My boyfriend wants to take a break to study for Step 1.
January 30, 2011 8:38 AM   Subscribe

My boyfriend is taking a test at the beginning of March that will pretty much determine his career. (USMLE Step 1) He wants to take a break from our relationship during February to study (i.e. he doesn't want to see me - we'd still talk on the phone.) We have a very strong relationship and have been dating for a year, but I don't feel like this is right. Can you help me put this in perspective?

My boyfriend is freaking out about taking this test which basically rehashes the first two years of medical school. He studies about 12-14 hours a day.

We've been dating about a year and see each other a few times a week, including weekends (i.e. he sleeps at my place or I sleep at his.) I have a fulltime job. I'm also fully cognizant of his study schedule and have spent many nights during the past year reading/doing work while he studies. I like being near him, even if he's busy.

Now he wants to take a break for all of February because he says he's easily irritable and everything stresses him out. I'm concerned that this is essentially the beginning of the end of the relationship. I asked if we could spend one night a week together and he asked me why I just couldn't understand what he was going through.

I love him. The past year has been great. Has anyone been through something similar and come out okay on the other side?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (54 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Does he know that studying so heavily like that is actually counterproductive and possibly the reason why he gets so irritated? Regular breaks from study would actually be good for his sanity, as would having you around if only "in the background".
posted by dougrayrankin at 8:48 AM on January 30, 2011 [7 favorites]

It doesn't sound like a good sign to me. When I was in law school and wanted to spend less time with a boyfriend with whom I was getting ready to end things, school was my excuse. If I had really wanted to, I could have made the time for him.
posted by amro at 8:55 AM on January 30, 2011 [8 favorites]

Given how stressed out about this he is, he may not be in a position where he's willing to listen to perfectly valid advice - advice like dougrayrankin posted above. I know it's hard, but if you want to minimize the damage this does, you may just want to go along with it. The alternative would be to spend precious time fighting about it and making him feel claustrophobic with you on one side and The Test on the other.

That being said, I definitely understand why you feel that this is unfair. There needs to be a way for him to reciprocate and show you that you're also a priority to him. Perhaps work out some kind of reimbursement system with him now: You leave him alone for a month, he immediately a) promises to do a better job of preparing in advance for the next exam, and b) rewards your unbelievable patience by doing X, Y, and Z.

(Standard disclaimer that no one here is going to be able to say for certain whether he's being honest or whether his committment is flagging - It's much easier for us to doubt him, as a stranger, than it is for us to extend trust to him given your side of the story.)
posted by lizzicide at 8:58 AM on January 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

People deal with this kind of pressure differently (I know this because I'm a lawyer and I've seen myself and many friends go through this with the bar exam). I had friends who unplugged their phones for months--I'm not kidding. So honor his wishes to leave him alone, but you could send him a care package, write him a note or leave dinner on his doorstep to show you care. I wouldn't take this too personally-- at least you know he won't be dating someone else in the intervening month, right? ;)
posted by bananafish at 8:59 AM on January 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm sure things like this happen all the time and work out ok. But it might not be the best solution to his problem. When someone is stressed and irritable, they need to be yanked out of that from time to time. (Even though they feel like they shouldn't.)

I think a better solution would be to schedule one or two date nights a week, stick to them, and let him immerse in the work the rest of the time. Friday night date, spend Saturday together not studying, and leave Sunday morning would give you both what you need. He can work 6 days a week, and you both get time together.

But I will say this: it IS really difficult to concentrate when someone else is around. Even if it is 100% perfect and ok with everyone, just having someone around that you have to force yourself to ignore is a stressor.
posted by gjc at 8:59 AM on January 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't mean to be insensitive, but from the outside this doesn't seem like a big deal. A month apart is not important in the scheme of a long-term relationship, which I gather you want this to be. It sounds responsible to prepare you for this by asking for a "break" from hanging out and your understanding. People have to be able to do their own thing. Say he was a journalist and took a month's assignment away, wouldn't that be acceptable? That he needs the time but is staying in town shouldn't be any different. That the time apart worries you and you see it as the beginning of the end is of concern. It suggests you two are not quite on the same page when it comes to how much time you want/need together, but also that there may be something else going on that's got you fearful about the future of the relationship.

The wanting to be close to him even when he's doing his work sounds familiar.

While I've been through separations that came out fine and even improved the relationship, I've also (sorry if this doesn't apply to your situation) made the mistake of being too involved with someone else's life and of not doing enough to develop my own. That never came out well. Do you have your own projects that really engage you by yourself? I'm thinking if you did, this goal of his and the sacrifice it will take might be easier to comprehend.

The best advice I can give is to make the center of your life something of your own making--work, volunteering, friends, etc. Anyone you're with adds to that but doesn't replace it. Making someone else so central to your world that you can't picture a few weeks without them has never worked out well for me.
posted by brynnwood at 8:59 AM on January 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Does he know that studying so heavily like that is actually counterproductive and possibly the reason why he gets so irritated? Regular breaks from study would actually be good for his sanity, as would having you around if only "in the background".

On average? Yeah, that's probably true. Is it true for the OP's boyfriend? We don't know, but he might, and as someone who's gone through two years of medical school with some degree of success, I think we should probably trust his opinion on what study methods work for him.

Changing your habits right before one of the most important and difficult tests of your professional career is probably not a very good idea. Even if having the OP around wouldn't hurt his studies, if he thinks it will it could still cause stress.

