Independence: The essential component to medical relationships

December 2, 2020

By Abigail Cotler

When you think of values that make up a strong relationship, words like trust, love, empathy come to mind. But how about independence? While independence may not strike you as an essential component of a strong relationship, it is the corner stone of relationships where one or both spouses are doctors.

My husband and I met when we were in our teens and have been together for almost a decade. While some may find the length of time we have been together shocking, what is more surprising is that for as long as we have been together, he has been on the path to becoming a doctor.

When we started dating, he was on a pre-med track in college. A few years and a MCAT later, he was packing his bags to attend an offshore medical school while I stayed in New York to go to law school.

Over the years, we both were questioned on how we made it work. I mean long distance alone ends relationships without the added stresses of medical and law school. The simple answer is independence is a key component to our relationship – we recognize each other as people with distinct goals, interests and dreams, and we support one another’s pursuits.

In the world of medical relationships, my husband and I’s story is far from unique. In fact, we have it easy. My husband was able to secure a residency in the state were we both grew up and have a support system. Commonly, couples are compelled by the nature of the match algorithm[1], to relocate to unfamiliar towns and cities or into long-long term relationships.

Consequently, while the doctor-partner has their hands full pursuing doctorhood, you, the partner, are left alone for a majority of time, frequently in an unfamiliar area. Moreover, the demands on the doctor-partner’s life, can leave you in the role of the support system. The detachment from the life of the doctor-partner, plus obligations that come along with being the support system can be overwhelming and consuming. But it does not have to be if instead the time afforded is used to cultivate independence.

Use the time that you have available to pursue what fulfills you professionally and/or personally. Whether that be a hobby, or a dedication to career (or second career), create a life that is autonomous from your identity within the relationship. Ultimately, it will make for a stronger relationship. In fact, research has shown that a strong sense of self-determination – which factors in autonomy – positively correlates with more secure relationships.

In my own life, I try every day to recognize the unique opportunity I have to foster my individuality while concurrently having the support of my partner. I have the time to write and take work calls in quiet, and solo hike with my dogs. But at the end of the day (or in the morning, depending on the week) we come together and talk about our days, we bounce ideas off each other and plan for the future.  And since our days are mostly spent doing vastly different activities, we never run out of things to talk about.

The way I see it, a relationship is made up of two individuals, who choose to share their lives with one another. Each important as the other. The doctor-partner choose to pursue a career path that fulfilled them. Equally so, you should focus what fulfills you as an individual.

This is not to say that the choice is completely binary – be overwhelmed or be independent. Being discouraged about the unavailability of the person you have chosen as your partner is natural and understandable. I assume, you initially selected that partner because you like spending time together. But, realistically, that time together may not always be obtainable, so instead choose to focus on cultivating experiences outside of the relationship. And remember, there is an ebb and flow of time commitment and stress. There will be times where the doctor-partner will be more available, and your relationship will feel more “normal”. Embrace those moments. But equally so embrace the moments you have to foster your independence.

Bio: Abigail Cotler is a New York-based attorney, writer and wife of an Internal Medical Resident. Dedicated to finding balance between her professional life and her love of the outdoors, she can be found hiking and running with her two Boston Terriers any free moment she gets.

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[1] Acceptance into Residency and Fellowship programs are determined by various factors that are inputted into an algorithm which determines a “match” for the applicant and program. Once the match is determined, the applicant has little option but to accept. The alternative being, denying the match and repeating the application process during the next “matching” cycle.