The doctor will (not) see you now
June 26, 2016 8:29 PM   Subscribe

I met a guy in November who lives a mile away but works more than half the time on the East Coast. When I'm with him, it's great. He's great. But he's also a top surgeon in a demanding specialty at an understaffed hospital AND he's disorganized and bad at making plans. When he's out East, he's working 16 hours (often more), exhausted, and there's a 2-hour time difference. I get sweet texts and an occasional phone call. When he's "home," he's consulting, flying off to speak at conferences, and trying to see his college-aged children.

Most of this would be fine--my calendar is packed and I like a lot of independent time. But he sucks at making plans (see 20-hour days, above) and since I don't sit home waiting on a last-minute call, we wind up not seeing one another nearly enough.

I ended it and went no-contact for two months, went on a ton of dates and re-connected with my favorite FWB. But I missed him, and when he called, I said "yes." I'm not putting my life on hold, and I'm resistant to doing all of the planning because it makes me feel as if I'm doing all the emotional labor and that his schedule is all that matters. He's brilliant and funny and great in bed. And every day at work, he's almost literally killing himself saving other people's lives. That buys a lot of slack in my book. But not all the slack.

This probably won't last ... but I dig him hard. Workaholic-lovers of MeFi, have you any suggestions on maintaining a very sporadic relationship besides "DTMFA" or "suck it up, Buttercup"? I've never been in this situation before and really, I'm at a loss.
posted by SockPuppetOfShame to Human Relations (29 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I wish there were a "Work-Anon" for partners of workaholics. Ultimately I think your choices are either DTMFA or suck it up. I doubt he is going to change. Medical careers are especially troublesome for this kind of personality. He's gotten where he is in part because he doesn't know how to take time for himself. At this point there are lives depending on his inability to set firm boundaries. Good luck.
posted by town of cats at 8:40 PM on June 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

is keeping things open not an option? why not see him when available and see others when you feel like it? if he wants more than that, he can work out how to show you that in a way you respond to. don't 'suck it up'...just don't be so dependent on his affection until he makes that space for you.
posted by nadawi at 8:40 PM on June 26, 2016 [28 favorites]

And you're certain he's not married?
posted by taff at 11:26 PM on June 26, 2016 [17 favorites]

I guess, you could keep dating outside of this if you want to (but you may not want to).

You keep saying he's crap at planning, but he can apparently plan multiple obligations across two states. It seems at least possible that he could schedule you in for a couple of dates a month, as well? It's true that he may not always (or even often) be able to predict his need for recovery (that is likely where the "slack" is), though. Maybe you could ask him to give up a conference every couple of months :/

I mostly think it's dump or deal, he's just got a complicated life.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:33 PM on June 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

He sounds like he can schedule other things just fine. If he has it together enough to work on two coasts, he has it together enough to make plans with you. It sounds to me like this is less about frequency of seeing him/hearing from him and more about everything revolving around him and his needs. Have you spoken with him specifically about emotional labor? If not, you may want to do that. See if framing your relationship as a priority - similar to the way that his work is a priority - has any resonance. If he can manage that kind of career, he is not too disorganized to text you a bit more regularly.
posted by sockermom at 11:41 PM on June 26, 2016 [12 favorites]

He sounds like a wonderful doctor but an awful boyfriend. That's great for the world but shitty for you. You are his lowest priority right now, and it makes me sad to hear you are OK being treated this way. If he truly cared about you as a person, he'd find a way to make time for you. It might just be two mornings a month and three texts a week but he'd stick to it and not make excuses. You know this, too.

This probably won't last ... but I dig him hard.

I think you have your own answer here. It is unlikely he will ever change so eventually this relationship will run its course. Keep enjoying the good stuff for now, and allow yourself that. You will likely miss on other opportunities in life while you're still stuck on him but that's apparently what your heart is telling you to do right now. Eventually it will end and you may be furious and ask yourself, "What was I thinking?!" or you may feel bittersweet and say "It was sweet while it lasted."
posted by smorgasbord at 11:43 PM on June 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm resistant to doing all of the planning because it makes me feel as if I'm doing all the emotional labor and that his schedule is all that matters

You are doing all the emotional labour, and his schedule is all that matters (to him). I'm sorry, I saw this scenario play out with a good friend, and it ended badly. I hated seeing her be his last priority, always. It really messed her up for a long time. And he is a nice guy and a good doctor, like your guy, but a terrible romantic partner. You deserve to be with someone who doesn't put your needs last. And from my observations, town of cats is right that the medical field attracts this type of personality like whoa.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:43 AM on June 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Mainly agree with other posters--BUT.

