Psychologist Tony Ferretti, PhD, who specializes in relationship counseling, says a significant portion—roughly one-quarter—of his clientele are physicians.
“I see physicians, attorneys, entrepreneurs and CEOs,” says Dr. Ferretti, co-author of Change Your Life, Not Your Wife: Marriage Saving Advice for Success-Driven People. “These are highly successful people who stink in relationships. The characteristics that enable them to be successful in their careers don’t bode well in their marriage. They are very competitive, they are intense, they are perfectionistic and they are critical. These qualities can serve them well in their career endeavors, but they don’t serve them well in relationships.”
Successful couples often neglect to nurture their relationships to the same degree that they nurture their careers, notes Terrence Real, a therapist and author of The New Rules of Marriage.
Understandably, some DOs may have a hard time summoning the energy for tenderness after spending 12-plus hours helping sick people and fending off threats to life.
“After career, after kids, after squeezing in a little self-care at the gym, you come home and your relationship comes last,” Real says. “Most of the people I see in therapy are highly successful individuals who have done marvelously in their professional lives and made a mess of their personal lives. You have to really be devoted to your relationship.”
But Real notes that nearly all physicians have great stores of resilience and perseverance, which will help them make time for their relationships.
“You don’t get through medical school and residency without the capacity to rise to the occasion when you’re bone-weary,” he says.
Despite their career challenges, physicians are more likely than the general public to be coupled. More than 80% of male physicians and more than 70% of female physicians are married, according to a recent Medscape report. Among the U.S. general population, a little more than half of men and women are married or separated, according to the U.S. Census.
Here are the ways some DOs sustain the spark and minimize work-related conflict in their marriages.
Emily Fleming, DO, met her future husband, Nicholas Fleming, DO, in 2007 during the pair’s orientation at the Midwestern University/Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine in Downers Grove, Ill. After bonding over their mutual love of the ocean—she is from south Florida, and he grew up in Northern California—the couple began dating. They married in 2010 between their third and fourth years of medical school.
Dr. Fleming says she and her husband maintain their connection amid intense schedules—they are now both in residency—by going to bed at the same time every night.
“Whenever we are both on a day schedule, we try to go to bed at the same time,” she says. “Sometimes the conversations you have right before the lights turn out are the best ones of the day because you’re not focusing on logistics or anything. You’re able to just talk about things that are important to you.”
Communication is also key to retaining closeness, Dr. Fleming says.
“A piece of advice I was given that has taken me the furthest is to never stop communicating with each other,” she says. “Even if it’s hard—and a lot of times it is hard to say the things that you fear might be hurtful to the other person—it’s more important to talk about things than to let them fester and build resentment.”
Couples who have strong marriages, Dr. Ferretti says, make their relationship a priority and take responsibility for their actions.
“Many couples want to blame each other,” he says. “They want to justify their behavior, and they’re often very defensive. These are often red flags and not good signs. But if they take responsibility and say, ‘I know the problem is not all my spouse’s. I’m guilty too—I mess up, I’m not attentive enough,’ that’s a good sign because they’re taking some personal responsibility for the problems.”
Infidelity is often a factor in troubled marriages between successful individuals, Dr. Ferretti notes. Roughly a quarter of heterosexual men and nearly 20% of heterosexual women have strayed from their relationship, a 2011 study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found. Professionals in high-powered positions are more likely to cheat than their less-dominant counterparts, according to a 2011 Psychological Science study.
An affair is often a symptom of a deeper problem, though—neglect of the relationship by one or both parties, Dr. Ferretti says.
“The expression is that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence,” he says. “Well, it’s greener because you’re not watering your own grass.”
“A lot of marriages degenerate because of rot,” he says. “They are just not cared for. Make sure that you have a date night once a week. Make sure that you have sensual time once a week. Make sure that you sit down with a glass of wine, put your feet up and talk to each other for half an hour a few times a week. Cherish the relationship and maintain it. You have to brush your teeth in the morning and in the evening, and you have to talk to your partner in the morning and in the evening. If you don’t, crud starts to build up.”
With six young children, Christine P. Newman, DO, and her husband, Thomas L. Newman, DO, find booking a weekly date to be a challenge if not an impossibility, so the couple plan twice-yearly overnight mini-vacations.
“We book a hotel room in Philadelphia, and we’re gone for 24 hours,” Dr. Christine Newman says. “We just talk to each other, and we go out to eat and walk around. It’s so hard to find that 24 hours with all of our children’s sports schedules, but it’s worth every penny if we can do it.”
On a recent sojourn, the Newmans, who live in Meadowbrook, Pa., had coffee and macarons at a French patisserie in Philadelphia, walked around the city, ate seafood and went for a long run.
Managing a private interventional pain management clinic in Dallas keeps Pablo Patricio Zeballos, DO, very busy, and when he’s not working he’s often coaching his son’s or daughter’s soccer team. So Dr. Zeballos plans a date night, usually once every two weeks, with his wife of 11 years, Laura Spies Zeballos, DO. They often go to the Capital Grille, where his wife orders the lobster and her favorite dessert, coconut cream pie.
“We have to work to set some time for ourselves to reconnect,” Dr. Zeballos says. “Sometimes we lose track of that because we’re so busy. We have to say, ‘OK, we haven’t been on a dinner date in three weeks.’ We have to plan it. You really have to find time to be together, otherwise you start losing the connection that you have and start losing who you are together.”
Around the house
Dr. Zeballos and his wife also enjoy cooking together. They have a deal: When one person cooks, the other cleans up.
