Advice for Residents in a Relationship or Seeking One

Rosalyn E. Plotzker, MD, MPH


October 31, 2017

In residency, relationships are everything. Friendships formed throughout training become lifelong. Mentors are steadfast guides through the emotional and intellectual complexities of becoming a physician. And, of course, the doctor/patient relationship is considered one of the most sacred in medicine. For each trainee, these different human connections form a complicated, beautiful, interpersonal ecosystem.

Despite the taxonomy of relationships inside the hospital, romantic relationships that usually happen outside the hospital can be the trickiest for young doctors to manage—especially during residency. Over the course of years of 80-hour workweeks, how do residents and their partners stay together? For the unattached, how can love germinate and put down roots when the demands of residency compete for the scarce resources of time and energy, which relationships need as well?

I thought I would try to consult some scientific experts. As luck would have it, my parents are scientists (a chemist and an endocrinologist) who celebrated 40 years of marriage last August (congrats again, Mom and Dad)!

Once, in an email, my mother explained successful relationships to me like this:

...When you are in a stable, satisfying relationship, it is partly because both partners are continuing to grow as people; they are not static. This growth should in turn strengthen the relationship and prevent boredom. Where it doesn't (say, growth leads to discord), it was inherently not a viable relationship. I know you'll laugh, but what comes to mind is a potential energy diagram:

The y-axis is energy. High = bad. The x-axis is how close the two "particles" (hydrogen atoms, supervisor and employee, boyfriend and girlfriend) are. Too close is really bad. Too far apart means there's not much attracting them to each other. In the well is "just right." That's where you'll find hydrogen molecules, happy work hierarchical relationships, and happy marriages.

More compatible → deeper well → more stable bond. Couples who are bored either have been staying too apart from each other (large x) and not giving themselves the opportunity to discover life in the well; or, the potential (ha ha) relationship inherently has a very shallow well, and they might as well move on.

Among scientists, I tend to use food analogies more than scientific ones...


Whether you're dating casually or in a committed relationship, the nuances of "distance" are a keystone to nurturing romance in residency. More forces than not pull couples away from "the well." Most relationship-in-residency advice gravitates toward finding your way back to that happy distance or finding the well in the first place.


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