As a surgeon who was dating a lot recently, I can say that yes, the terrible schedule is real, and yes, being exhausted sucks up a lot of energy for outside pursuits. However, if he does seem into you when he's making time for you, why not ask him directly if he's willing to make you a priority? Just because he's juggling work obligations in multiple states does NOT mean that he's organized--in my experience physicians are actually not that great at time management. It seems artificial, but I've had luck with SOs setting alarms on their phone to remind them to get in touch, and that's really helpful.

You just have to be honest with yourself about what you want from this relationship in a perfect world--would you be happy to keep him along with your other FWB, or are you trying to make this your one-and-only and you will always be unsatisfied with not being his?
posted by eglenner at 1:09 AM on June 27, 2016 [6 favorites]

How about shagging like crazy when you meet, but without becoming attached?

I have a friend like that who calls me only when he wants to make out and whom I see maybe twice a year.
posted by Kwadeng at 1:20 AM on June 27, 2016

Okay so his job means that you're not always going to be the first priority - you can't compete with a 5 year old refugee with a brain tumor (or whatever). But you have to be his number one priority sometimes, otherwise you're in DTMFA territory. Tell him how you feel and ask him whether he's willing to put in the effort on his side to make this a functional relationship. If he is, hold him to it. If he's not, move on. (I know, easier said than done. But easier now than later, when you've invested years in a relationship with someone who doesn't think about your needs.)
posted by finding.perdita at 2:41 AM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just because he's juggling work obligations in multiple states does NOT mean that he's organized--

But how else would anyone get their bodies to the right places at the right times? Time management is difficult for some people, definitely, but it's a learnable skill. Doctors can set alarms and Google Calender reminders on their own phones just as well as their SOs can :/ Otherwise 100% agree with the advice to ask if he's willing to make you a priority. He might be.

I just doubt that he'll be *able* to, realistically, if he's old enough to have the college aged kids he wants to see, and has these work hours + regular cross-country travel to contend with... People vary in energy, but that's, I mean, quite a lot. (What was that Sheryl Sandberg quote? "Work, sleep, family, fitness, or friends: pick 3". And for him, work alone counts for like six things.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:01 AM on June 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

What is his reaction when you take the initiative and try to arrange stuff in advance with him yourself? Is he receptive to your efforts but just makes no effort himself? Or does he fob you off and then ring later when he finds himself at an unexpected loose end?

If he's receptive to your plans, get yourself added to his google calendar (or whatever he uses; with his schedule he is using something) and just go ahead and book stuff in. My husband can't plan in advance and if I left it up to him we'd sit at home every night. I book all of our holidays, theatre tickets etc, and while it is a bit of a pain he is grateful to me and does want to do these things with me (just can't imagine four months ahead to book opera tickets).

If he only wants to see you when he has nothing else to do, and doesn't want to book things in advance in case a better offer comes along, this relationship isn't going to go anywhere.

(And it is sufficiently unusual for doctors to work across multiple states that I would be quietly double-checking that he does actually work in the hospitals he says he works in - have you ever seen an ID badge, is he on the hospital website as a member of staff? Does he bring paperwork home? My first thought would be "married" I'm afraid)
posted by tinkletown at 3:21 AM on June 27, 2016 [7 favorites]

It seems like "bad at making plans" is the main problem. You could set some expectations and say that you understand his crazy schedule, but if you're going to keep seeing each other, you need him to plan something for the two of you once or twice a month, because otherwise you end up sitting at home and not seeing him and you don't want a relationship like that. And then see if he can follow through.
posted by chickenmagazine at 4:08 AM on June 27, 2016

Yes, the surgeon who operated on my broken arm does orthopedic surgeries in several different hospitals, gives conferences, and is the on-call ortho surgeon for French ministers (top government officials). So that's definitely believable.

