinging tightly to any minutes of sleep I could grasp. Being around me was miserable, because I was often miserable. I couldn’t effectively communicate my needs, and I expected others to try to figure me out. A real peach. Then I imagine my husband enduring what he did for years and I’m amazed he pulled it together as well as he did.

Pursue Your Own Goals

The busier YOU are, the less you’ll be focused on how busy your spouse is. This is a great time for you to pick up some extra, flexible hobbies. I say “flexible” because if you want to see your spouse, you can’t have too many firm, time-dependent obligations or you will NEVER see your spouse. And that would be a bummer. BUT, it’s not a bad time to train for a marathon, or start learning a musical instrument, or join a Bible study, or learn how to do some DIY projects, or make a reading goal, etc. It’ll be fun, and you’ll learn something, too!

Do Not Undervalue Your Role on the Team

Residency is FULL of opportunities for teamwork. When your spouse is winning, YOU are winning! 

Rather than competing against residency for your spouse’s time and attention, it can be helpful to embrace a spot on the team dedicated to your spouse completing residency and doing a darn good job at it. 

Viewing my role as a member of this winning team helped me to avoid bitterness in moments when I may have been initially inclined to be angry or resentful. For example, in a situation like my husband letting me know he has to miss another one of my work parties in order to assist an important faculty member with an unusual surgery. Instead of thinking, “Welp. Residency wins again. Cool,” I could reframe those thoughts by viewing them through the lens of someone who also wants my husband to “win” at residency, thinking instead, “This will be an opportunity for him to gain a new skill that may have a lifelong impact on his future patients. Additionally, it’s a chance for him to form a closer bond with a respected faculty member who may keep my husband in mind when opportunities arise to do more surgeries like this or who might one day write him a recommendation letter, etc.” 

I admittedly didn’t always do this perfectly, but I tried, and it helped.

Lean on Your Community

It can be ENORMOUSLY beneficial to connect yourself with other medical spouses. You have something so big and so meaningful in common. Other medical spouses are able to truly relate and hear you when others just can’t quiiiite understand. 

If you can find “your” people, you just may make the best friends you’ll have for life. So keep an eye out. 

Once I really started putting myself out there in residency, I was able to make friends with a crew who listened and supported me, laughed with me, and eased away some of that loneliness associated with having a spouse who is rarely around.

Of course, it’s also a great time to lean on family and other friends (med spouses or not!) that have your back and care about you and your marriage. 

And while we’re talking about connecting, it’s worth it to mention that I also recommend getting to know your neighbors. There have been times I needed neighbors to step in sometimes when my husband couldn’t.

(Interested in finding more medspouses around you? Join The MedCommons Circle for a safe, easy way to find friendship and understanding.)

Avoid the Comparison Game

This is YOUR story to do the best with it that you can. It’s no one else’s. It can be easy to be disappointed when you watch those around you with spouses who work 9-5 and are nearly always home for dinner. Or to see friends in your graduating class climb quickly to success, in comparison to your spouse who isn’t finishing up their education until nearly their mid-thirties.

This may not be exactly the story you had planned, but it promises to be a rewarding one! Keep the blinders on and stay the course.

Prioritize Your Relationship the Best You Can

Sometimes, prioritizing my relationship with my husband meant something as simple as ending a great conversation with a friend so I could talk to my husband, as it may be the only two minutes I get to chat with him that day. Other times, it meant trying to share his interests. For example, we both love working out, so when we needed to work out, we tried to do it together. When he was on night shift, he’d get home in the morning and we’d go for a run together. He’d go to bed, I’d go to work.

Additionally, we tried hard to make the best of days off. Some weekends that meant an Alias marathon on the couch. Some weekends we went big and saved up our dollars for a nicer meal, or a weekend getaway. But I can’t say enough about scheduling date nights and then following through. 

And whatever you do, ALWAYS TAKE ALL THE VACATION TIME. I promise you won’t regret it. 

Above All, Don’t Lose Hope

I know that you, yes, YOU reading this right now, are one tough human. You are SMART. You are RESOURCEFUL. You are BRAVE. You already have the skills you need to survive these difficult days. Your efforts will not go unrewarded. And you, and your spouse, can do this. And you will. Stay the course, my friend. 

Sending so much love and all the hugs from one med spouse to another. ❤

  • As for me, I’m Ann Marie, a blogging mama of 3 lil’ gals, a wife to a busy Orthopedic Surgeon, and a firm believer that you can never have too many chickens. Find my blog at honestlyannmarie.com.

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