Dating as a med student is challenging. When you’re spending so many of your waking hours studying, it can be hard to give your partner quality time. If you’re in med school and in a long-distance relationship (like me), these challenges are compounded by the sheer physical distance between you and your partner.
Keeping the spark going—while maintaining your focus on your studies—requires significant planning and effort.
I met my girlfriend, now fiancee, Ruby Nguyen, in 2016. We started dating a year later, while I was in my first semester of med school in Mesa, Arizona. At the time, Ruby lived and worked as a dental hygienist near Los Angeles, almost 400 miles away!
Currently, I’m in my third year of school in Beaufort, South Carolina—2,400 miles away from Ruby. So far, our entire relationship has been long-distance. We plan to get married and finally live together when I graduate next year.
While the distance has been very tough, we are grateful for how our relationship has panned out. Distance doesn’t have to strain a relationship to the point of breaking. The following tips are things we discovered together and found to be helpful as we navigated our long-distance relationship.
1. Establish a timeline
The process of becoming a doctor requires a huge investment of time and money. Four years of medical school, at least three years of residency, and sometimes fellowship. The money spent on student loans, tuition, board exams, away rotations and moving adds up quickly.
Medical training requires significant personal sacrifices, but it also requires sacrifices on the part of your partner. In a way, your partner will also shoulder the burden of your student loan debt and the stresses of medical school.
Early on, it’s helpful to decide together if the relationship will be a long-term one. If so, both partners need to be ready to undertake the journey together. It can also be helpful to set a date and a plan for when and how you’ll no longer be long-distance.
Ruby and I had these hard conversations early on. It allowed us to have a clearer picture of our expectations and the potential obstacles that we would have to face later. We knew we would be apart until I went to residency. Understanding this allowed us to mentally be prepared for the challenge of not being physically next to each other.
2. Have realistic expectations
We came up with an analogy of how intense medical school studying is: everyday is finals week, multiplied by five. It’s a huge investment, and both partners must understand that.
Sharing our schedules via Google Calendar helped us coordinate the best times to talk on the phone and reply to messages. We could each see when the other was busy and Google Calendar automatically adjusted for our time zones.
3. Commit to spending time together
Though the job of a medical student is to “study all the time,” our brains still need time to rest and process everything we’ve learned. I scheduled my break times to talk with Ruby. One advantage we saw to long distance was it forced us to talk to each other. Through those many conversations, we grew so much together.
We also committed to setting aside every Saturday evening as “date night.” This gave us a protected and concrete time to video chat. We also made it a priority to have daily phone calls for about 30 minutes.
In a long-distance relationship, it’s also critical to plan regular visits and vacations together. In Arizona, we alternated visiting each other monthly. South Carolina has been a bigger challenge, but we have tried to see each other every two months or so. It has been expensive, but we see the visits as investments in the relationship.
4. Build a support network
We also found it equally important to find support outside the relationship. Doing this allowed us to not push all of our emotions solely onto each other. We sought support from parents, family members and friends.
It’s also important to prioritize your medical school friendships. There’s no substitute for the support of someone who knows exactly what you are going through, and having that network will help you avoid burdening your partner with 100% of your medical school stress.
5. Find ways to connect
One way to grow closer is to find a shared interest that you and your partner can engage in together. It could be reading the same book. Or watching a movie together while you video chat. Or doing a workout routine together. Ruby and I share the same religious faith and challenge each other to grow spiritually.
6. Be open, honest, and understanding
Early in our relationship, Ruby and I committed to always being open and honest about everything. For instance, when I was overly sarcastic during a conversation, instead of letting her resentment bottle up, Ruby told me how hurt she felt. I was able to apologize quickly and the issue was quickly addressed and resolved.
No matter how small or petty the issue, we do our best to let each other know how we’re truly feeling. This openness has made us trust each other more, and we’ve quickly resolved arguments before they escalate.
Keep your eyes on the prize
While tough, long distance dating in medical school is definitely plausible! It requires hard work, sacrifice and understanding. At the same time, our journey has been so worth it. We can’t wait until we’re finally able to be physically next to each other for longer than a holiday break.