He's also married with a kid who's starting university this year, so. I saw how he made the crazy schedule work: he has a secretary, and his office is big enough that his kid drops by every evening after school and has a little room to himself there. I will also say though, the guy smokes up a storm.

Is your paramour able to afford a secretary? Could be a huge boon to his time management.

As others have mentioned, gently suggest that he schedule you and set up alerts. Better yet, schedule time to plan things with you. If he gets a secretary, he can give him/her his preferences and time slots, and let them do the rest.
posted by fraula at 5:10 AM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

You could ask him. If he likes you enough to make you a priority. Not his only priority, but one of his priorities. And if so, talk about what that looks like and how often you see each other.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:18 AM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I want to elaborate on what people above are saying about this kind of thing being really common with doctors, and provide some thoughts and observations that I've gathered as the child of a doctor who has been in a long and happy marriage for all of my life.

My father is a doctor and he has some of this going on. In fact, I know for certain that one of the reasons he didn't pursue a more lucrative/prestigious specialty than he did is that if he'd gone into something like surgery it would have taken over even more of his life, and he made the choice to go into emergency medicine (which has a crazy schedule, but not as anywhere near as crazy as your guy's) in part because he wanted to leave enough room in his life for a wife and family. Even so, it's been a strain at times.

He and my mother knew going in that he was always going to have a rotating schedule, always going to have to work nights some of the time, always going to miss out on a lot of major holidays, etc. He and mom have done a great job of making that work, but it hasn't always been easy. He missed out on a lot of family dinners when I was a kid, and a lot of Christmas mornings. His job required it, and he and my mother made a choice a long time ago to let those requirements be a part of their life together. It's worked out fine but I know it's been challenging for them from time to time, and his schedule is still one of the biggest ongoing irritants in an overall very happy marriage.

One thing that really helps is that they do a lot of planning in advance. Or rather, I should say that my mom does a lot of planning in advance, herding and cajoling him into getting time off as much as six months or a year in ahead of time so that they can go on vacations and spend chunks of time together. He participates in the process, but I don't think he'd be able to do it on his own without her pushing him. My mother is nobody's fool and I'm sure she knew she was taking on that emotional labor when she decided to marry my father (even though the phrase "emotional labor" didn't exist back in the early '80s) but that doesn't make the work itself any less real. My father has the good grace to at least be eternally grateful to her for organizing his life for him.

Your guy sounds like his schedule is a whole other level of crazy, which is not at all unusual for surgeons—especially top surgeons who work at more than one hospital in different parts of the country. He made a choice to allow his life to be that way. Maybe he didn't make it as deliberately as my father did (I don't know) but he made it and he's going to live it. On some level, you will have to make your peace with the fact that this guy is always going to have a really difficult schedule. You're going to have to make your peace with the fact that like many doctors he sucks at managing his personal life, and that if you want a serious relationship you're going to have to do a lot of that managing for him. If you can't be OK with that, you're not going to be happy with him.

However, I don't think all is necessarily lost here. What matters most, I think, and what is sort of unknowable from what you've presented in this question, is his awareness of the situation and his willingness to make compromises in his career for the sake of a relationship. That is, he needs to be aware that his schedule sucks, that his personal planning sucks, that these are significant problems for almost any partner, and that if he can find a partner who is willing to work with him on these issues on an ongoing basis then he should be enthusiastically grateful and work really hard to help them in any way that he can.

He also needs to be willing to make compromises in his career if he's wants to have a serious relationship. He's going to have a hard time finding a woman who will be long-term OK with his current schedule. It would be unreasonable to ask him to make major changes to his schedule right now, but if you two decided to make a real go of it would he for instance be willing to stop splitting his time between two coasts? Would he be willing to eventually transition to a position that was perhaps less lucrative and/or prestigious (understanding that as a surgeon he's always going to be more than fine financially) but which gave him more space or at least stability in his schedule? What would he be willing to let go of in his work life in order to free up more of himself for his love life? You can't ask him to make these sacrifices now (although there might be some flexibility in smaller areas, and that might be necessary for you to be able to continue dating him period) but you have a right to know what's on the table for the future so that you can decide whether pursuing anything serious with this guy is a realistic option for you.

