How to tell your SO about a big life change you'd like to make
October 14, 2012 10:03 AM   Subscribe

How to tell your SO about big, possibly life-changing plans (i.e., applying to medical school in a couple of years)?

I've been dating someone for about a year and we've talked very seriously about a future together. He has told me he wants to marry me. I love him. Things are good.

As you can see from my previous questions, I'm considering a huge career shift in a couple of years, after I finish my PhD: going to medical school. This would require that I move in about 3 years, and that I possibly move to somewhere less than ideal, depending on where I end up going to school.

I haven't discussed this plan with him, but it's starting to feel more real so I want some advice on how to bring this kind of thing up. I could wait until done with the PhD, but I find that somewhat disingenuous as I am not making the normal plans one makes at this stage of the PhD for post docs, etc. and that's going to be kind of weird if I don't explain why. Also, I would like to shadow some physicians/will be reading books about the medical field/etc. and that will look weird.

To make matters more confusing, he's a scientist in the medical field, so this is a career shift to something more like his work, which might bring up other psychological minefields.

So, I'd like to hear your experiences:

- How did you bring up a huge, life-changing shift you'd like to make to your SO?

- How did you time the discussion? (i.e., wait until done with the PhD, or it becomes obvious, or...)

- What do I do if he reacts negatively? Will that doom our relationship? He might not want to move with me.

Other beanplating as expected.

posted by carolinaherrera to Human Relations (31 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Why wouldn't you just tell him now and say, "I've been thinking about going to medical school after I finish my PhD." And then proceed to share your thoughts on the matter. You should be able to share your desires and uncertainties around the idea.

Why would he react negatively other than to share his concerns, which you both have to address anyway. Costs, length of time for school, where, getting married and having kids (if so and when), are all things you have to think about and discuss anyway.
posted by shoesietart at 10:13 AM on October 14, 2012 [17 favorites]

Part of any real relationship is long term planning. Earlier is better than later, so that if there are any problems there is plenty of time to work through it and it doesn't feel like you are excluding your partner.

How to bring it up? I dunno... over dinner, during a walk, pretty much like you start any conversation.

If he reacts negatively make sure to separate out initial reactions from longer term reactions. Initial responses may be just surprise talking. If this is something you really want/need to do and if he is loving and supporting he will find some way to deal with it. You find parterres that support each other in major life events.
posted by edgeways at 10:16 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

You're thinking about this now, and apparently pretty seriously, so you should discuss it with him now. If you're in a "we're in love and want to get married" relationship, you need to be able to talk about these things; if you can't, that says something important about your relationship. So, no, don't avoid this conversation until you're done with your PhD or until it becomes obvious to him and you therefore have to say something.

Further, if this is a marriage-type relationship, medical school in a potentially far away place needs to be a decision that's mutually agreed upon. I mean, it's not like a law that you have to tell him, but if a relationship like that is going to work, major life decisions need to be shared to some degree.
posted by J. Wilson at 10:16 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Describe your plans in a happy/excited tone, as early as possible. That will make it clear right away that this means something to you and he should support you in it. It will also mean you both have time to figure out how to work out the practical aspects of your decision that will eventually need to come up.

That said, even if he supports you 100% on your idea, you should expect to hear (and rationally respond to) a few realistic objections - For example, "we can't afford this" or perhaps worse, "I can't move at this point in my career".
posted by pla at 10:17 AM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

The fact that you seem to have made a huge life-changing decision without him is kinda a red flag. Not necessarily in a bad way. But if he's talking marriage, while you think your career is 100% about you, that implies you are on very different pages. I recently had a scare where my job considered transferring me out of state. I brought it up to my SO, thinking "man, unemployment would suck". He reminded how serious he was about us by taking a minute and saying "Yeah. But maybe we could be happy up there."

I would just drop it during coffee one day. "the more and more I imagine the academic career in [X], the more and more I don't want it. I'm thinking of med school. What are your thoughts?"
posted by politikitty at 10:20 AM on October 14, 2012 [12 favorites]

I'm currently a post-bac pre-med student, and decided I wanted to go to med school after having been in book publishing for several years. Here's what I did when I introduced the idea to my SO.

- How did you bring up a huge, life-changing shift you'd like to make to your SO?
We went out to dinner, and I said something along the lines of, "You know how I've been unhappy with my career, and have been making noises about possibly going back to school? Well, I think I want to go to medical school." Paused for reactions and questions, and then we talked through the implications of that process a little bit (moving for school, long period of being back in school and not working, etc.)

