Loving Your Physician Spouse Well
All I Learned From Being A Medical Spouse I Learned From Mom
For many if not all physician spouses, this has been a particularly trying month. My wife practices (infectious disease) in two hospitals in two hotspot states in either direction of our home state (our accountant loves us).
And after 10 years of marriage, my secret confession is not that I am a particularly great spouse; in my case there is a secret advantage influencing me.
Everything I learned in life about loving doctors was learned from watching my mother. My mom (RN) is the secret weapon behind my father’s 40 years of faithful 80-100 hour weeks as a solo Family Practitioner. Her love and affection made the difference as our family watched dad weather the struggles of the solo Norman Rockwell-type country doctor. This sounds like a historic cliché - yet dad lived the life.
Believe it or not, there are significant advantages and privileges that come when you come from what many would call an old fashioned family. My parents aren’t the flashiest folks around, nor are they close to perfect, but they gave all of us some tough love when it counted.
1979 was a cool year, because it was the 70s. And we closed out the decade by hanging up my father’s sign for his rural clinic just a mile from his residency program. Although I would be derided as a skinny “rich doctor’s kid” in school, my peers had no idea my father willingly drove a purple VW Beetle for the first 3 years of his startup to meet payroll. Or that the waiting room patients read the magazines in was a floor below the bedroom my brother shared until the age of 10.
What non physician friends don’t know is that during the best of times, the invisible pressures on physicians and their families are extremely challenging. And in a pandemic everything becomes exponentially more difficult. So if asked to give a red-carpeted signature talk about what to do in these times, I might take a cue from Sesame Street and pick a sponsoring letter to illustrate the three things to do as a physician spouse, pandemics be damned.
So let’s pick the letter L - here are three simple L words that describe what I learned from my mother about how to love physicians over the long term.
L Is For Listen
The first L word is to Listen. Steven R Covey famously said “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” As a physician spouse there is a time and a place to speak up - but it’s usually not when they walk in the door.
As a longtime teleworker, when my wife comes home I am ready for her. Even in the pre-pandemic times we have learned to be flexible around this time. During the pandemic era, our foyer doubles as a decontamination zone and there are various buttons for me to press for the washer and the sink etc to help streamline the new normalizing to home life.
Some days are easier than others, so my intent is to be flexible enough to hear her and take time to let her decompress.
Earlier in our marriage my mistake was to try to fix or “man-splain” her problems instead of just listening. I won’t do that again! Instead of trying to fix her perplexing situations, listening works wonders, plus a nap if she needs one.
As someone with many traits of an Enneagram 4, one thing that we do well is to stay in the difficult and uncomfortable places when a loved one is sharing them without changing the subject or minimizing their experience. We call it “authenticity” and believe it or not, it’s not always easy to find someone to help you process the difficult places.
The good news is that even if you don’t naturally share these traits the skill can be effectively learned. Your partner will appreciate having a non-judgmental space to share and process their day.
L Is For Learn
Let’s face it, it can be tough on the male ego to learn something new. Especially when it’s something silly like when my wife doesn’t like the way I wash my hands for example.
Recently, while hurriedly washing up with extra splashing to keep the virus away, my wife did not approve of my rinsing routine for some strange reason. The more rigorously my hands moved, the more she disapproved.
As a former adjunct Instructional Design lecturer, my request was for her to send me some sort of training video that might help me see the washing protocols through the eyes of a surgeon. Perhaps I could gain an acceptable level of proficiency on what until The Year 2020 has been a routine act of washing my hands. Including constructs such as sterile fields and how to refrain from breaking them.
Although it took more time to adjust my attitude than my ego would admit, we are now closer aligned after the decision to apply new habits.
L Is For Lead
My guess is that for many male spouses of physicians, the roles are somewhat reversed, especially from the old fashioned standards mentioned earlier.
Part of the way to make sense of it all is to acknowledge my wife is much better suited for this kind of work, and if my role as cheerleader and confidant is more helpful to her, that’s great because my strengths work better at that kind of role. If this means “leading from behind” in your book, so be it.
Even very small things like writing “I love you” on a post-it note with a date on it and putting it on her headboard has an impact. It baffles me that something that tiny makes a difference.
Being raised old-fashioned, I keep some traditions alive by being attentive to our emotional and spiritual needs as a family. Since we are in the middle of a global contagion right now, we step this up even farther. I pray for my wife when she leaves the house and then when she returns. We try to keep any bad energy from our day outside the door.
It doesn’t matter so much what you do, as how you show up. Leadership in a medical family is about who you are and how you show up for your family by your actions.
As a physician reading this, you have very little margin for error and it seems like things are more difficult than ever before. My hope is that you will believe me when we tell you there are many of us out here cheering you on from the sidelines. And if you’re married to medicine, my hope is that these simple L words - Listen Learn Lead - will help you run your lane effectively.
Nathan Eckel is a sustainability designer born and married to MD. He hosts the Patient Paperwork Podcast at patientpaperwork.com and has some excellent "Patient-Proof" Checklist Templates" for post-op patients.
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LinkedIn = /nathaneckelTV