OP: It's a month. People with very successful relationships have gone longer than that without seeing each other and you're still going to be communicating. Respect his wishes and don't make a huge deal out of it. Let him know that if he wants a study break, you'd be happy to meet him for coffee or dinner somewhere, and otherwise just suck it up and deal with the fact that things like Step 1 boards are a fact of life, and you just have to let your partner deal with them how they think is best.
posted by toomuchpete at 9:02 AM on January 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Address these concerns directly. It is not just about this exam, it is a bigger signifier of how he deals with stress in general. This time it's USMLE step 1, in two more years there will be a part 2, etc. Will he block you out of his life every time a stressor presents itself? I have known a number of (successful) medical school students who have maintained their relationships (and sanity) throughout this stressful time and came out OK. But you might want to suggest a practical schedule to him (that will still involve hard-core studying, but will also make you a part of the process). Tell him that you are interested in what he is doing and are willing to be invested in his school and life (helping him with getting books from the library, photocopies...something). Also, put his request of blocking you out for Feb in perspective of how many other important tests in his life (being an MD) he will have to go through, and it is important for the two of your to figure out how to deal with them sooner rather than later.
posted by mooselini at 9:02 AM on January 30, 2011 [12 favorites]

If you're coming to the end of the relationship, then it's going to happen either way, studying or no studying.

Assuming that he's telling the truth and that having someone else around while he's trying to study will distract him, I can see why he'd want to be alone, given that this test will make or break his future career. He may just be concerned about being able to give the studying his all.

Assuming that he's lying and wants to break up with you, and the studying is just an excuse, then he'll probably break up with you over something else.

Talk to him about your concerns. See how he responds. Either way, work on you handling being apart for a while. Whether it's a long while or a short while, nobody knows but him.
posted by Solomon at 9:06 AM on January 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

mooselini asked my question: will he be kicking you out every time he faces similar stresses? What if you're married the next time it happens? What happens if you have kids then, will he ask them to leave, too?

Those are the questions I'd be asking myself and him if I were you. Only the two of you can decide if this is, indeed, okay for your relationship.
posted by cooker girl at 9:08 AM on January 30, 2011 [13 favorites]

I'm curious to know more about the dynamic between the two of you during previous stressful times (even if they're not on the same level as this level of stress). To wit: does the way you react to his stress cause him to become more stressed, or less stressed?

In the best of all possible worlds, you two would be a source of comfort and support during times of stress. Now, the right comforting and supportive things to do vary from person to person, and it can take some trial and error to figure this out (when I'm stressed, for example, efforts to help me out that involve Too Many Questions may elicit a snappish response from me, despite the best of intentions).

Still, the fact that he views your involvement in his life during times of stress as a net negative seems like a big red flag. That may be fixable by changing the dynamics of your interaction during such times. But if he's not interested in figuring out a way to turn *to* you during times of stress, rather than turning away, I'm not sure how well that bodes for your long-term future.
posted by SomeTrickPony at 9:09 AM on January 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Some people do need to isolate themselves for maximum focus. I'd give him the benefit of the doubt rather than adding to his stress by making him fight about whether or not he wants to be alone right now.
Care package and little notes of love and encouragement, and a month for yourself to do some of the things that maybe he doesn't like to do or that YOU like to do alone... it's not the end of the world and imo he'll really appreciate you being so giving.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 9:10 AM on January 30, 2011 [5 favorites]

I have a feeling that what's bothering you here is the language. He wants to "take a break". Would it have been better if he'd said he needed every weekend between now and the test devoted purely to studying? Or, "I'm just not going to have time to see you very much this month?"

I think it's sort of silly to decide in advance that he's not going to see you for the whole month. I mean, why not just play it by ear and see what his schedule allows? But maybe it's what he needs to psych himself into total preparedness? Maybe after taking a break to see you he feels guilty, like he's not working hard enough? Who can say, really...

I think, also, that the expression "take a break" means a lot more than not seeing each other for a long time - usually people use the phrase to mean "not in a relationship" space. Like seeing other people, thinking outside the box of "I have a girlfriend", etc. Which probably is why it seems so final to you. Maybe you could nail down what he actually means when he says that, or what the rules are during that time? Get a little reassurance that he doesn't mean he doesn't love you, just that he can't prioritize spending time with you.

FWIW, as long as he's talking about time and being able to prioritize the exam, I don't think it's a bad sign for your relationship. But then, you're talking to the woman who went off to South America for a month without her boyfriend and thought that was perfectly acceptable. So YMMV, definitely.
posted by Sara C. at 9:16 AM on January 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

A month apart is not important in the scheme of a long-term relationship, which I gather you want this to be.

But it comes with the implied question of whether it sets a problematic precedent. As mooselini says, there's going to be plenty of other stressful moments along that career path, and if his default response is to shut out the people closest to him, then it's frankly unhealthy for him and for the relationship. It's also going to make him a bad doctor. (Not that you need to say this to him, but really, Gregory House is not a role model.)

I'd agree with gjc on the best approach -- being around during designated study time is a distraction, even if you're doing your best to avoid it, and that extends to offers of assistance with the schedule or being a gopher. You should, however, suggest spending some kind of tightly timetabled break time together. You have medical science on your side here: constant study without downtime to allow concepts to sink in tends to be counterproductive and fatigue-inducing, and you might already be dealing with those symptoms.
posted by holgate at 9:23 AM on January 30, 2011

I've never been under that kind of pressure, but I've had to deal with enough stress that I could see that as a reasonable request. A month can seem like a very short amount of time when you're dealing with that kind of studying.