- How did you time the discussion? (i.e., wait until done with the PhD, or it becomes obvious, or...)
Don't wait. I brought it up as soon as I was seriously thinking about it. You are clearly at that point.

- What do I do if he reacts negatively? Will that doom our relationship? He might not want to move with me.
You know, he might react negatively, but if this is really what you want to do, then it's better to know now rather than later.
posted by ocherdraco at 10:22 AM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

I pretty much did the same thing you're planning on doing--finished a PhD and am now in medical school. I decided to do medicine about 3 years before the end of my PhD, and I told my then girlfriend (now wife) about it almost right away. The process of applying to med school--studying for the MCAT, applying, interviewing--is very stressful, and honestly not something you can hide, especially from someone you're planning on marrying.

Not sure if this will make you feel better, but if this person is willing to marry you knowing you're in a PhD program, he obviously isn't worried about moving to a less-than-ideal location. Think about it like this: with medicine, you finish your PhD, move once, stay four years and move again for residency; with a traditional PhD route, you finish your PhD, move for a 2 year postdoc, stay two years, then move again for another 2 year postdoc and repeat until you find a faculty position. If your guy is in medical research, he'll already understand this, and frankly, the medicine option is probably better than the PhD one.

Don't be afraid to let him know. If he reacts negatively, it was never going to work anyways, sadly. I don't think he will, though, and you're going to need all the support you can get from him in the next three years. It's stressful, but ultimately worth it if that's what you want to do. Good luck!
posted by reformedjerk at 10:25 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Consider this approach:

"I've been thinking about X. I want to know what you think about X, and I would like to get your advice about X. Let me explain X and the implications of X. What do you think about all of this?"

Take him out to lunch, or whatever -- maybe even prep him by telling him that you have an idea that you want his advice about over lunch, or whatever.
posted by Mr. Justice at 10:27 AM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm a spouse who's been on the other side of a smaller adjustment (weekend grad school program for software engineers; two-year commitment; no move required). I knew my husband was unhappy/restless and actually pushed the discussion about making changes myself, and was really glad when he told me he wanted to go back to school and was ready to work on a plan to do it. If your SO really loves you and is in for the long haul, he may be aware there's an issue and relieved to see you have a positive plan and a career direction in mind.

Definitely tell him sooner rather than later. Best of luck with the discussion!
posted by immlass at 10:33 AM on October 14, 2012

As a data point, a friend just cancelled her plans to move to another city to be with her boyfriend because he's starting law school next year. She felt the combination of those two factors would be too stressful. Her attitude was, "I can't uproot my life for someone I'll never see. If we're both still available after he finishes law school, we'll pick things up then."
posted by roger ackroyd at 10:35 AM on October 14, 2012

Early and often. With obvious excitement. A long term relationship is about helping each other follow paths of growth and change, and making adaptations to help both of you.
posted by ead at 10:38 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

It just occurred to me an uncharitable reading of my comment implies that you shouldnt put your career first. If he was willing to date a PhD student, he's likely considered the possibility that you'll get a post-doc in [randomville, UK/US]. Or he's clueless and thinks being established in the scientific community should put his career needs first, and you really really need to have that conversation.

But if you're going to be that person, you need to broadcast that loudly and often. Asking someone to be the spouse of either an academic or doctor is a big freaking sacrifice. And all relationships are, to a degree. But it's not going to be a sacrifice that everyone wants to make.
posted by politikitty at 10:51 AM on October 14, 2012

I agree that it's important to just talk to him about it right now, while it's a possibility and thought and something you're considering.

But I kind of strongly disagree about going out to dinner/lunch and making it a Big Discussion. I like what Mr. Justice said above, but you can do that just chilling on the couch or something, so that it's not set up like "hey I've been thinking about this major life change for a long time without including you, and now I would like to put you on the spot about it."

I would also consider what politikitty mentioned, just to ask yourself why you haven't already talked with him about it as you've been thinking about it and Asking MeFi about it. This part isn't really part of that talk you're going to have with him, but it's something that I would encourage you to try to understand more about yourself and how you view this relationship.
posted by so_gracefully at 10:59 AM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

I haven't discussed this plan with him, but it's starting to feel more real so I want some advice on how to bring this kind of thing up.

Anyone willing to marry a Ph.D student is not in it for the mad money or the rockstar lifestyle. Don't bring it up while he's in the middle of performing microsurgery or arguing with a crazy uncle, or anything, but generally speaking adults can talk about this stuff like adults.
posted by mhoye at 11:09 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

You've been presented with a "gift" and you might want to look at it from that POV:

If he doesn't react positively, dump him. For hundreds of years, it's been the other way around, man telling woman of his life changes, and she follows along and he expects her full support. Drop him if he reacts negatively, because life rarely offers opportunities that so clearly foretell if your partner is "good future material" or bad.