Also, finally, it sounds like he needs to make more of an effort to be emotionally available to you even if he can't be physically available. That's totally on him, and while you can certainly suggest ways to make you feel that (and he should be asking for those suggestions!) it's up to him to follow through with it and to keep following through with it month after month and year after year. It won't work if you feel like you have to constantly push him and prod him to get him to give you attention and love. This is not a doctor thing, it's a standard relationship thing and is a problem independent of any doctor-specific issues that are in play.

Of course, you always have the option of just keeping this super light and casual and not getting emotionally invested in this guy. If that's something you feel like you can do and if you're willing to settle for that (while continuing to look elsewhere for someone who is genuine partner material) then by all means go right ahead. But to answer the question posed by another answerer early in this thread: yes, he's married. He's married to his work, and right now there isn't room in his life for another serious relationship. He needs to either make that room (and allow you to help him make that room, which you would have to be willing to do in the first place) or else this isn't going to work out.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:40 AM on June 27, 2016 [13 favorites]

He also needs to be willing to make compromises in his career if he's wants to have a serious relationship.

My knee-jerk reaction is that this could very likely be why he is single to begin with. He may not have any desire to compromise, he enjoys his work life being the majority of his life, and anyone who is going to be with him is just going to have to accept it.

I could be wrong, of course. But it really can be, and might be for this guy, truly an addiction to work.
posted by bologna on wry at 7:04 AM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Another non-surgeon doctor here voting for "he's not likely to change", and he may well be a super good and loving guy, and still not be very good at flexibility or planning. So it may not be a good match for your needs.

It's totally believable to me that his work drains every bit of him every day. Medical school selects for people who have excessive endurance and conscientiousness and then relentlessly trains us to ignore all internal or external signals that would tell us to take a break . The internal culture of medicine has contempt for doctors who set limits on their work. (some of us learn to do it anyway, but rarely with cultural support.) Also--our patients are often suffering terribly, and we so want to help, and we can often help... so we come in early and stay late. Plus, we've made longish-term commitments-- if we cut back on our work, then our over-burdened colleagues will have to pick up the slack, because there are simply too few of us in most communities. (I hear that some doctors are also motivated by monetary greed, but that's not the circle I've travelled in)

Most of us doctors are not good at organization; we just address exigencies. It's demanding but not that complicated or subtle work, usually. We don't often have to choose a project--we most often just have to meet whatever need is referred to us or arrives by ambulance. We have little experience in non-urgent decision-making and planning. As a group, we also tend to be awful with money and retirement-planning. Plus, you know, we're often super sleep-deprived and just a bowl of mush by the time we get done with work.

And yeah, our loved ones pay a price, they do. I have a partner of 33 years who had a laid-back career and infinite patience, and who was able to flex around my work. Most people couldn't be happy doing that.
posted by seacats at 7:44 AM on June 27, 2016 [15 favorites]

How does the work stuff manage to get scheduled if he's so bad at making plans? Someone else almost certainly runs his calendar for him. That's not an excuse, just an explanation.
posted by grouse at 8:25 AM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Agreed, grouse. Doctors don't generally set and manage their own schedules. They have administrative staff who do that for them. I'm sure that's the case with this guy as well. Even his flights are very likely coordinated by somebody else.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:59 AM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

ask him whether he's willing to put in the effort on his side to make this a functional relationship.

But you will have to define what this effort looks like to you, and be specific, I think, to make it really clear what your needs are. However, someone with his commitments and brutal work hours is unlikely to change, realistically.

I think you have three options:
1- accept that this is what a relationship with him looks like, and that you can live with it, maybe getting him to agree to a few small behavioral changes
2- dump him because you can't live with it
3- keep seeing him but keep it casual/open
posted by JenMarie at 10:29 AM on June 27, 2016

Two college age kids? I have a good guess as to why he and their mother aren't involved anymore. If he wasn't going to change to save that relationship, be prepared for him not changing for you.
posted by stoneweaver at 11:00 AM on June 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

He is married.
posted by metajim at 1:33 PM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Someone else almost certainly manages him schedule for him. One solution to this is to put it to him that if he is genuinely interested, that person should be tasked with allocating time for him to spend with you and scheduling it in. Of course, this only works if this doctor makes you a priority. For all we know, the status quo is exactly how he like it. You'll only find out by talking.
posted by Jubey at 3:04 PM on June 27, 2016

I'd ask him: is there ANYTHING AT ALL he can possibly do to make things better for you? Is there any change or changes he is willing to concede in order to make you happy? Is it possible that he could contact you more often or well, anything? I don't know if there's really any wiggle room in his crowded life, you'd have to ask him.