I'm a huge fan of following bananafish's advice. Don't worry too much about it. Do send care packages. Do leave food (and freshly-picked flowers if they're in season where you live - we're in spring mode around here) on his doorstep. Send postcards. Enjoy your month off; try not to think about him, but focus on the delightful freedom of a bit of time to yourself. You have to enjoy life double this month, enough for the both of you!
posted by lover at 9:25 AM on January 30, 2011 [5 favorites]

You have to let him be right now, because if you try to have a serious relationship negotiation it will fail due to his stress. I would respect his wishes and let him go, but leave the door open for him to change his mind. He's basically not thinking rationally now, and he may panic if you force he issue. But later on after the test is over - yeah, you will have to have a talk about how he handles stress, because he can't go kicking you out whenever he has other obligations.
posted by yarly at 9:27 AM on January 30, 2011 [5 favorites]

This is the most important thing in his life. He's wanted to be a doctor far longer than he's known you. Be cool and save up your love for when he's done.
posted by blargerz at 9:32 AM on January 30, 2011 [8 favorites]

Re the whole "shutting people out is unhealthy!" thing re med school and this dude's future ability to handle stress - I know a number of med students, and this sort of thing seems par for the course. Especially the advance freakout, "I'm not gonna be able to do this, I'm not gonna be able to do that" sort of thing; some med students I know positively get off on anticipation of future stress.

Also, as someone who works crazy hours in a high-stress field, this just doesn't seem like that long a time or that big a deal. I've definitely had periods where I was too busy to see a partner for a few weeks. Usually because I was working 12+ hour days, and then the weekend came along and I had a pile of other stuff to do, needed at least a few hours of me time, etc. Two or three weeks of that isn't too different than the arrangement the OP describes, except that I probably wouldn't announce it upfront like her boyfriend did.

TL; DR: I don't see what about this situation says this guy is a bad person or whatever is being implied here - he's just busy. It happens.
posted by Sara C. at 9:40 AM on January 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Whether he is trying to phase you out, or seriously believes you are an irritant rather than a source of comfort to him when he is under stress, the worst thing you can do is argue/rationalize/discuss your relationship/beg for his time. In the mood he is in, you will only seem needy and selfish. You have nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by doing this. Give him the month and use it to start rebuilding your life without him. I disagree with "lover"--playing the love-sick handmaiden role ("I adore you while you ignore me") is not the message you want to give, or he may imagine that he can shut you out whenever he feels like it. Yes, it is a big big red flag for the relationship, in my opinion. I'm sorry, but I learned this myself the hard way--If you have to beg for his time when he should be needing you most, it's hard to imagine a future for the relationship.
posted by uans at 9:42 AM on January 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

If you want to break up, nag him about this.

Either give him what he asks for or realize this is not a good match. Sheesh.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:46 AM on January 30, 2011 [6 favorites]

When my DH is under serious stress, the thing he liked most is for me to cook and clean and take care of him so he can work. It sounds like your boyfriend may not be dealing with the stress in a clear manner.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:50 AM on January 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

As someone who has faced one of these career make-or-break exams, I am with your bf on this. This is not your normal, everyday kind of stressor: it's a once-in-a-lifetime hurdle he must clear to enter his career of choice, and it is definitely worth putting the rest of life on (temporary) hold for.

I spend FOUR MONTHS studying for my PhD Quals, with a schedule like this: wake up, have coffee and breakfast; study till lunch; get takeout food, study till dinner; eat leftover takeout, take hour-long walk, study til bedtime. Rinse and repeat.

I passed, but I probably would not have without that kind of a study schedule. To me, a single month devoted to exam prep sounds totally reasonable, and I think you should give him the space he needs.

Also, I never had to do any crazy monk-like studying again. You do it once, get the qualification you need, and go back to living your life.
posted by philokalia at 9:50 AM on January 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

Oh and my significant other at the time was fine with it: we emailed some, but that was it, and we survived just fine.
posted by philokalia at 9:54 AM on January 30, 2011

Does he need to spend more time studying than normal? Sure. But one date night a week with the significant other isn't too much to ask.

Keep in mind that life won't get easier or less stressful for an aspiring physician anytime soon. Are you willing to deal with this as a recurring problem? Even if you make it through February okay, what about the next time and the time after that?

When I took the bar exam, I was more irritable and stressed than normal. So were all of my friends. That part of this is normal. And starting a new dating relationship during that time would have been insane. But I don't know anyone who completely cut off his or her partner in a committed relationship.

Yes, you'll be on the phone (but rarely, I'm sure), but he refuses to see you at all--no coffee dates, no dinners together, let alone no weekends together. And instead of discussing your feelings, he criticizes you for not understanding his feelings (because you requested a compromise--the only acceptable compromise is apparently to give him everything he wants). I just think this is a really bad sign.
posted by J. Wilson at 9:59 AM on January 30, 2011 [6 favorites]

Oh boy, Step 1- I've been there. To take your boyfriend's side for a minute, it is exhausting trying to master all of that material, and this test is not easy. In case he hasn't explained it, there are a lot of missing-step questions. So they'll describe characteristics of a bacteria, not giving you the name of it, and ask you how to treat it. So you have to first figure out what organism it is, and what disease state it causes all on your own, and THEN you can think about what antibiotic out of the five to ten listed would work against it. Repeat X 336. It's a bit delirious-inducing. Not only is there internal pressure to do well (because most med-school people are type-A and that drive is only intensified when you're around a lot of other gunners), but also, hate to say it, med schools do a lot of fear-mongering. "This test can make or break your career!", they say, and for certain competitive specialties, it absolutely can.

