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ss nucleus - spring 2006,  Marriage & medical school

Marriage & medical school

Abi Crutchlow and Chris Pollitt consider some pros and cons

Getting married at medical school is a big step to take. Some of you may have done it already, perhaps considered it, or maybe put it off as impractical. Here we look at some of the issues involved, from four different CMF members who have been there, done that, and got the wedding ring!

Initial considerations

The Bible is clear when it comes to marriage – it is created by God and is a natural state for his people.[1] Christians should see dating as a preparation for marriage, at least potentially. It can be a great blessing and stabilising factor in our otherwise busy and turbulent medical lives.

However, it is not to be taken lightly. Marriage is binding and lifelong in God's eyes.[2] Hence, in the words of the Anglican marriage service, 'it must not be undertaken carelessly, lightly, or selfishly, but reverently, responsibly, and after serious thought.'[3] Marriage is not necessarily what God has planned for everyone and we should remember that even such great examples as Mother Theresa, the apostle Paul and our Lord Jesus were not married. If you are considering marriage, take time alone with God to look deeply into your motives – is it because you fear being alone, feel incomplete as a person or need to fit in within the Christian community? If any of these things could be a motive, pause and take stock.

If you do marry, it is important that the timing is correct. It should not be hastened into, but neither should it be delayed if you are both ready and it is what God has planned for you. Consequently, you may need to give serious thought to getting married as a student. There is a lot of literature available that deals with general issues around marriage.[4] However, certain aspects need special consideration when opting to get married as a student.

Abi's story

Laurence and I decided to get married whilst I was still studying and he was an SHO. So far our marriage has been a great blessing to us. As a final year student the intimacy of marriage has been immensely rewarding. The love and support of another person with whom you live and share your life goes a long way to helping when you are studying hard and dealing with the pressures of the hospital environment. Having a stable home and church life at this stage in your training can aid your survival both physically and spiritually; having someone to share these with enhances their benefit and has definitely helped my relationship with God. Whilst this may not necessarily have to be a spouse – close friendships with other Christians, especially housemates, may well be of similar benefit - it is certainly one of the things I have appreciated about our marriage.

However, there are also some aspects that need careful consideration if marrying as a student. Organising a wedding whilst studying is time consuming and stressful, especially if exams are on the horizon. You need to plan carefully to ensure that you allow enough time for wedding preparations, the day itself and a honeymoon. We got married during my elective, which worked very well from this point of view. Working long hospital hours plus study outside of this also means that you may not have as much time to devote to your relationship once married as you would like, and patience and support are needed from both parties in order to minimise the disruption this may cause. Scheduling specific quality time together away from work and daily chores may sound rather formal but is essential in the early stages in order to ensure that work and settling into a new routine and home together do not squeeze it out.

If you do elect to get married as a student then certain pointers may be of value:

  • Pray about it and read what the Bible has to say on marriage, as well as other good Christian literature on marriage. Once engaged, try to read the same passages or books and discuss them together.
  • Discuss the issues between yourselves and with close friends, including older Christians. This can yield very valuable advice. If possible, seek advice from people in a similar position to yourselves, or who have been there before.
  • On getting engaged, involve your parents in the wedding planning as this will help strengthen family relationships. If you have non-Christian parents, then being involved in organising a Christian wedding may help them understand your faith and why you have chosen to get married at what they might find a slightly strange time, rather than waiting until you qualify.
  • Decide where you will be living after the wedding and try to go to the same church whilst engaged, then stick to it when married. We moved to a new church in the area where we would be living a few months before getting married. I found it invaluable to have continuity and support from a church when moving house as well as hospitals.
  • Enjoy it! As difficult as it may seem at times when juggling medical school and wedding planning, it will be one of the best experiences you will ever have.

A precious gem

If you hold marriage in high esteem it's like a precious gem that keeps on shining. Mike and I got married when we were 21, knowing full well this was a commitment for life, but with absolute certainty that we wanted nothing more than to spend our whole lives together. Our wedding was at the end of our first clinical year, after we had been engaged for a year. It didn't matter to us that we were a curiosity in the medical school, where most couples just lived together. Looking back I'm glad we didn't wait until after finals as some of our friends did. When we started our busy house jobs – in different hospitals with few days off that coincided – we already had two years of married life behind us. I think that gave us a strong foundation.

Marriage is a covenant, a binding agreement between two people that is not meant to be broken. You make an agreement about what your relationship is going to be. Even today the ceremony follows an ancient pattern seen in the covenants of the Bible. It includes making promises before witnesses, giving and receiving rings as a sign of the covenant, and sharing a meal to celebrate. And as for sacrifice, an important element of ancient covenants, there's plenty of that to come!

We've been married for 29 years and our love has grown and deepened. Our covenant underpins all we've shared. Everything that's happened to us in the last 30 years is a shared memory, happy or sad. It seems to me that the secret of a long, happy marriage is to be understanding of each other's weaknesses, and admire each other's strengths. If you don't lose sight of that then you have a gem whose sparkle stays even though years go by.

