Is a healthy romantic relationship possible amid toil and trials?
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When I was in high school, I knew I wanted to dedicate myself to the pursuit of medicine. I imagined it as an ascetic, nearly mystical, calling. I promised myself that I would eschew all forms of romantic entanglements until I had achieved medical nirvana – that is to say, until I had finished my postgraduate medical or surgical specialisation. I even calculated the number of years it would take me if I were to subspecialise to the highest degree. That is how I decided, at the wise age of 17, I would remain dispassionately unattached until I turned, at the very least, 33 years old.
Four months into my first year at university, I met my first girlfriend.
The relationship didn’t last particularly long, nor did the bevy of subsequent relationships that followed in the ensuing years.
It did not take me long to realise that it was hard to not want to be in a relationship, self-declared ascetic or otherwise. I wanted to be in a relationship. I wanted to be embraced, desired, and loved. I wanted companionship.
Dating, courtship, marriage – these things are hard even when conducted in the least stressful of circumstances. Finding the right partner seems to be as much up to random chance as it does to any sort of intentionality or desire. Add into the mix the long and unrelenting hours of medical training, and chance seems to diminish even as desire might increase. How is it possible to find, much less nourish, a healthy romantic relationship amid toil and trials? And is it even desirable or worthwhile?
Though I am certainly no expert, I have walked the path of medical training, been in romantic relationships (both healthy and unhealthy) and wrestled with questions of the heart. Below, I’ll present some thoughts, experiences and conclusions.
Is it better to be single or attached during training?
Certainly, during the long days of my primary specialty training, I was often glad that I had no responsibilities outside of my work. I could come home after a long day, exhausted, sometimes demoralised, heat up a frozen dinner, turn on Netflix, and relax for an hour before going to bed, and then, repeating the whole thing again the next day.
Paul’s recommendation in 1 Corinthians 7 for single men to stay single seemed particularly apropos to me. How anyone could manage to juggle both specialty training and a spouse or family was beyond me. In fact, the advantage of being single allowed me to take a whole year off midway through my postgraduate training. Without having to think twice, I went to work at a small mission hospital in rural Kenya.
Yet despite all the freedom I enjoyed in Kenya – learning Kiswahili, studying tropical medicine and remedies, and making friends with the nationals and expatriates alike – it didn’t diminish my desire for a partner companion of my own. At one point I even wondered if the Kenyan nursing students would fancy a foreigner.
Fast forward 12 years.
I had finished my specialisation and had been working independently for a while. I re-entered training to do an extra fellowship. This time, however, I had a wife and three small children. I still came home exhausted as usual after a long day. The difference was that as soon as I opened the front door to our apartment, my kids would come running to greet me, and a burden would lift from my shoulders. My family didn’t care about my workplace squabble, my unfinished research projects, or my nit-picky consultants. Rather, they automatically gave me something that I previously had thought unimportant: a life outside of and separate from the hospital.
“My family didn’t care about my workplace squabble, my unfinished research projects, or my nit-picky consultants. Rather, they automatically gave me something that I previously had thought unimportant: a life outside of and separate from the hospital.”
I’ve concluded that the question of whether it is better to be single or in a relationship during training was, in the end, a bit of a non-sequitur. There are both responsibilities and freedoms to either singleness or marriage during medical education and training, and neither was objectively better than the other.
How do I find a partner when in training?
Five months into my year in Kenya during my specialty training, two students from an Australian medical school (though as I later learned, they were actually Canadians) came to the station guesthouse to volunteer at the hospital. By the time they left four weeks later, I was smitten with one of them – enough to personally accompany her back to the Nairobi airport, an eight hour drive from my rural town.
It is no surprise that a medical person will most likely find a partner in the medical setting. But it is not inevitable – our corridors, parks, and churches are filled with stories of successful online matches. The internet has certainly made finding a partner all the more convenient (if not easier).
Ultimately, the chance of finding a partner is directly proportional to the effort placed into creating a balance between work and life. Medical training is a jealous mistress and she will swallow up as much of your life as you’ll let her. Having a counterbalance to work, be it church, sporting activities, community volunteering, or other non-medical engagements, promotes a healthier equilibrium and creates opportunities to meet a wide range of fellow sojourners.