Now, to take your side, though, this test really doesn't have to be the be all and end all. Averages are averages, and most of the people who fall somewhere under the unfavorable side of the bell curve do just fine and go on to have great and fulfilling careers, and they also make excellent doctors. So, first, tell your boyfriend to breathe, and try to put it in perspective. Also, I'm agreeing with everybody else who says this is a dangerous precedent to set. He does realized he'll have shelf exams, and then 2 more steps of the USMLE, and then specialty boards to pass, right? He can't just put you on hold every time there is a big test, because, surprise, the big tests never end! Some people need to study alone, I get that. But he has to eat dinner, why can't he eat dinner with you? I completely understand if he can't make promises for certain numbers of hours or certain dates/times. If you're willing to be the more flexible partner, though, there's no reason he can't text you and say, "I'm taking a break in 15 mins, if you want to see me, bring your own food, because I'm eating from the vending machine." Is your presence really that much of a disturbance that it has lingering effects on his study mojo?

What you have to decide is whether to push the issue. Personally, I think he'll crack about a week and a half in and call you with man-tears in his eyes and ask if he can come over and cuddle because he can't take the constant studying any more. I also agree with yarly that if you make him have a big relationship talk now, it probably won't go well because he's not himself, he's part of the Step 1 zombie cult. This definitely is worth talking about at some point, but you know best whether that time is now or later.

Sorry for the rant, and good luck to both of you!
posted by alygator at 10:05 AM on January 30, 2011 [14 favorites]

There is nothing that you can gain by spending more time with him than he wants. If he's planning on breaking up with you, then spending more time with him will only push him away further. If he's not planning on breaking up with you, then giving him space and showing that you care will make him love you more, and forcing him to spend time with you will make him wonder if he should break up with you.

If you can't deal with this kind of absence, get out and find someone who matches your level of neediness.

I like being near him, even if he's busy. Okay, that's one side of the issue. The other side is he is studying for the most important test of his life and doesn't want someone around him. Sounds like you need to understand his needs, and at the end of this temporary situation he can return to meeting your needs. Just having someone there can make a person feel obligated to concentrate on that person, not on studying. Your boyfriend may be affected more than you think by your quiet presence. And studies have shown that any interruption, no matter how short, results in 20 minutes of decreased productivity. Having someone else there can be a huge attention suck.

mooselini and holgate are insane. He's asking for a month to study for the most important test of his life. If you want to be with this person long term (say, 50 years), that's 0.1% of that time. It's not even a blip.

Moreover, if you're going to get involved with a doctor, you need to realize something: while in the long run spouse and kids come first, in the very short term (hour, day, week, or month) the patient who is fighting for life or trying to control their A1C levels so they don't end up with neuropathy comes first. You're going to have to get over being first all the time, or else you're a selfish git. When my girlfriend's pager goes off at 11 PM while we're cuddling on the couch, I'm not bothered - because I want that patient to get the treatment they need. If you think you should still be #1 when his pager goes off, get over it or get out.

I do agree with the people calling for a once-a-week date night. He needs to get out a little to give himself a mental break. Just make sure that he doesn't feel forced to drink, stay out late, or sleep in with you. A few hours one night is fine. 18 hours of lost productivity due to a hangover or forced morning time is asking a lot.
posted by Tehhund at 10:13 AM on January 30, 2011

As someone who took Step 1, I have to say that the amount of studying he's doing sounds crazy, and if he says he can't be around you while he's studying, it's a red flag. If he wants to get a great score, it means he wants to get into a competitive specialty, which means he'll be very busy and under a lot of stress for his entire career. If he wants to have any kind of personal life, he'll need to learn how to balance things, and right now he sounds pretty hopeless at it. Unless you want this scenario to repeat at least every couple years, if not several times a year, I'd run.
posted by genmonster at 10:13 AM on January 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

also, his Step 1 score will not 'pretty much determine his career'. If he got this far, he'll be a doctor. Period. Very very few people fail Step 1. If he's putting this much weight of fine gradations of his score on this test he needs a bit of a reality check. Residencies, even super crazy competitive ones, look at lots of other stuff besides Step 1 scores.
posted by genmonster at 10:16 AM on January 30, 2011

When Ms. Fauxscot studied for the bar, I exited the country for the last month so she could study and chillax. She told the folks I went with (and I completely concurred) that if I died while travelling, they were not to notify her until after the bar exam!

Of course she passed the bar. Unfortunately, I died while travelling and am still pissed about it. YMMV. Death sux!
posted by FauxScot at 10:23 AM on January 30, 2011 [12 favorites]

Becoming a physician is a rigorous and intense process. He's stated his needs, and you've stated yours. There's a big mismatch. If neither of you can adjust, then this relationship is over. I'd be thinking about what kind of creativity and adjustments you can make, on YOUR side, to get your needs met. Even with studying, he's got to eat, no? Bring dinner, or coffee, or other shows of support within constrained rules (maybe some magic time of 5pm-7pm Tuesdays and Thursdays? And steer clear of telling him how to study, that is going to be a losing game and if he fails, he will blame YOU down the line. That's a loser all around.

