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Navigating Medical School with a Partner: An Update from Matt & Patty

Hi, everyone! It’s been a while since we’ve written for Dose of Reality. A lot has happened since our last post in 2020… We hope everyone is caring for themselves and their loved ones as we transition out of the acute COVID era.

For us, we have a couple of updates to share:
1. We got married in August 2022 in a small wedding in New York’s Hudson Valley with close family and friends.
2. We are now proud dog parents to a 3-year-old puppy named Georgie.
3. Patty now works for Duo Security here in Ann Arbor as a Customer Solutions Engineer, while Matt recently finished his MBA year at the Ross School of Business. He is preparing to re-enter the medical school world later this summer and apply to residency programs this fall.

The Challenges of Giving Advice
Giving advice is difficult as every person has their own unique experience, so we tried to be thoughtful about choosing 10 universally applicable ideas that might resonate with others on the same journey. Reflecting on our medical school experience was a helpful exercise. In preparing for this post, we discussed our highs and lows to distill what worked best for us and what we might have done differently.

Some highs of medical school included finishing the USMLE exams, finding my passion in medicine, meaningful patient encounters, connecting with mentors and celebrating our life outside of school – weddings, travel, birthdays and dog birthdays. Some lows of school are the ones you can imagine; it’s a challenging four years filled with frustration, stress and many missed events. We hope these 10 pieces of advice can be a jumping-off point for reflection and conversation between you and your partner.

Please know that what worked for us may not work for you, but discussing these principles may help shape your experience. The ultimate goal is to be intentional about the life you are building together.

Lastly, before we get to the advice, a framing that has been helpful for us is to intentionally choose to see life as an adventure. Adventures have both rewarding and challenging parts, but everything is part of the plot. This lens has been a beneficial filter when times are tough because highs and lows are both part of the expected path on any adventure. Now, onto the advice!

10 Tips for Navigating Med School with a Partner:
1. Open communication: This sounds cliché, but it’s truly the key to any successful partnership. Both people should equally share their feelings, concerns and expectations with one another. These may change over time, and disagreements will arise, but it’s important to know how each other is doing, how they feel and how you can be supportive. Medical school, personal life, job, etc., all come with difficulties, so set aside time a few days per week to give honest updates about your life, work, finances, health, struggles and triumphs.

2. Understand the demands: This is one of the more challenging aspects of medical school. Students generally don’t know exactly what is expected of them or how they’ll need to allocate time, but do your best to understand and communicate what is expected of you. It can be hard to explain the exact situation and expectations of medical school but proactively share that information, as it helps to set reasonable expectations. As they say, disappointment is the difference between expectation and reality.

3. Create a realistic schedule and prioritize time together: Your calendar is your friend. Be sure to add all of your obligations, study time, exercise, gatherings with friends and partner time on there. This helps you be intentional about how you spend your time and serves as an exercise in setting priorities. Set a recurring block in your calendar that is protected time to spend with your partner. This can be for catching up, having dinner in town or doing your favorite activity together. Show me your calendar, and I’ll show you your priorities.

4. Be flexible and understanding: Medical school is often unpredictable, and some months are busier than others. Plans may need to be changed or canceled at the last minute. It’s frustrating, but it happens. Both partners should be adaptable and flexible when this occurs. Do your best to set aside protected time and communicate the need for flexibility.

5. Take care of yourself:  Both partners should prioritize self-care and maintain their own physical and mental well-being. This may cut into some personal time, but it’s important to encourage each other to pursue hobbies, exercise and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Having independent lives and interests helps when schedules are hectic and you find yourself without something fun to do. View taking care of yourself individually as a way to support each other as a couple.

6. Celebrate milestones and achievements: Medical school is a long journey, and it’s important to celebrate milestones and triumphs along the way. Whether it’s finishing an exam or a hard rotation, take the time to acknowledge and celebrate these accomplishments together. This can be anything from a handwritten card to a nice dinner. Time passes quickly, so be sure to find reasons to celebrate together.

7. Seek support from others: Both partners should reach out to friends, family or groups in the community for additional help when needed. Having a network of people who understand the challenges of medical school is a valuable source of support and encouragement. The Medical School Mental Health Program now has robust resources for students to use, so reach out and see how they can help!

8. Practice patience and resilience: Medical school can be stressful and exhausting, but it’s temporary. It’s not always easy, but view this as an opportunity to prove to yourself the ability to overcome challenges. You are both working towards a common goal; relationships often grow stronger through shared challenges.

9. Assume good intentions: It is a long road, and some days it is hard to maintain a positive outlook. When someone makes a mistake or things do not go according to plan, it is best to default to assuming good intentions. (This is a powerful default in life, too – see ‘This is Water’ by David Foster Wallace). And, as Ted Lasso says, ‘Be curious, not judgmental.’

10. ‘Things are rarely as good or bad as they seem’: This is a motto we deeply resonate with. The bad isn’t always as bad as it initially seems, and the same with the good. Life is complicated and full of tradeoffs, so it is crucial to keep moving forward with equanimity, optimism and curiosity. What may seem difficult in the short term may be a blessing over time. Ok, this is the last cheesy quote of the article, I promise, ‘there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’ from Hamlet.

Every relationship is unique, and it’s essential to find what works best for you as a couple. Hopefully, these are some universal considerations to discuss and agree upon while going through school and training. We encourage you to revisit these topics with each major change in schedule as the demands of school and home fluctuate. It is definitely possible to maintain a happy and healthy relationship while in medical school, but it requires open communication, prioritizing quality time, patience, support, empathy and compromise. Be intentional and enjoy the adventure!

Wishing you the best, Matt & Patty Friedland