John and Rebecca (pseudonyms) came into my office in tears. They were struggling with how to maintain a commitment to their medical careers while continuing to commit to their relationship and future as a married couple. They were both successfully completing their training as physicians and had promising career opportunities in their fields of speciality.

Like what you are reading? For more stimulating stories, thought-provoking articles and new video announcements, sign up for our monthly newsletter.

What was unusual about this couple was their ability to articulate exactly what “The Question” is for many professional couples: Now that we know what the future holds and how much investment of time will be required of us in this profession, we feel like we may have to choose between a healthy marriage and a healthy career. In fact, that same afternoon, I had just seen another couple with completely different careers asking almost precisely the same question, but they had some trouble putting their concerns into words. John and Rebecca nailed it. In fact, they almost whispered it, leaning tentatively toward me in my softly-lit office, divulging what they both said was pretty risky to even think about, much less say out loud.…and if we have to choose, well, we don’t know if we want to do this medical thing anymore.

What I have learned about the personalities of individuals who pursue medicine as a career is that, like those in most caregiving professions, a physician’s own self-care can be last on their list. The hours, the intense fields of study, the great responsibility and risk involved in treating other human beings—these are all are ways in which the physician can potentially be set-up to fail in their personal lives. The training requires intense scheduling, curtailing and even significantly limiting social outings, and the need for sleep contributes to putting off cherished open-ended talks with a partner.

Pursuing a medical career requires sacrifice, and as a patient, I’m glad; the more well-trained my physician is, the better I feel I can rely on her assessment and treatment recommendations. At the same time, this particularly poignant and relevant discussion in my office brought up some concerns for me, first, as a couples counselor: my desire to be empathic and validating; and secondly, in a broader sense, concerns about this couple as part of the community. I want my treating physician to be not only clinically on-point but emotionally healthy. As a therapist who has counseled many people over the past decades, it has become clear that whatever one’s profession, the healthier the personal life, the more readily one can face and overcome the enormous challenges that arise in one’s professional life. If we have healthy personal relationships, someone to talk to who can be present and comfort us in times of distress, the challenges we have outside the home seem at least somewhat more tolerable.

So, in this session, I found myself experiencing a bit of an internal quandary: How much do I empathize, or do I even encourage they choose their marriage over the intense career paths that they are sure to pursue next? Knowing what I know as a couples therapist, I can guess that the road ahead will continue to be challenging, no matter what, but the fewer external pressures, the better, right? I confess a part of me wanted to jump in and champion their relationship above all else (their upcoming job offers were appealing, but would readily require at least 50-60 hour weeks). But I also was aware that their professional dreams had been hard-won (non-stop schooling since age six; postponing having children to focus on career; hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt).

What I wound up doing next was listening to their concerns, their thoughts, and especially the emotions underneath, both secondary and primary emotions, and guiding them through conversations that could draw them closer together, instead of further apart. I didn’t try to change the subject or make it all better or tell them what to do but encouraged the experience of these concerns in session. Over time, they did the hard work necessary to reach their own conclusions about their career choices (they did remain in medicine), and their relationship. They risked being vulnerable with me and with one another around their feelings about choices made and unrealistic expectations. Over time they worked their way slowly back toward one another. They reached conclusions about their careers that met their own personal sweet spot: a balance between work and home that secured one another as their source of comfort and support at the end of the day.

Not all of my clients have been this “lucky.” Of course, that sweet spot can wobble a bit: misunderstandings and arguments happen. Those nagging internal questions about self-worth and existential questions about the purpose of our lives don’t magically disappear. That’s the nature of life, relationships, and making choices about our work. Physicians can often have a greater challenge, as the nature of their work requires an extraordinary commitment, along with a very small margin for error in the many decisions they make each day. But as so many of my physician-client couples have taught me, the need for their primary relationship to come “first” when it counts, serving as a source of security, comfort, and trust, means just as much—and often much more, than their medical careers.

John and Rebecca also learned that they didn’t have to choose one over the other. What they did needed to choose were ways in which they could learn to be more intentional about their relationship, building resilience to buffet the stressful nature of their work, and learning not to “use up” all of their emotional energy in the workplace. They took a risk by coming to see me; they could have been overwhelmed with the effort it took to focus on their relationship and decided not to call my office. I’m so glad they took that risk. They had the courage to admit that, as brilliant as they were, when it came to their relationship they needed a little support and guidance along the way. After all, doctors are people, too.

File under: Couples Therapy, A Day in the Life of a Therapist