And to those of you telling the OP to tell the studier that his studying method will not work, well, don't do that. Everyone's study techniques are different.
posted by artlung at 10:30 AM on January 30, 2011

If you think you should still be #1 when his pager goes off, get over it or get out.

Pager != page of a textbook.

But let's spell it out: "I like being near him, even if he's busy" isn't going to work in situations like this. "Let's spend a couple of hours together to help you decompress at the end of the week, and I'll give you all the space you need at other times" should be a reasonable request, and if there's no negotiation between his desire for times of hermit-like focus and your desire to be around him, then that's likely to come back as a repeated issue.
posted by holgate at 10:35 AM on January 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

You can add me to the list of folks on the "a month really doesn't seem that long" column, but I can see where you're coming from, too. I think scheduling a lunch or dinner date daily is a bit much, but once or twice a week seems perfectly reasonable.

If I were in your shoes feeling your feelings with a guy I really loved, I would tough it out for the month, and then a week or so afterward have a sit-down with him, a nice dinner and a bottle of wine, and bring up your concerns about this pattern reasserting itself once he's gotten through all of his exams. This is where you'll both figure out if you can give each other what you both need given the very stressful nature of his profession.

In the meantime, be awesome to yourself for that month. Schedule a few girls'/friends' nights out, treat yourself to a few experiential things you don't normally indulge in (spa? museum? movie-fest? concerts?), and start an exciting new hobby or take a short series of cooking/music/art/insert-fun-thing-here classes.
posted by smirkette at 11:22 AM on January 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Agree to it and then have a serious talk about after his test. This may or may not be the beginning of the end, but fighting him on this won't change that and is actually more likely to cause things to end. After his test if you want to sit him down and tell him this can never happen again, ok, but don't do it now.
posted by whoaali at 11:22 AM on January 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

One way to approach this might be to determine:
1. Is this a 1 month break from our relationship? Or
2. Is this a 1 month break from all activities and communication within our relationship?

It seems to me that there is a critical difference between these, and that while you should probably accept #2 as long as it's clearly not #1. If it's #1, you still have to accept this but you will at least know better what the significance is.
posted by sockraticpielogue at 11:43 AM on January 30, 2011

I've been through similar situations while I was dating my (now) wife. She responded by dropping by my place every couple of days and taking care of me. She'd make clear that she didn't need any attention, she just wanted to make me comfortable. She'd bring over a home-made lunch or dinner to reheat later (not to force me to take time out to have a meal with her.) She'd grab a load of my laundry and bring it back washed and folded next time. She brought in my mail and sorted it into bills/etc. for me. She made sure my car was filled with gas and washed (and moved periodically so I wouldn't get a ticket on the street.) Restock the coffee. Basically, she did all the nuisance of real life for me while I did my thing.

I would never, NEVER have asked for her to do any of that for me. If she would have asked ahead of time, I would have said no. Man, it was nice though. It really helped me, and I really felt loved at the same time. I suggest you just do that. Plus, you'll get to have the feeling that you're helping him score well by minimizing his distractions, and later you two can reminisce about how hard it was for both of you. If you want to, that is. You can't use it as an excuse to hang out and try to trick him into paying attention to you.

The trick is, though, it can't be a guilt thing. You can't come over and say things like, "hey, let's go get a coffee at Starbucks." Answer: I can't, and thanks for making me feel guilty about having to refuse again. Well, maybe I can go in theory, but what I can't do is turn off the panic in my head long enough to enjoy it. I won't emotionally or mentally "be there" and I'll be even more stressed out feeling like I'm wasting time. Maybe he feels like just you being around will make him feel guilty for his lack of attention to you, even if you don't guilt him or sabotage his study plan. Maybe you won't ever do that, but he's concerned that HE will be tempted to blow off studying and want to go out if you're just sitting there reading a book.

For those who are saying there will always be stressful times, and that maybe he should have prepared better before now, that's looking at it the wrong way. (Not wrong-wrong, but let's be generous without a good reason not to be.) For a test this big, that you only get one chance on, maybe he could go in there and score a 90% just studying casually. No worries about failing outright. But if his field is that competitive, and busting a little ass could turn that 90 into a 97, then who in their right mind would not do everything they could to get another point or two? If the other guy is studying, then I'm a fool not to be studying too. There's an end in sight, he's not dooming himself to a monk's life forever. I'd be really pissed at a partner who wouldn't accept this and tried to make me feel guilty for it or pull me out "for my own good".
posted by ctmf at 11:58 AM on January 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

he didn't need any attention, she just wanted to make me comfortable

To be fair, I've done the same for her; it's not a one-way thing. (I'm not as good at it, though.)
posted by ctmf at 12:02 PM on January 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you were my girl friend and I made that kind of request from you and you accepted it without any reservations that would win a lot of brownie points with me.
posted by blueyellow at 12:28 PM on January 30, 2011

If we are voting, add me to Tehhund's camp. Now seems to be the absolute worst time to talk about "is it going to be like this for the rest of our life when you have a test?" He's presumably feeling time-strapped and panicky. A bad time to bring up your needs. Especially with that slippery slope framing. You can flag "after this is over, I'd like us to work on learning new strategies to cope with stressful situations cooperatively" now, if it's something you do want, but don't ask him to learn those new skills now, while he feels under this much stress. My general rule is, when someone asks for space, give it to them.
posted by salvia at 12:46 PM on January 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

You've gotten a lot of good advice already, but I thought I'd chime in. My SO is a PhD. candidate, and he is very, very intense about his academic work. This is exactly the kind of request he'd be inclined to make, and the period right before his oral exams this past spring was extremely rough for us. He spent 14-16 hours every day preparing for an exam that I knew he'd pass. There was no convincing him to back off at all, and it was frustrating for me.

