We all do it.
We have bad days.
Terrible traffic. A horrendous workload. Difficult faculty. Insurance disasters. An argument with staff. A patient you just couldn’t save.
As physicians, we often come home running empty on food, hydration, and patience, and full of frustrations, complaints, stress, anger, helplessness, and utter exhaustion. It’s the norm. And when we come home, we unload it on the person we love most, our best friend, our partner, our spouse because they are the only person in the world we are quite certain won’t judge us for the ungrateful rant we are about to erupt into.
“You will not believe what I had to deal with today…”
I call this spouse-dumping, because it represents a routine where we dump our negative energy onto our spouses.
Spouse dumping is a form of therapy, a time to verbally process difficult experiences you had to grit your teeth for in the name of unwavering professionalism, and a time to gain some validation for the spectrum of feelings you had swallow as you ran around trying to learn, treat, and please others in an environment where you struggle to feel adequate. Spouse dumping is a way to express the anger you felt at the condescension of a faculty member, or the shame you felt when you performed a procedure wrong that resulted in a bad outcome for a patient. It’s a time to let out the pent-up screams that you would love to hear reverberate down the hallways of a hospital, but that simply stay muffled in your chest as you try to process your exhaustion from today and wrap your head around with how much more work there is going to be tomorrow.
Spouse dumping is a natural phenomenon. I do it. You do it. We all do it.
The problem is, our spouses are humans too. If you’re in medicine, they don’t see you all day…and, when you come home, they get a taste of the worst of you.
Not because you’re a bad person.
But, because you’re struggling to find meaning in the path you’ve chosen. Trying to make sense of the love/hate relationship you have with medicine and trying to channel the negative energy somewhere where you won’t get fired for it. Hell, some nights you’re just trying to find some stable mental ground to stand on for a minute without the pager going off.
Spouse dumping is okay intermittently, but when we rely on it as a daily form of release, we don’t realize that we are sabotaging the relationships that mean the most to us. Because, although your partner may empathize with your struggle and serve as your therapist, that’s not their job. They might have signed up for “in sickness and health,” “for better or worse,” and, “on call and post-call,” but interacting with the bitter, resentful version of you probably is not what they deserve at the end of every day.
Though our partners love us, the emotional burden of our experiences is just as heavy on their shoulders as it is on ours, and it’s not sustainable for us to transfer it to them long-term. This especially goes for dual medical professional households, where both members can be in danger of adding to a cup that is already overflowing, and adding fuel to a fire that is already raging. So what are healthy alternatives to spouse dumping?
THE 10-MINUTE DUMP
The 10-minute dump is exactly what it sounds like. It’s limiting your existential crises to a sustainable time frame for your partner’s mental health. It’s choosing a time every day to let out all the crazy, to yell, rant, cuss, huff and puff (whatever floats your boat) and come to terms with the mental and emotional traumas you’ve endured that day. The catch is, when your time is up, you snap out of it, change the subject, and you and your partner both try to focus on other (more positive) things. Release and relax. It’s that simple.
FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS
If ten minutes is not enough for you to unload the emotional cargo you’re carrying, look to your best friends to talk about what’s been going on at the hospital. Create some structured time and a recurring date every month to unload about your stressors and get some much needed sympathy, empathy, and perspective from them. The key is to meet regularly (virtually or in person), so you can look forward to a time to talk about what’s bothering you. Not knowing when or where you can find a release can add to the anxiety and stress you’re already carrying.
If you feel like what you’ve got on your plate at a particular time is way too much for one person or a small group of friends, talk to different family members about different issues and spread out the angst. If your mom is particularly empathetic, your brother is great at pumping you up, and your Grandpa is a great listener, talk to each person about a different issue and let them each support you in their own way. Take advantage of all the platforms out there that make it easy to connect with each other; whether it’s a phone call on the way home from work, FaceTime, Zoom, or Marco Polo. Take some time to tap into different facets of your support system to diffuse your mental bomb. It makes it manageable for everyone, and it will allow you to preserve your relationships for a long time.
A WELLNESS DATE
A great way to de-stress is by tying together a wellness activity with a mini-therapy session. This might be getting your hair or nails done and talking to your stylist or manicurist about what you’re going through at the same time. Meeting up for a quick game of basketball, golf, or yoga might be another way to meet friends and mix verbally letting off steam while physically engaging in an activity that helps you relax.
AN ACTUAL THERAPIST
If your stressors have reached the level of chronic depression and anxiety (and let’s be honest, no shame, this is a lot of us!), look to a therapist for help. A psychiatrist, psychologist, psychology nurse practitioner, or couples counselor are great options to provide regular relief for the ongoing mental and emotional traumas we can experience as medical professionals. The amazing thing is that many of these services are now available online. So you can have a session on the move on your phone or your laptop. Yes, some of these options may be pricey, but nothing is worth more than your mental health and being the best version of you for yourself, your family, and all the people that love you.
Medicine is a blessing and burden no single person care bear alone. There are good days and bad days in the thick of it (especially residency), but just like a bad Yelp review, the effect of a bad day sticks around much longer than a good one. There is absolutely nothing wrong with acknowledging a bad day or talking to your spouse/partner about it, but having these coping mechanisms as a back up will help both of you diffuse the negativity and resentment and traverse these mentally and emotionally taxing years together. I promise you’ll emerge stronger than ever at the end of it.
Mariam Molani, DO, MBA is a 4th year Pathology resident at UT-Southwestern in Dallas, Texas. She is a writer, entrepreneur, and advocate for women in medicine. She is the founder of LibraMed, LLC, a website focused on helping doctors find success through all avenues of medicine by incorporating balance and wellness into their careers.