Marriage and relationship advice for DOs

Experts reveal why successful people often struggle in marriage, and DOs detail how they sustain the spark in their unions.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in The DO in 2014. It has been updated.

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 Terry 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.

When your relationship comes last

“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.

Despite their career challenges, physicians are more likely than the general public to be coupled. Roughly 84% of physicians are either married or living with a partner, according to a recent Medscape (login required) report. Roughly 60% of the U.S. general population is married or living with a partner, according to the Pew Research Center.

Here are the ways some DOs sustain the spark in their marriages.

Staying connected

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. 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.

Go to bed at the same time

The Flemings each have full-time jobs, and they also have two young children, which means the demands on their time are high. To maintain their connection, they go to bed at the same time when their schedules allow it.

“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,” she says. “You’re able to just talk about things that are important to you.”

Prioritize communication

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.”

Infidelity can be a side effect of inattention

Infidelity is often a factor in troubled marriages between successful individuals, Dr. Ferretti notes. About 1 in 5 Americans have cheated on their partner, according to a 2015 YouGov poll of nearly 1,000 people.

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.”

Plan regular date nights

Real agrees.

“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.”

With six 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,” says Dr. Christine Newman, who lives nearby in Rydal, Pennsylvania, with her family. “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.”

Ground rules can help couples divide household work

The Flemings enjoy cooking together. They have a deal: When one person cooks, the other cleans up.

The couple established this and other rules to divide household work because it’s an area where they struggle in their marriage, she says. Talking about housework and splitting it up before resentment builds has helped.

“One of our biggest challenges is figuring out the most equitable division of labor at home, since we both work,” Dr. Fleming says. “We are committed to the process of constant tweaking when it comes to managing our home life. We value each other’s time equally, both at work and at home. We want our children to see each of us doing what it takes to make our family work.”

Both parents are very involved with their children and attend their school events as often as possible, Dr. Fleming says. A full-time nanny helps fill in the gaps in the schedule when they both have to be at work.

In many marriages, household work and childcare are two of the biggest sources of conflict, and women often bear an undue burden, Dr. Ferretti says.

“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,” he says. “Try to pitch in more and help out more. If both parties have careers, be respectful of that and try to work as a team.”

Related reading:

How to make being married and working together work for you

Romance in medical school? These students say yes

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