"Now he wants to take a break for all of February because he says he's easily irritable and everything stresses him out. I'm concerned that this is essentially the beginning of the end of the relationship."

It could be the beginning of the end, but he could also be concerned that he'll push you away with his irritability if he spends time with you instead of studying. He might be trying to spare your feelings. I think that your SO sounds a little bit like mine in terms of academic intensity, and it is probably difficult for him to understand how his request might be hurtful to you.

My own experience leads me to assume that he's so focused on the worst-case scenario for his upcoming exam that he thinks it's necessary to study 14 hours per day. There's nothing you can say that will convince him otherwise. I'd probably comply with his request for a break. If he's as stressed out as you say, it probably won't be very pleasant to spend time with him anyway.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 12:50 PM on January 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Bad sign. People who are really dramatic (like your boyfriend is) about TESTS are generally not very resilient or cut out for stressful professions, from what I've seen. Because, ultimately, the schooling-and-testing phase of one's career in the major professions is always far less stressful than the actual career.
posted by jayder at 12:59 PM on January 30, 2011

Speaking anecdotally about people taking the Bar, I'd say about half of those I know who were married or seriously dating found some way to get their partner more or less out of the way for the five or six weeks beforehand. Usually they managed to do it with quite a bit less drama -- moving to the library for all but sleep, arranging an extended invitation to someone's beach house for their wives, etc. -- but they did it. I noticed no particular prevalence of break-ups or divorce as a result. It's no big deal, and for some people's study process, it really makes sense.

I would say that some people are not cut out to be married to people who have time-demanding careers or unpredictable schedules. If OP really needs to have someone around a lot, she might think about dating someone who is chanelling towards a 9-5 career.
posted by MattD at 1:14 PM on January 30, 2011

I know that in times when I've been under high stress from school and such, 3 things tend to happen:

1. I feel guilty whenever I'm not working.
2. I find interacting with other people is way more stressful than usual.
3. I'm not a very pleasant person to be around.

I think your boyfriend might be worried about some or all of those things happening. I think it's quite possible that he feels that this is not only the best thing for his studies, but also the best thing for your relationship. It sounds like you guys are still at the stage where most of the time you spend together is explicitly couple time, where being with you means having most of his mental attention focused on you. I'm guessing that if he had to be honest, he'd say that the times he's spent studying with you are less effective than times without. I also think he'd normally consider the pleasure of your company a fair trade-off for being a little less efficient, but big, all-or-nothing tests tend to fuck with that dynamic.

In your shoes, I'd ask him what things you can do to support and help. Bringing dinner now and then is a good suggestion. I also wouldn't be totally surprised if he calls you somewhere in the middle of the month and asks to have a day together.

As for whether this is something you'll need to deal with forever? Probably not, as your relationship goes on. As terrible as it sounds, being able to shut out your partner is something that winds up being necessary for long-term relationships. I don't mean "shut out" as in ignoring them or not appreciating them, but more in the sense that they become a natural part of your "default" environment and mental space, and you can have them there and love them and enjoy their presence without them becoming the immediate focus of your attention.
posted by kagredon at 1:17 PM on January 30, 2011

Just a pragmatic possibility to add to the many issues and ideas addressed above--would you be willing to trade all those phone calls for, maybe, 2 dates/dinners/evenings during the month? In other words, would you be willing to communicate by other means (email, texting, snail mail) that let him decide when and how to respond in exchange for time in his presence? When you aren't seeing each other, phone call time can add up. If you saved him all that time by emailing instead, would he be willing to throw in a date or two?

Let's say you'd talk on the phone for 20 min. a day. That's over 2 hours a week. Even 15 min. every other day is still an hour. Would you be able to and would he be willing to trade that time in for actual face-to-face time? An hour-long coffee break or a brief walk even? You'd have to hold up your end of the bargain with no calls (except perhaps in case of dire emergency), but you'd be getting what you want, and he wouldn't be giving up any more time than he's already agreed to with the phone calls.

I think he should at least hear you out on this compromise position and discuss ground rules that would make it workable for him--for example, you don't get upset when he doesn't reply to email or replies with a quick one-line response, he gets to choose the time that works for him for the hour-long date, you both agree how long your face-to-face time will be at the beginning of your meeting and stick to it, no major "event" dates to take him too far out of his studying zone (maybe you just sit there on his couch together or walk around the block), he agrees to try to be mentally present during the date, etc.

This solution doesn't require any more time from him than the phone calls would, and while it may take him a little bit out of his zone, he should be able to make this work IF you're willing to stick to the ground rules as well.
posted by BlooPen at 1:19 PM on January 30, 2011

When I was finishing The Project, the gigantic piece of work that I had spent almost a year on and that would make or break my career (at least, up until that point), there was a month when I lived and breathed the project and nothing else. I had to, because if I didn't get it done, it was going to piss off a whole bunch of people, and if I didn't get it done well, the person who would be seriously pissed off would be me.

In that month, I saw the bf once a week at the most, mainly when he helped me out with grocery shopping or trips to the hardware store. The extent of our interaction would be an evening trip to the store, followed by dinner, hanging out for a bit afterwards, and then that's that. See you next week.

