“As I walked into my empty apartment one evening after a vigorous day in the COVID-ICU, I pondered over the idea of calling my wife. She had just started her night shift at the COVID unit in her hospital, so I resolved to a simple text ‘Call me when free’. As the night draws closer and sleep kicks in, my phone rings and gives me the opportunity to talk to her for the first time in three days.”

 

Many trainees in fellowship may have lived this scenario at some point in their life, even before coronavirus engulfed the world. A recent Medscape survey1 of 15,000 physicians on lifestyle reported that 80% of physicians are married, out of which 25% of females and 16% of male physicians are married to physicians. Physician couples have a unique set of strengths due to a better consideration of their spouse’s work style. Nevertheless, heading into the noble field of medicine together can easily interfere with work and personal life balance; especially when an unexpected pandemic enters the relationship.

In the era of modern medicine where screen time surpasses a face-to-face encounter with a patient, it becomes crucial to find solace in the physical company of loved ones. Here are a few healthy habits that physicians couples need to incorporate early in their relationship for a wholesome work-life balance that can withstand a pandemic.

 

1. Work hard, plan smarter

It takes some effort initially, but the best strategy is the one that is planned ahead of time. It may not be pandemic proof, but it can be done. It helps if one partner’s work allows more flexibility than the other. ‘My wife and I both wanted to pursue fellowship and applied for it sequentially while the other planned to work with a more flexible schedule.’ This way we both were able to accomplish our professional goals while making time for each other, despite the increased workload due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is important to set goals for work that are compatible with personal life and discuss them with your partner early.

A collaborative effort amongst colleagues can lead to the incorporation of elasticity at the workplace. Synchronizing on-call days and time-off should be the minimal aim even if grandiose changes seem far-fetched. Sharing your work calendar with your partner can help them get a glimpse of your day as well as your future. For those who are perplexed by technology, online resources may help2. Otherwise, a good old-fashioned whiteboard in the kitchen is always an option. The mutual time off can be dedicated to common plans; while the rest spent for personal time or with friends.

 

2. A bond stronger than the pandemic

A recent survey on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on relationships reported an increased interest in separation, especially in the first three weeks of quarantine period3. Although newlyweds were hit the most, couples with young children also sought it out more frequently than last year. The unpredictable times may have affected some relationships but they also provided strength to others. While the effect of this pandemic on healthcare couples may be unclear, it highlights the importance of appreciating your partner despite a busy and variable schedule at work.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I remember the random early morning breakfast dates before my shift started and my wife’s ended. Small efforts like these made our bond stronger through time. When the pandemic infested world switched to social distancing, we switched these routines to video calls and leaving each other loving sticky notes on the fridge. In the time off, we revamped our shared hobbies in the confines of “stay at home” routine. Small efforts to connect can strengthen the oath of union many folds, whether it’s working together on your baking skills or teaching your wife how to use a play station for the first time.

 

3. Personal well-being multiplies when combined

Although shared interests strengthen the bond, taking time for personal well-being is equally vital for the executive functioning of a relationship. Approximately 59% of physicians1 may feel that they only sometimes or rarely have time for themselves. Add in the increasing demands of work during the pandemic, along with their partner’s busy lifestyle, and that number may be astronomically higher. This likely accounts for the lowest happiness in marriage in busier specialties such as critical care physicians (45%). Alternatively, some parents who worked from home during this crisis had to consecutively spend their time parenting while neglecting their personal well-being.

While it is easy to forget “me time” during a crunch, it’s imperative to reclaim it as early as possible. Setting goals for well-being from the start may help achieve harmony in professional and personal life. It is equally important to revisit these goals at key phases of your life such as becoming a parent. “If it is one thing that I have learned from this year, it is that life can take an unexpected turn.”

 

4. For parents: establish clear roles at home

For physician parents, it is important to assign clear roles for parenting tasks at home. This is easier to accomplish when one partner wants to spend more family time and the other’s work is more demanding. By doing so, the primary parent can make sure the needs of the family are fulfilled and gives their partner the ability to accomplish their professional goals. Many physician couples I know have tested this dynamic successfully. They found it especially helpful during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic when the childcare support services temporarily closed down and parents had to tend to their children.

But what happens when both parents want to cherish their time with kids while meeting the demands set forth by their equally challenging carriers? Or what if they are obligated to stay home due to lack of childcare support? This can be achieved with some planning and by alternating roles when time permits. If you are on call three times this week, let your partner take charge of their distance learning. But when they start their mandatory night shift for the week, make sure they don’t have to worry about putting food on the table. This gives both partners the chance to fulfill their parental dreams without compromising on being there for their children.

 

In summary, being married to a physician is a rewarding experience by itself. While unique circumstances and “once in a lifetime pandemic” can challenge this dynamic, the shared experiences often lay a strong foundation for an everlasting relationship. The key is to communicate and acknowledge each other’s aspirations and work towards a shared goal.

 

Resources and references
  1. Keith Martin. Medscape Physician Lifestyle & Happiness report 2020: The Generation Divide. Medscape Jan 2020. https://www.medscape.com/slideshow/2020-lifestyle-generational-6012424
  2. Physician Zen: How to Use Calendars. https://www.physicianzen.com/how-to-use-calendars-effectively-and-improve-productivity-step-10-of-12/
  3. US Divorce Rates Soar During COVID-19 Crisis. https://legaltemplates.net/resources/personal-family/divorce-rates-covid-19/#divorces-increase-in-couples-with-children

 

Enambir Josan, MD is a Fellow of Pulmonary and Critical care medicine at Case Western Reserve University (MetroHealth) in Cleveland, Ohio. He enjoys his fellowship by balancing his personal and professional life methodically while being married to an amazing physician wife.