Is it better to have a medical or non-medical partner?
For two years, I dated my long-distance girlfriend – at first between Kenya and Queensland, and then later between California and Queensland as she finished medical school, and I finished my specialty training. As she got closer to graduation, we had to figure out if and how we could live in the same country together. Complicating matters was the fact that we held different nationalities, and neither held the necessary visas to work as a doctor in the other’s home country.
In the darkest moments, as we seemed to pay thousands of dollars into a bottomless pit of immigration attorney fees, I almost wished I hadn’t met another doctor. Wouldn’t this be easier if she were, say, an English teacher? Or an interior designer? Would it really be possible to be in the same place, at the same time, successfully managing not only our relationship but our separate medical careers?
Of course, having a medical partner certainly makes it easier to explain or share work-related stories. A medical partner understands and empathises immediately what it means to be on call, to work through the holidays, to miss important events because of the hospital or training requirements. On the flip side, balancing the training, advancement, and careers of two highly motivated and ambitious life partners requires constant, equilibrious compromise.
For the non-medical partner, the medical arena remains a black box of abstruse vocabulary and impenetrable machinations. In some relationships, this can lead the non-medical partner to be even more sympathetic to the plight of the medical trainee than a medical partner might be. In others, it can lead to a sense of abandonment and disillusionment on the part of the non-medical partner.
Much like the first question, the question of having a medical or non-medical spouse is somewhat of a non-sequitur. The place where we meet, and the chosen occupation of our potential partner is usually beyond our control. What is in our control is the cultivation and care of the relationship given to us.
The temptation of work-life imbalance
There are a myriad of books and sermons (not to mention passages from the epistles of the apostles Peter and Paul) regarding the proper care of a romantic relationship, whatever stage it may be in, so far be it from me to add to the cacophony of guidelines. However, one should note that medical relationships (whether unilateral or bilateral) do suffer from a complexity not found in many other relationships, namely, the intrinsic imbalance of the healing arts.
Medicine is a generally noble and honourable occupation, but the temptation – even the expectation – to pour oneself more and more into one’s work is hard to resist. It may be easier for the corporate accountant, the aeroplane mechanic, the webpage designer to draw a line in the sand and well compartmentalise work-life and home-life. But for those in the healing arts, we are directly and tangibly helping people in their hour of need. As such, it is easy to spend more and more time in the service of medicine, to the detriment of the rest of our lives – and yet be lauded by our colleagues for our dedication and commitment to patient care.
“The problem becomes even more complex in training, when trainees are vying to impress their superiors to score better on evaluations and assessments which can have a real impact on a future career.”
Still, investing and maintaining a matrimonial relationship is a holy, noble, and biblical endeavour in and of itself. In pitting these two forces against each other, it can be easy to see how a medical partner may justify passively neglecting the relationship to further the cause of clinical care. The problem becomes even more complex in training, when trainees are vying to impress their superiors to score better on evaluations and assessments which can have a real impact on a future career.
This problem of work-life imbalance – and its obvious solution – is older than Jesus himself, as he quoted the ancient proverb in Luke 4:34: “Physician, heal thyself.” The imbalance of the healing arts, however tempting and noble it may seem, is ultimately a self-destructive philosophy. Prioritising the partner over the occupation leads to a more biblical foundation for a healthy lifestyle.
If I could travel back in time to advise my younger self, I would tell myself not to eschew romantic entanglements during medical training, but rather to eschew the idea of asceticism during training. It is a good privilege to train in the healing arts. It is a good privilege to find and marry a spouse. To desire and pursue both in equal measures is normal and sensible. And should both occur, it is a double gift from the Father who knows how to “give good gifts to those who ask Him.” (Matthew 7:11b NIV)
Dr Drew Huang
Dr Drew Huang is an American surgeon who recently finished a fellowship in paediatric hand and microsurgery in Melbourne. His wife, Kim, is a Canadian family practice anaesthetist. They have been married for 10 years and have three children.