Good luck.
posted by Kruger5 at 11:34 AM on October 14, 2012

With obvious excitement....
A pair of commenters have recommended this approach.
I'd advise against it.
You sound troubled over the potential consequences of your idea. If he knows you at all, he'll see right through any faked enthusiasm and it'll come over as manipulative.
Share your concern for your relationships future in light of your new goal.
Your dilemma seems to be that you're unsure as to whether your SO will support you/stay with you. Share that concern. That's what's important, not manipulating him into submission.
Good luck :-)
posted by Thug at 11:43 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

You do want to talk about this sooner than later. A cautionary tale:a friend had a similar conversation with a post-doc boyfriend (1 year in, serious discussions of marriage, especially on his part, etc.). It was a deal breaker for him, as he could imagine/was imagining finding her academic work as a trailing spouse wherever he went, but told her medical school on her part would be the end of the relationship. She hadn't realized he viewed his as the "primary" career, and her as the "portable" one. Mention it now.
posted by availablelight at 11:55 AM on October 14, 2012 [5 favorites]

But I kind of strongly disagree about going out to dinner/lunch and making it a Big Discussion.

I should point out that in my response above, I didn't take my boyfriend out to dinner for the purpose of our conversation—it just happened to be the next time we were together once I'd decided I wanted to bring it up. I think so_gracefully's right that you need to treat it like a normal conversation, not a Gigantic Big Deal Capital-T Talk.
posted by ocherdraco at 12:02 PM on October 14, 2012

I'd tell him ASAP and do not get married before you begin medical school.

First year is a huge test for couples- most either break up, or become stronger and usually end up getting married. It's common for students to get married between first and second year. If you make it through the first year then you could be fairly confident that it's ok to get married. But I think a lot of people who come into it already married don't stay together after a certain amount of time. It just really takes over your life, so your ability to relate to one another may change dramatically the further into it you get. Basically, your relationship just has to be solid, solid, solid. Be honest with yourself- is yours? If you have worries and doubts that's probably a sign it can't survive it.

My relationship was one of the ones that didn't make once I started school, because my ex wasn't supportive and just didn't handle it well in general. Really, I should have acknowledged it and dumped him earlier- he was unsupportive a lot during the application process too. If you're with someone who is being kind of a shit while you're applying, it's only going to get worse once you start the program, so pay attention to how he reacts and how supportive he is. Because there are going to be large chunks of your education/ career where you're incapable of doing practically anything- you'll be too exhausted to cook, clean, do laundry, etc. Will he be understanding and help pick up the slack without making you feel guilty about it? My ex wouldn't have. Now I live alone, and although sometimes it sucks to come home after a 14-hour day to the messy apartment I've been too exhausted to clean, at least I'm not coming home to someone giving me shit for it and making other demands, picking fights, etc.

Also, I don't know where you live but if you already live in a city where there are schools nearby, odds are you'll end up going to one of them. I applied all over the country and only got into local schools. That's common. Unless you are an above-average applicant, but if that's the case you'll probably end up having a few options including local ones. So don't worry about "what if I only get into a school 1,000 miles away?" It's possible, of course, but more likely that if you get in somewhere it will be nearby.

If you're interested in knowing more about my experience please feel free to memail me, I can address whatever other worries you may have. I'm in my third year now and have seen the evolution of many of my classmates' relationships over the years.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 12:02 PM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

I went to med school, although I suppose the fact that I've been married for 5 years has more to do with it. I'm surprised you haven't mentioned this to him yet, and I'm even more surprised, or disturbed might be a better word, that you would consider not bringing it up "until it becomes obvious". Do you have a habit of trying to avoid conflict?

I'm not even sure this would be a conflict, but this is something I would have brought up when I was just idly considering it, like "hey, I think I might be interested in a career change!" and just bounce your thoughts off him. Now at this point you've been thinking about it a long time, and the longer you go without saying anything, the more weird/potentially upsetting it's going to be when you do bring it up. Say something!

