How doctors can keep romance alive

February 13, 2019
Jennifer Frank, MD

Valentine’s Day-a day both revered and reviled-is a good time to reflect on how to make medical relationships not only work but thrive.

Editor’s Note: Physicians Practice’s blog features contributions from members of the medical community. These blogs are an opportunity for professionals to engage with readers about a topic that is top of mind, whether it is practice management, experiences with patients, the industry, medicine in general, or healthcare reform. 

At the end of my third year of medical school, my then-boyfriend and I went away for the weekend. He met me with a dozen roses before I drove us up the coast to a charming B&B. I initially wondered if this would be “the” moment when he proposed, but I quickly rejected that idea when he fell asleep before we’d left the city limits. There’s no way he could be that relaxed if he was about to pop the question, I told myself. Happily, I was wrong and a romantic proposal followed soon after our arrival. (I said “yes”–he’s been my partner in crime for the last 20 years). I underestimated the power of medical school fatigue to overcome pre-proposal jitters. 

The medical profession does not promote healthy relationships, reasonable work-life balance, or emotional wellness. All three are possible, nevertheless. 

On a recent flight home, I sat next to a young pediatrics resident, who was training in the South while her boyfriend completed his residency in the Midwest. She was flying to meet him for one of the few weekends they were able to schedule around call and residency responsibilities. We discussed the challenges of trying to nurture a relationship during residency training. I shared that my husband and I were newlyweds when I started my internship and were geographically separated for nearly my entire residency while he completed his PhD and medical school in another city. We lived for those weekends when my call schedule and his allowed us to spend time together. 

At the time, it was a bitter disappointment to leave my new husband and start what proved to be the most difficult years of my life alone. In retrospect, I recognize the blessing buried in this situation. When we did spend time together, it was relatively stress free. We didn’t have errands to do and didn’t schedule much of anything during these precious weekends. As a result, we enjoyed each other and spent little time arguing or reaping the consequences of post-call hangovers. My fellow residents who were fortunate enough to have family close would find it difficult to go home at the end of a 36 hour shift and try to sleep while also trying to make up for their absence. 

Fast forward to our lives now. With four children and a busy medical career, we can spend days in the same house without making much of a connection. Proximity does not equal intimacy and can sometimes even make it more difficult. Said another way, absence makes the heart grow fonder. Years ago, we had to work hard to keep our connection strong over many miles. Now, my husband and I have to work hard to keep our connection strong over our endless to-do list and a multitude of distractions. 

I am very far from perfect and my own marriage has its share of challenges and issues. But it is possible to nurture healthy relationships, work-life balance, and emotional wellness-with the right choices and habits. Just like a healthy diet combined with exercise and sleep can help ward off everything from dementia to cancer, there are commitments we can make to promote our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around us. 

  • Laugh and have fun together…often.  A good laugh reduces stress and bonds us with others through a moment of shared joy. My husband is a pro at bad dad jokes, which often make me laugh just for the sheer silliness. I appreciate his efforts to keep things light for our whole family.

  • Be affectionate. Kiss each other hello when you meet again. Take a few minutes for a long hug in the kitchen before the dishes are washed. Hold hands and snuggle during family movie night. Sit on your husband’s lap while you are watching the latest funny cat video on Facebook. 

  • The little stuff matters, so keep doing it. My husband makes my coffee every morning, and he usually brings it to me in bed. This is such a caring and wonderful start to my day. Even when we are at odds with each other, he continues this tradition. There are so many little ways to demonstrate your love for each other. They can seem both inconsequential and trivial at the time. Yet, they matter. 

  • Sex is important. I was trying to think of a way not to include this one because my mother may be reading-although she probably suspects something by now. I see so many patients that have given up on sexual intimacy for years, sometimes decades. They tell me it doesn’t matter, but I don’t believe them. Marriage is hard. Sex can even out the rough edges and can be a sort of glue that holds you together in tough moments. 

  • It all started with the two of you. In the busyness of a life filled with careers and kids, it is too easy to do date night at the drive thru with the kids in the back of the minivan. It can be hard, time-consuming, and expensive to take time alone, but do it anyway. Go out to a fancy restaurant, sneak away for a picnic, drop the kids off with your parents and head to a hotel. It will remind you of why you got married in the first place.

Jennifer Frank, MD, is a family physician and physician leader in Northeastern Wisconsin and finds medicine still to be the best gig out there. Married with four kids, she is engaged in intensive study and pursuit of work-life balance.