It was a temporary thing. No big deal.
But we were pretty up front about it. I often told him I couldn't see him. He was cool with that. He said he wanted to see me, and was happy to combine that with running errands that I couldn't get to during the week. I was cool with that. We just sort of talked it out and were cool with that. Once the project was finished, things resumed as they had before.

But if he had sat me down for a big serious meta talk about Our Relationship because of The Project, it would have been a very big deal. And not in a good way...
posted by vivid postcard at 1:21 PM on January 30, 2011

I'm not familiar with the medical exams in particular: does "Step 1" mean this is his first big TEST OF DOOM? It's kind of normal to not have any perspective on how hard you need to study for something you have no experiential context for and panic. Especially in the face of everyone talking it up (that test SUCKED! From senior students; Don't underestimate this! from instructors) My oral boards were the same way. The later ones were much less stressful because I had enough confidence in myself to know that I passed before, I'd pass again, and cramming (vs. normal reasonable study for any subject) is only bonus points.

Next time, he'll be more able to judge about how much studying is reasonable (I was right, vs. I can get away with a little less panic next time)
posted by ctmf at 1:23 PM on January 30, 2011

Part of why he wants a break is that if you are around, his lack of attention to you will hurt you (whether you realise this or not, if you're struggling over going a month without him then it's true), and he doesn't have the resources to take the time out to be yoyoing between constantly reasurring you then back to hurting you, and back again. Your inability to understand will be a drag and an irritant and he will rapidly resent your very presence because of the unnecessary obligations it adds when he needs to be focused on studying, not on minding your emotional state.

Even something as simple and nice as "I'm getting some dinner - would you like me to bring you some food" can be highly irritating interruption, and you won't understand what's going on, and he just doesn't want any distractions.

I'm pretty confident that achieving the Best Case Scenarios for you relationship all involve giving him this time to focus entirely on his study.

In fact, I'm not even sure what you think you can offer him by being present. You want to be present for your own benefit, not his. Right now, he needs to be about himself, and it's the right and moral thing for him to do to be selfish about this. (Even if not, as has been pointed out, the most effective thing in a perfect world)
posted by -harlequin- at 1:30 PM on January 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

I took my Step 1 in June. It's a big, huge, stressful deal. Everyone learns and studies best in their own way, but if he's studying 12-14 hours a day every day, he's doing more than enough. Also, med students tend to be a bit panicky and shut-down about negotiating their study needs, so regardless of whether you perceive it as unfair, he's probably not going to budge. He's put a lot of work in to get this far, and it is an important test. He's going to do what he needs to do, and the unfortunate effect is that you can either choose to be there for him how he needs you and suffer through a month of loneliness, or you can let him go. If you see this relationship going all the way to marriage, this is not the last time that he's going to put his academic/professional career ahead of his relationship.

I cut down substantially on anything outside of school for the three or four months preceding the exam. This included missing my little sister's college graduation. I took a lot of flak for missing it, both before and after the event, because nobody really understands that you don't have time to miss a whole weekend. Step exams are one of those things that nobody around you can understand unless they've done it. Once you've done it and passed, it feels like it's not such a big deal.

Consider also that if all he's doing is studying for his boards, he's not going to be very interesting for you to talk to.

All of that being said, it is important to build free time into his boards studying schedule. He will (like everyone else) burn out if he does nothing but study. He'll go for two weeks without a break and then be unable to sit down and study for a reasonable amount of time. A free day or evening once a week can do a lot for rejuvenating and making you ready for the test.
posted by honeybee413 at 2:12 PM on January 30, 2011

Can you two plan to do something really awesome together afterwards like a great vacation, or otherwise plan for heaps of quality time to reconnect? If he seems at least reasonably enthusiastic about looking forward to spending that time with you (reasonably so because he may be so crazy stressed that it's hard for him to be as gushingly psyched about it as you might hope) then maybe that will help you to feel better about his decisions in this time period being about the exam and not being about you/not being the beginning of the end.

Also, it might be worth trying to see if he's open to something less than one full night a week-- like you coming over for just one hour for one night a week, or 2 or 3 fifteen-minute phone calls a week, or one nice full evening off halfway through-- at some point, even though he's stressed, if you tell him this means a lot to you then he should be able to put aside a tiny fraction of the month to be in contact with you.
posted by EmilyClimbs at 2:18 PM on January 30, 2011

FWIW, I dated a senior in college long distance when I was a sophomore who wanted to take some time off to hang out with his friends and deal with the fact that he was graduating from college. Granted, he had more issues than a subscription to The Economist but taking time off around graduation ended up meaning we spent a week or two together in the summer and he conveniently dumped me before starting law school.

I don't know if this is just a month off or the beginning of the end. I also don't think it's fair for people to be like, if you're together for the next 50 years a month will only have been a small fraction of that time. You've been seeing each other a year. This is still a pretty new relationship.

I agree with whoever said that a girlfriend who did that would score a lot of brownie points. It's great that some of those who have posted here have had super supportive SO's who had done laundry, made meals, etc. when their partners had big things going on. But you *do not* have to do any of that.

I also agree that this sets a precedent for your relationship - he sets the terms, you deal with them. How do you feel about that? Do you feel like you're someone he makes time for or someone he sees when it's convenient? Sure, this is med school but how would he feel if you wanted to go away for a few weeks with some friends but not him? Or if you were swamped at work for a month?