You don't need an elaborate setup. It's good he's in the medical field - he'll have an idea of how tough a situation it can be, and hopefully also how worthwhile it can be as a career choice.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 12:05 PM on October 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

X-posted with GastrocNemesis and he/she is absolutely right about people who aren't really committed (or even people who are) breaking up during med school or residency if they make it that far. I saw it happen many many times, including to myself. Feel free to memail me if you have any further questions about the process or whatever.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 12:08 PM on October 14, 2012

This is kind of blowing my mind. You've been dating for a year and are in a serious, marriage-on-the-table relationship, and you have been thinking about this and posting questions on Metafilter without talking to him about it?

I cannot conceive of posting a question to Metafilter and not asking my boyfriend about it (I mean, unless it specifically involved him and our relationship, I suppose). Your dreams, ambitions, half-formed ideas about who you want to be and what you want to do with your are you not talking to him about these things? My boyfriend would have known about it probably the same day I googled "medical school admissions" for the first time.

This is for three reasons: 1. I am very open with him about what I'm thinking about and worrying about; 2. I value his input and advice and would want his help making these decisions; 3. I would want to talk to him about what this would mean for us - are we going to stay together? be long-distance? should I only apply to med schools nearby? would he move for me?

If 1, 2 and 3 are not true for your relationship, that is a red flag.

I think that you should tell him right away, and casually, as something you are thinking about. If you present this as a decision that you have already made, without being open about your thinking, asking his advice, or including him in the discussion, I think he would be right to be very upset and concerned.
posted by amaire at 12:19 PM on October 14, 2012 [5 favorites]

This question is surprising to me. If it were my relationship, I would have told my SO at the first inkling that the current path might not be the right one for me, and then continued to discuss it regularly as my thoughts evolved.

In the future, I would suggest sharing half-formed ideas (as amaire says above), rather than waiting until they are fully formed ideas / plans. Your partner will know what's going on with you; you'll have someone that you love and trust to bounce ideas off - it's a win/win.

In this situation, I'd tell your SO as soon as possible. I'd bring it up at a time when we had some time to talk (over dinner is good, with other people around or in a really noisy place is not as good), and be prepared to answer the question of why you didn't tell him sooner.
posted by insectosaurus at 1:26 PM on October 14, 2012

I would just bring it up now. No time like the present. Maybe say something like, "what would you think if I applied to medical school?" Keep it casual and open ended. Make your SO part of the overall decision-making process. Especially things like the time frame, where you would potentially be living, etc. Make it a conversation, not a pronouncement from on high.

Also, definitely say what you really mean, and be clear about your level of intent on this. I was once dating someone who would talk on and off about how "someday" he was going to quit his job and spend a year or so living in southeast Asia. The way he talked about it, I assumed he'd never really do it. We broke up and it ultimately didn't matter, but recently I got an email from him and he was actually in Thailand, living that particular dream. I was kind of surprised, because when we were dating I assumed it was a pie in the sky fantasy.

If you are 100% seriously committed to applying to medical school, don't make it sound like something you're kinda sorta maybe thinking about looking into someday.
posted by Sara C. at 1:34 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

For hundreds of years, it's been the other way around, man telling woman of his life changes, and she follows along and he expects her full support.

With respect, that model sucked and it doesn't suck much less when the genders are reversed. I agree with those who think this should be at least minimally a mutual decision, not one you make and then inform him about. It's troubling to me that you seem to be in a serious relationship where you don't value his input and insight into your decision, or feel concernful enough about the impact on him to involve him in the decision-making process. If I were with someone and she said she was thinking about medical school and wanted to know what I would feel about that, I would take a keen interest and very likely 100% support her. If I were in a serious, candidate-for-marriage (well, civil partnership in this scenario, but whatever) relationship with someone and she took me out to dinner and told me she had decided she was going to medical school, I would reconsider the relationship, to be honest.
posted by Acheman at 1:42 PM on October 14, 2012 [5 favorites]

"hey I've been thinking about this major life change for a long time without including you, and now I would like to put you on the spot about it."

If I were in a serious, candidate-for-marriage (well, civil partnership in this scenario, but whatever) relationship with someone and she took me out to dinner and told me she had decided she was going to medical school, I would reconsider the relationship, to be honest

Seriously, both of these. There is some possibility that your boyfriend is SO supportive, emotionally stable, and optimistic that he'll be psyched no matter how you tell him, but if you want to present it in the best possible light, I have two suggestions. The first is to tell him as soon as you're serious about it, which is now. The second is not to feign enthusiasm, because honestly, how would you feel if your SO suddenly ecstatically told you that they'd changed their life plans to a new scenario where you'd either have to drop everything and follow them around for years or else break up? Personally, I'd be worried that they were so excited about a plan that they hadn't considered me in at all, and would think they weren't as serious about the relationship as I was. But if they brought up the idea that hey, they've been seriously thinking about medical school, what do you think, I'd be very excited and willing to talk about plans and think about the future together, even if I foresaw difficulties. What would be important to me was that they were thinking of me as an important part of their life.