Dr. Fleming and her husband take turns as chef and dishwasher as well. The couple established this and other rules to divide household work because it’s where they struggle the most in their marriage, she says. Talking about housework and splitting it up before resentment builds has helped.
“Our biggest challenge is figuring out the most equitable division of labor at home since we both work,” Dr. Fleming says. “I’m much more inclined to do a lot of the things around the house than my husband is. But at the same time, since I’m also working just as many hours as he is, it’s difficult for me because I feel like I have two jobs.”
The Flemings’ situation is not uncommon.
“Research has found that typically, even when both parties work, the female bears more of the household chores and the caretaking of children, which is just not fair,” Dr. Ferretti says. “Try to pitch in more and help out more. If both parties have careers, be respectful of that and to try to work as a team.”
And if one partner stays at home while the other works, the contributions of the partner at home need to be acknowledged, Dr. Ferretti notes.
“Value your partner’s contributions,” he says. “Do not devalue your partner. The worst thing you could say is, ‘Look, I make the money, so I’m going to decide whether we make this purchase.’ “
Whether one or both partners work, professional jealousy can undermine a relationship, especially if either person has a competitive streak, Dr. Ferretti says.
“Successful people often tend to compare themselves with others,” he says. “One of my suggestions would be to recognize that you’re on the same team. You shouldn’t be competing; you should be working together as a team. That’s part of a healthy relationship and a healthy marriage.”
Dr. Zeballos says he and his wife have adopted this attitude.
“Whoever has more success financially or professionally, we know that their success is for the benefit of the family,” he says. “That’s why we’ve never had to deal with jealousy. We congratulate each other, we look out for each other.”
Dr. Zeballos says his wife finished residency first, so for about two years, she was making roughly three times his salary. At that time, he felt appreciative, not envious, he says, because he knew the money she was earning would help their family.
“Now that I’m working full time and she’s not, she appreciates what I do because it’s for the family,” he says. “I work hard so we can send our kids to private school.”
But if you do find yourself occasionally seething over your partner’s success, don’t despair, Real says.
“Most humans have mixed feelings about virtually everything,” he says. “It’s useful to say ‘a part of me.’ ‘A part of me feels anguish about the award you just got, a part of me is jealous, and a part of me is tickled pink.’ It’s rare that somebody would just feel competitive and jealous and nothing more. The trick is to acknowledge your feelings and also put them in their place and keep perspective.”
Whose career comes first?
Aside from jealousy, other career-related problems can emerge when one or both members of a romantic partnership have professional careers, including disagreement about whose career goals will take priority.
Dr. Fleming and her husband had to hash out their professional plans before their marriage, and they still struggle. She is in the Air Force, and military careers tend to be less flexible than those of civilians.
Dr. Fleming is now in her third year of an emergency medicine residency with the Air Force in San Antonio. Her husband matched into a physical medicine and rehabilitation residency at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. His willingness to go where her work brings her has made their marriage easier.
“I have to give props to my husband,” she says. “He’s agreed that we’re going to do whatever we can to be able to stay together, even if that means putting some of his career aspirations on hold for the time being. And when I finish my commitment to the Air Force four years from now, then we’ve agreed to let the tables turn a little bit, and he’ll get to make some of the choices.”
Joseph M. Hassman, DO, also took turns with his wife regarding their careers. He met his future wife, Lillian, in the 1950s when he was a teenage busboy in Atlantic City, N.J. The couple married young—Dr. Hassman was 20 and his wife was 17 on their wedding day. For many years, Dr. Hassman’s career took center stage as he attended medical school and residency and established a family medicine practice in Burling, N.J. His wife stayed home to raise their four children. But years later, she decided to become a social worker.
“My wife had a big burden running the house on her own. But when the children were grown, she went back to school,” Dr. Hassman says. “She got her bachelor’s and then her master’s of social work. And she helped in our practice. She was working with the county for 22 years, but she also worked part time for us. She would come one or two nights a week to see patients for counseling.”
Dr. Hassman says he and his wife stayed on track for 58 years by being willing to compromise and encouraging each other’s goals.
“My wife supported me 100% in my career, and I supported her 100% when she went back to school,” he says. “You have to be flexible and willing to give and take. That’s a successful marriage. I went my way in the medical field, and she went her way. You have to give each other space. Let each partner grow in his or her own way.”
While space is important, too much of it can lead to one or both spouses working too much and potentially weakening their bond. Dr. Zeballos and his wife have a system in place to avoid this. To maximize family time, the couple often plan late business meetings after their kids go to bed. And they make sure that one of them is always home with the kids.
“On weekends, my wife will ask me, ‘Pablo, when are your meetings this week?’ ” Dr. Zeballos says. “And I’ll ask her when her meetings are. We work as a team. If I know my wife has one or two meetings the following week, I’ll be the one taking care of the kids.
“If my wife sees that I’m having too many meetings, she will let me know. We help each other out to make sure our schedules don’t get out of hand.”
The system works, Dr. Zeballos notes, because he and his wife agreed long before they married that they would focus on family over their careers. Before getting married, couples should make sure their dreams align, he says.
“One of the reasons my wife and I work so well together is that we were best friends for a long time. Then we dated for a while, so we really knew what both of our goals were for the rest of our lives,” he says. “However, in other DO marriages, someone may want kids while his or her partner does not. Someone might want to work part time while the partner wants him or her to work full time. From the very beginning, you should know what each person wants.”