Day 181: 6 tips for maintaining [long distance] relationships during medical school

Today’s inane image of the day:

The front-side of a card Mike sent me. Isn’t it the sweetest thing ever?!

[I apologize that this was prematurely published last night… but here’s the full version of the post!]

Being in medical school really drives a huge stake into all of your relationships, not only your romantic ones. When you start the journey that we call medical education, suddenly you’re always preoccupied with studying [for that exam in 2 weeks], medically-related facts and just trying to get by. Because of this, all [or most] of your attention, focus and energy shifts away from everyone [and sometimes everything] else in your life. Even when you do find a moment [like the day after an exam] to turn your attention to family, a significant other or friends, it seems that you always end up bringing up how fascinating a patient with visual agnosia is [aside: I read “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” quite a number of years ago and didn’t quite get it — now, I understand the true weight of the novel’s narrative and plan on rereading it].

“REALLY?! Is medicine all you can talk about?!” Your family/significant other/friend exclaims. As you turn red with embarrassment at the outburst, you ask about that cruise ship that recently ran into trouble just to change the subject.

[Maybe this last part hasn’t happened to all of us, but it could happen.]

Anyway, as I mentioned in my post featuring advice from my first semester of medical school, it’s really important to keep in touch with your loved ones. I should have expanded on this and said that it’s important to maintain relationships because in the grand scheme of things, your family/significant other/friends make up a huge part of your support network. When times get tough, you will inevitably rely on these individuals to help you pull through. Moreover, if you don’t sustain the strength of this network then you’ll suddenly feel very lonely once you’re finally done with the training part of medical school and can enjoy your glamorous life as a physician [just kidding about the “glamorous” part — it’s still grueling but a different kind].

All of this begs the question, “What can I do to maintain my relationships?” As promised, this is a list of tips for long distance romantic relationships, but most of these tips also apply to maintaining relationships in general.

Effective communication
Everyone always harps on this whole communication thing and with good reason. Any interaction with  people requires effective communication, period. Otherwise, frustration and stress ensues. So what can you do to be effective?

  • Start with effective listening. Focus your attention 100% on the speaker and show that you’re actually interested in the subject. When you’re on the phone, don’t give into the lure of trying to multitask. Also, try not to interrupt the speaker or try to conjure up the next thing to say. Silence doesn’t have to be awkward, so let it slip in here and there.
  • Awareness. I do believe that women tend to be better at picking up and interpreting certain inflections of tone than men, but that men are very capable of learning how to pick these hints up. Sometimes, what is said in between the lines is actually more important than the lines themselves. Try to pick up on these little indications [but don’t look too deep! sometimes there really isn’t anything there…]
  • Consider what you’re saying before you say it. I’m very guilty of letting the words spill before processing what they may be processed to mean. Sometimes you get excited about something and the words tumble out before you had a moment to phrase it more tactfully and you find that it is received in a completely different manner than you had intended. While this can be overlooked if you are interacting often with your family/significant other/friend, it can be a lot harder to overlook once you’ve entered the busy realm of medical school.

Establishing a routine
This is especially important for sustaining long distance relationships with significant others — if you establish a time of the day that is set aside especially for video chatting or a phone conversation, then you will have something to look forward to each day and you will maintain the regular contact/communication necessary for keeping the relationship strong. Mike and I usually chat during my commute and right before bed [and because of the 3 hour time change, sometimes he’ll be up late and serve as my alarm clock — this is especially helpful for the mornings that I opt to wake up at 4AM].

Plans & realistic goals for the future
Prior to embarking on my long distance relationship, Mike and I sat down and discussed how often we will realistically be able to see each other and identified an end point for the long distance. We discussed how we could ensure that we are together at that specified point [will he follow me? will I follow him?]. Although I realize that the “best laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” it’s settling to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Furthermore, our open lines of communication allow for adjustments to these plans as we see fit.

Little surprises
The image for this post is of the front of a card Mike sent me as a surprise. It was such a sweet gesture and it still makes me smile to see it each day. Just little handwritten notes or sweet emails with photos can really go a long way in keeping a relationship strong. This also applies to relationships in general — if you haven’t heard from someone in a while, why not give them a call and catch up or send them an email?

Reminiscing on good memories
I love when my best friend comes back into town and we catch up on what’s going on in our lives [usually my end of the conversation is “we have another exam coming up” or “ugh, I didn’t do well on that last exam”… heh]. But it’s especially fun to reminisce about how we used to spend all of our time in Robotics after school [yes, we were quite nerdy… and probably still are] or the adventures we had in college. This also works really well for diffusing an argument with your significant other — I’ve found that if I’m annoyed about something Mike said or did [or didn’t do], I can’t stay angry for very long when I think about how we met or how supportive he was through my medical school application process.

Knowing when to let go
Long distance relationships and relationships [in general] during medical school requires recognition of when it may no longer be healthy to maintain. Sometimes a great relationship in one setting is just not sustainable outside of it. I don’t think that this applies to most relationships, but it’s always important to realize that it might be a valid possibility.

Did I miss anything? Do you have any additional tips?

5 thoughts on “Day 181: 6 tips for maintaining [long distance] relationships during medical school

  • March 1, 2012 at 6:48 pm

    Great article – Seema loved it!

  • March 1, 2012 at 9:31 pm

    Hey, I found your blog from Justin’s at My Pre-Medical Transformation. Thanks for this article, keeping a solid relationship when I return to med school is something that’s always in the back of my head. Good to hear it’s doable!

  • March 2, 2012 at 3:04 am

    @SKB: I’m glad she enjoyed it! Can’t wait to run into her again [maybe if we’re all in Cali at the same time we can all hang out!]

    @Allison: Thanks for stopping by! I checked out your blog and you have one phenomenal story to tell — I’ve already added it to my Google Reader list!

  • March 2, 2012 at 4:36 am

    Thanks Amanda! I can’t wait to go back to med school in August 🙂 I’m planning on skimming through your blog, but I was wondering if you’ve written about how you’re going to approach patient interactions and HIPAA during your 3rd and 4th years. I’ve recently decided to blog openly (albeit leaving my last name off the page to maintain some sense of privacy from future residency programs) but have not landed upon any solid theory for writing about patient interactions.

  • March 2, 2012 at 4:41 am

    @Allison: I wrote an entry about my first in-patient encounter and plan on writing future narratives as I interact with more patients, but basically, I’m changing *everything* that I possibly can and integrating multiple patient stories into one main narrative. Either way, the main focus for all of those entries will be on my own thoughts/feelings, and I think that will help me really steer clear of all possible HIPAA violations.

    Let me know if you develop your own technique for approaching the discussion of patient interactions!

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