Clare Cooper runs CMF's media training

Chris' perspective

Being married as a medical student is a wonderful and privileged position. Life as a medical student can be tough and when either spouse feels under pressure, they have a 'helper' who can bear the strain, be trusted to keep their most intimate secrets and provide wise counsel, or at least provide a hot meal and put the washing on!

Medical school leaves little time for focussing on God, studying the Bible and being in fellowship with other Christians. However, in marriage you accept responsibility to aid your spouse's spiritual growth. Growing together spiritually within a marriage is an especially exciting aspect, and only those who have experienced it will understand this special blessing from God. Do keep in mind, though, that marriage is another big time commitment and you will certainly need to be disciplined about how you spend your time spread between each other, medical commitments, family, church and other interests.

This is especially so once you qualify, as life will change almost beyond recognition, with increased responsibility, stress, politics and antisocial hours. However challenging marriage is during student life, it will be far harder after collecting that degree – if you are very near the end of your course it may be better to wait a while, as it will be easier to understand whether you are both able to make the sacrifices demanded by medicine and have enough left over for each other.

As a marriage takes a lot of resources to keep things running smoothly, be prepared to renegotiate the time you have and the activities you share with your friends. You will have fewer opportunities to study with other medical students and pick up useful nuggets (unless you are marrying a medic). Thankfully, this is in part compensated for by the fact that you have a willing volunteer to practise OSCEs on!

If your spouse is not medical, marrying as a student can have important benefits. Getting used to social interactions between medics can take some doing and it takes someone from the outside to realise what a strange bunch we are! It is easier to introduce a spouse to medical peculiarities during student years than to fling them in at the deep end at a hospital summer ball. Being the only non-medic can be difficult – my wife, Jo, is a youth worker; when explaining what she does for a living she is often greeted with bemusement and, 'Oh, that's nice' before the person drifts off to discuss medical matters with someone else.

Undergraduate medicine is a costly affair and it can be difficult to complete it without financial support from others; many of us are fortunate enough to have generous parents who can provide for us. Decide together how you would be able to cope financially when married. If you are unable to support yourself, it is difficult to promise at the altar to take responsibility for the welfare of another.

Three months after marrying, my wife became seriously ill and unable to work. We then survived the next seven months on miraculous blessings from God, our savings and state benefits. Although it was stressful, we managed and feel more able to face other challenges as one united and independent family unit. I am not sure whether as a man I felt more responsible to provide for us and therefore was more frustrated at my powerlessness to do so. The extra stress certainly impacted on already difficult preparations for finals.

It was only during this testing time that I realised important fundamentals – medicine had been the focus of my time, energy and passion for five years and I had a lot invested in it. When you marry, you vow to put that partnership above anything else – perhaps the marriage service for medics should read, 'What God has joined together, let no-one, not even medicine, put asunder'! Your direction must first and foremost be towards building up and working on your marriage rather than medicine – putting your marriage first may mean that you will not climb as high or achieve as much within medicine.

One final consideration is that junior doctors are expected to be a mobile bunch. Even registrars may be on rotations that include hospitals miles away from each other. Anyone marrying a medical student should be aware that they may have to move house frequently for the next ten years. Some couples compromise by living apart during the week (which I think is biblically and emotionally a dangerous thing to do) or by a non-medical spouse changing jobs much more often than would be comfortable.

Despite my sometimes discouraging advice, marriage as a medical student can and does work. As Jo and I put God first in considering marriage and its timing, we in no way regret it. We have been truly blessed and matured by our experiences and if we had not married at that specific time, we may never have married. If you feel called to marry then after considering the above points and continuing to seek God in the matter then walk forwards with confidence. My motivation in writing is to help those enclosed in a world of romance to keep their feet on the ground and both eyes on God. Remember that God is with you and he will bless your marriage and allow it to prosper if you remain close to him.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.[5]

You'll never have more time…

Rachael and I got married when I was in the second year, she in the third. We had known each other from our home church before medical school and had been dating since before I started there. We had planned from the beginning to marry at some point, but initially had held the opinion that we should wait until after medical school and get our studies over first. But after some thought we realised that, as medical students, we would never again have as much time as we did then. Since finishing finals our lives have only got busier, with more responsibility, so in fact marrying at medical school was the perfect time.

The medical school let me miss one of the Christmas exams to prepare for the wedding, we got a wedding photo in the medical school gazette and it was nice to be known as 'the married ones' – it certainly led to some interesting conversations about why we hadn't just lived together and this was a good chance to explain our Christian worldview.

Financially we coped well and even managed to land a big room in halls for Rachael's final year that meant we paid very little rent. It was a great support to have two or three years of marriage under our belts before we hit house jobs and all the stress that they entailed. Certainly we missed out on a bit of the student scene with being married, but we didn't mind that at all. Looking back we would have done the same again and would certainly recommend it as an option to students who are serious about each other. Marrying at medical school meant that we had time for each other before life got really difficult!

Mark Pickering is CMF student secretary

  1. Gn 2:22-24
  2. Mt 19:6
  4. For example, Lee N & S. The Marriage Book. London: Alpha International, 2003. See also Richards C, Jones L. What the Bible says about going out, marriage and sex. Leominster: Day One, 2005
  5. Pr 3:5,6
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