I don't think this is just a subtle issue of framing, I think it's a fundamental difference between thinking independently and thinking as a couple. If you want to get married, you'll have to be doing the latter much more than the former. This is not to say you shouldn't think independently-- just that eventually you have to weigh whether you'd choose relationship or career, if it came to that. People in committed relationships have to make a lot of hard decisions (and come to a lot of compromises) of that nature. Of course you should be excited about a new life change, but it's not like you're not also concerned about your relationship, and after you broach the topic there will be plenty of time for talking about what you're excited about and the positive changes you'll be making.

It will also help defuse the minefield of moving into his area of research too, I'd imagine. Like, if your boyfriend worked at a movie theater and you went to the movies and saw him at the counter but didn't bother to say hi or wave, it would be super weird. I think it's the same here. You'd want to acknowledge that you'd be in the same field, not ignore it or skirt around it.
posted by stoneandstar at 2:19 PM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Tell him sooner rather than later. My ex told me that he wanted to go back to school and eventually med school- I think we might have been hanging around the house having a few beers, nothing too big. I tried to be supportive at first but honestly those plans of being in the US and tied to a specific place for so long did not work for me and were completely incompatible from what I want in life, and meant something neither of us wanted- to be long distance again.

I'm glad that I had the time to rearrange my life and take advantage of opportunities- he was able to take opportunities for himself, and I for myself.
posted by raccoon409 at 2:40 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know how difficult it can be to broach a big topic like this with someone after having waited so long. The thing is, you really just have to do it. If he's supportive, then great! If it's a deal-breaker for him (or if his reaction is a deal-breaker for you), well, you sure as hell want to know that now, rather than a few years from now, when it will be that much harder to move on with your life.

In the future, definitely consider everyone's advice of bouncing ideas off of your S.O. early; it will help you figure things out, and perhaps more importantly it fosters a healthy, open, loving relationship.
posted by divisjm at 2:45 PM on October 14, 2012

As much as I and others have already said that this is something that ought to be negotiated and decided as a couple when you are in a relationship as serious as your supposedly is, and I think that's right -- if this is something you have already decided, don't try to present it like it's up for discussion. If you're going to med school, period, then he will come to understand that, and any implication by you to the contrary will likely aggravate him and will not have a good effect.
posted by J. Wilson at 3:06 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think stoneandstar nailed it. You're making a decision which could totally change both your lives so it should be presented to him as a joint decision, assuming you see him as a permanent part of your life. Which if you're hoping to get married, one would assume so. If on the other hand, you're doing this regardless of whether he comes on board or not, and present it like that, I would reassess your relationship, as he almost he almost certainly will.
posted by Jubey at 6:47 PM on October 14, 2012

I agree that the sooner you tell him the better (barring actively stressful situations like a crisis or an argument the moment you next see each other), but I'm curious. Why haven't you mentioned your doubts to him before?

Since you asked how other people talk about these sorts of things, I don't wait until something's a huge life-changing thing to discuss it with my partners. I bounce ideas off them and seek their thoughts on possibilities and grumble about my unhappiness and noodle about hypotheticals and so on. They do the same thing with me; I don't tend to have lasting relationships with people who don't mesh with this approach on some level. (Not least because I'm just bad at hiding my mood from those close to me, so it's obvious when I'm caught up in worrying about something or having doubts!)

Obviously that's not an approach you can take with this particular situation, but for future reference, there it is.

My partners know my values and are invested in my happiness; they can help me consider my options. Having to put things into words for them lets me clarify my thoughts & feelings; bringing something to them means I get the chance to check whether it's just stress/pessimism talking (and thus stems the occasional rash impulse) and conversely, lets them remind me if something keeps coming up as an issue so I don't dismiss it as a temporary aberration. They may raise aspects of a problem I haven't considered, or options for a solution that I couldn't see, and talking about things with them allows me to factor in their needs as well as mine.

For what it's worth, my open-book approach to things would mean that in your situation, I would be honest about why I hadn't discussed this with him before that point, and we'd also have a conversation about that - about when and how my partner would prefer to hear about things that have the potential to be life-changing. In a relationship that's heading towards marriage-level commitment, it would be important to me to know that we had compatible and constructive ways to consider issues and find the best way forward.
posted by Someone Else's Story at 3:27 AM on October 15, 2012

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