How to Manage Significant-Other Relationships During Medical School

Yoo Jung Kim

A medical school acceptance is a calling card to a lifelong career and can prompt aspiring doctors to think about their future lives, including personal relationships.

The average age upon matriculation into medical school was 24 for both men and women in 2017-2018, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Per data from the U.S. Census, the median age at first marriage was 28 for women and a few months shy of 30 for men.

Medical training occurs at a time when many start to think seriously about pursuing or maintaining a long-term relationship. Med school students and graduates face different challenges and have different stories about successfully doing that, and what works for some may not work for others.

[Read: How to Find Balance as a Premed Student.]

Mulin Xiong, a third-year med student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, started dating her significant other three years before beginning med school. They were attending college in different states and have maintained a long-distance relationship.

"Medical school is such a long-term commitment that it feels like everything else in life gets put on hold, and our relationship has felt like that at times," Xiong says. "Every visit has to be planned around academic and research schedules because of the lack of flexibility."

The limited time also creates stress in the rare moments they are together, Xiong says.

"When you only see someone a few weeks out of the year, there's so much pressure for every minute to be perfect that it actually causes issues instead. Although we've been together five years, it feels like the relationship has moved a lot slower, maybe only the equivalent of a couple that's been together half as long but all of it in person."

Xiong emphasizes the difficulties of dating while encountering the hardships common in medical training.

"It also often feels like we're in different places mentally, and finding it hard to connect despite the commonalities. There's a lot of burnout in medical school and all those negative feelings trickle down, and frustrations with school are projected in relationships."

[READ: 5 Ways Medical School Is Different From College.]

Despite such challenges, communication has been the biggest factor in helping her relationship to thrive by "making sure we're both on the same page and focused on the same future goal," she says.

"It also means making expectations clear to each other and finding some common ground when there are things we don't agree on. One thing that's helped is to make time that we're talking to each other during a dedicated time, even if it's short. It's also important to be upfront if there's something bothering us; otherwise the other person won't be able to respond appropriately given our limited time together," Xiong says.

"When you only have a few minutes each day to get the gist of the other person's mental and emotional status, efficiency is a must. Ultimately, we often remind each other that we want the same things in life, no matter the frustrations and setbacks, and to view this relationship as a source of support," she says.

Unlike Xiong, Dr. Malcolm Chelliah was a first-year med student when he met his now-husband Dr. Jerome Chelliah, who was a third-year med student at the University of California--San Francisco. Malcolm, who took Jerome's surname, is a dual M.D-MBA graduate of Stanford University School of Medicine and Graduate School of Business.

"I would say the biggest challenge of maintaining a relationship during medical school is that you do not have a lot of time , and the time you do have, there is not much control over when it is," says Malcolm, who is now an intern and incoming dermatology resident at the Cleveland Clinic.

"I think it helps that both people have a mutual understanding of this and that sometimes situations are outside of your or their control. For example, if surgery is running late or someone is too tired after a long call. That said, there still should be commitment and willingness to prioritize the other person. If plans change, you have to be willing to make up for it and not just let it slide."

Like Xiong, Malcolm says the key to maintaining a successful relationship during medical school is communication. When his then-boyfriend was across the country pursuing a master's degree in public health at Johns Hopkins University, Malcolm would "make the effort to call and speak every single day even if just for 10 or 15 minutes at a time," he recalls.

"You learn to communicate better and grow a deeper understanding of how to make the other person feel loved," Malcolm adds. "My biggest advice is that you have to look at love and your relationship the same way you would look at staying healthy, fit and studying for exams. It is an important part of life and if you neglect it, you will be disappointed by the end results."

[READ: Are You Too Old for Medical School?]

Malcolm also recommends maintaining a clear goal about the future beyond medical school.

"There is no way to guarantee the residency will be in a location where your partner or spouse already has a job," he says. "For dual medical students, there is couples matching, but that can only work if both students are graduating the same year. My husband and I were not in this situation , and despite our best planning efforts, through the match we ended up spending one year apart."

Looking to the future, Xiong says that "one of the toughest things about being in a relationship in medical school is trying to balance your own ambitions with what you hope to accomplish with your partner."

Studying, picking a suitable specialty and matching into a residency is a difficult enough process without having to take into account the needs and preferences of another person, she says.

"While this issue is not unique to medicine," she says, "the medical route is especially stringent in its schedule and timeline, so I feel it's important that the rest of your life can be made flexible, within reason."

"Ultimately, how you choose to live your life will be a combination of professional aspirations and family and relationship goals," Xiong adds, "so it's important to learn to balance the two from early on. Success shouldn't be defined as accomplishing one to the detriment of the other."