I think what's most important here is how you are going to feel after a month apart. If you think that you'll be really excited and happy to see him again, give it a month. I think I would be hurt and potentially bitter after a month apart. That wouldn't be good for either of you.

Anyway, I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. But how will you feel if he breaks up with you a few weeks after the exam? A few months? If you give him this time, take care of yourself and put yourself in a position where you're not saying after the fact, I can't believe I wasted a month of my life being with this guy but not with this guy when he dumped me x days/weeks/months later.
posted by kat518 at 3:05 PM on January 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

when i was studying for the MCAT i went home to my parents' house for about a month (i was living with a guy.) in my case, i just know i get easily distracted, and i also get stressed/irritable when its such a huge and important test like that. when i am in this 'hyper focus' mode, it's hard for me to pay attention to the needs of others or be particularly sensitive, so i'd rather not subject him to that. also though, in retrospect, i was probably avoiding him because he tended to be dramatic and pick fights and i didn't want to deal with the distraction. i did see him on a couple weekends. but basically i just saw that as time i needed for myself in order to do something important and scary. (we did eventually break up, but this all happened during a time when things were relatively good, and there was no negative consequence on our relationship at the time. In fact I think it was good for us to miss each other a bit, and he got to catch up on some of his own stuff.) Not a relationship-killer IMO.

Sounds like he is just really nervous about it and wants to maximize his success. and it probably makes him feel less guilty about being selfish during this time by just not seeing you for a little while. I completely understand this. especially because, unlike the MCAT, you don't really retake step 1 unless you fail. So you really have to do your absolute best, the first time around, because that's your score forever. and step 1 score is a huge factor in what residency he ultimately gets, which specialties he's competitive in, etc. in other words, a lot of his future is tied up in this one test. if i were you i'd just try to be supportive and understanding. his life IS stressful and the way you handle it will impact whether you two make it or not. if you can take it in stride and not take it personally, that will go a long way. (of course he should be meeting your needs too, but when it comes to stuff like this, i think you have to cut him some slack.) he ought to appreciate it a lot.

also, ya know, another reason why i needed to physically separate from him was BECAUSE i liked him so much. even when he was just hanging out 'in the background' as others have suggested, i would get completely distracted no matter what he was doing. just because i had such a strong urge to ditch my studies and wander over and see what he was up to or interact with him in some way. whether i did it or not, just thinking about it was very distracting. not his fault, but i knew i had to put some space between us so i could focus.

on preview: people are going back and forth on the importance of step 1. those of you who have taken it, i'm sure it's easy in retrospect to look back and say its no big deal. but before you take it, the idea of step 1 as the terrifying gatekeeper to your future is basically inescapable. everyone is freaking out about it and it's a lot easier to get caught up in that than to resist it. just sayin. (speaking as someone who will be taking it next year. there's a lot of scary buildup to it.)
posted by GastrocNemesis at 3:19 PM on January 30, 2011

I get the impression the OP's objection is less to the actual experience of not seeing her boyfriend for a month (which, I agree with some commenters, is nothing), and more to the approach he's chosen, unilaterally suspending their relationship according to his needs, with apparently no sensitivity to hers, and then casting her attempt to compromise as some kind of failure of love on her part. Personally, I think that's wrong. So wrong that I wouldn't do it, and so wrong that I wouldn't accept it from someone else. But OP, none of can tell you what it means. Your boyfriend may be less committed to your relationship, or he may have different ideas about what commitment looks like, or he may simply be insensitive. Whatever his motivation, you are completely within your rights not to like what he's doing, and this is a problem you should raise with him - after his exam. There's just nothing to be gained by doing it before. Best of luck to you both.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 3:40 PM on January 30, 2011 [6 favorites]

My bf made the same request when he was facing an enormous exam in grad school.

Like you, my first reaction was to think (but not say) "A Whole MONTH?!?! That's far too stringent. How am I supposed to last that long?"
But I respected that the request came from stress and worry - and fear - and when I insisted that he moderate the terms of the separation, I insisted for the sake of HIS wellbeing, and not mine.

My terms were that he would meet me at lunchtime at least three or four times a week. He countered with a time-limit of 20 minutes, including travel time.
I brought snacks, and told jokes and made him laugh, and by the end of the first week he'd mellowed out and voluntarily extended the study break to a whole lunch hour. Every day.

And after the exam he thanked me - for respecting his fears, and for pushing him - gently, and in a very non-confrontational fashion - past them.

A relationship contains (at least) two people. A GOOD relationship balances the needs and desires of both persons- and at times, that will mean prioritizing the goals of one over the immediate comfort of the other.

Work with your partner on this one. As you would trust - and expect - him to support you in your times of intense need and stress.

And love him real hard while you do it. He needs that.
posted by tabubilgirl at 4:13 PM on January 30, 2011 [6 favorites]

I think it's a bad sign that he sees you as an irritating distraction and not a comfort during times of stress. When my husband and I are stressed out over external things we really look forward to crawling into bed and spooning at the end of the day even if we don't have much time for each other while we're awake.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:59 PM on January 30, 2011

Everyone is different in how they handle stress. Perhaps give him what he asks - if he really misses you, he'll end up calling you. In the meantime, maybe spend some time with friends you haven't seen, catch up on that show he hates or pick up some projects you've left sit?
posted by medea42 at 12:59 PM on January 31, 2011

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