If you ask him this and he's all, "Sorry, this is what it is, take me or leave me," then yes, your options are suck it up or DTMFA (or FWB'ing last minute hookups and trying not to get attached). But eh, give it a shot with asking first.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:29 PM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

You know, this is just my read, but I really kinda doubt he's married. Much more likely, I think, is that he has another girlfriend on the East Coast. A wife would be harder to hide, and it sounds like he's been married once before. Two part-time girlfriends makes more sense to me.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:13 PM on June 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

So, I'm not a doctor, but I have a similarly demanding career. I have emergencies (real ones, where someone is going to get hurt or have their lives messed up if I don't help them) on a pretty regular basis. I work a lot of nights and weekends, and I have to cancel a lot of plans on short notice with friends and family because the work I do is important enough to me that most of the time, I can't justify skipping work that needs to be done in order to have a personal life. I have fun, but it's in spurts in between work obligations, with whichever friends or dates happen to be free at the times when I end up being free. And for better or for worse, almost everything in my life right now other than work is tentative until it actually happens, because something could always come up to get in the way of it. I've rescheduled a haircut I need about four times already. I brought work with me to my sister's wedding and worked in the hotel after I got back from the ceremony. I stepped out of a restaurant to take an emergency phone call during my own birthday dinner this year. I have that kind of job.

And so the choice I've made is that I don't seriously date. I go on dates, sometimes. I have people I see. But I've decided that I'm not really going to prioritize making time in my life for another person, for a real relationship, right now. And I try to make that crystal clear from the start to people I see, that I'm not looking for anything serious and that I'm pretty much always going to prioritize my work over my social life. It's not them; that's just the choice I'm making at this stage of my life about what's important to me. And I make clear that I am absolutely not looking for to date people who are going to try to swoop in and save me from my workaholic tendencies. I do not want or need to be saved, and if I did, I'd save myself. You are not going to love me hard enough to sweep me off my feet and make me quit my job or do less of a good job for people who are depending on me. Not right now.

I think the difference in your relationship is that you haven't had that conversation, and he's not being candid and upfront about his priorities. And so you keep expecting a more conventional setup where his personal life can be a priority and where work can be stopped or scheduled around a partner's needs. He can't give you that, or he's choosing not to prioritize that way. He just hasn't explicitly said so. But that's what's happening.

Look, I feel for you. When I start to sense that I'm doing to someone else what this man is doing to you, I recap the talk for them where I explain that I don't have room in my life for a relationship, and that whatever we're doing has to be able to fit around the commitments I've made to my work. And if that doesn't work, we break up. Mostly, we break up. Because I'm making an unconventional life choice, and most people don't want what I want. I want my career first, and a relationship only to the extent that it doesn't interfere with my career. Maybe that will change someday, but that's what I want right now. I try my best to use my words to make that clear to people, and I really try not to hurt anyone. I am sorry that you're getting hurt in a similar situation. But unless your boyfriend is dramatically different from me, this probably isn't going to change.
posted by decathecting at 9:04 PM on June 27, 2016 [6 favorites]

Thanks for the feedback, particularly from those who are or who are close to doctors. He's not married. He may have an East Coast girlfriend, although given his work schedule I doubt it. Also, at this point I don't care if he does.

He has a travel agent at the hospital who does his East Coast flights, and he manages the rest. Or doesn't manage it, as the case may be. He says he can't afford an assistant. He completely supports his ex and his kids (including tuition) so he probably feels that's true.

We've talked. He says that he'll try, but that he's not sure that he'll be able to give me what I deserve, that he loves me but expects me to break up with him again. I'm not sure, either, which is why it's been pretty casual.

To clarify and not thread-sit: I'm looking for suggestions on what I can a: ask him to do or b: do myself that will help both of us feel connected and potentially allow this to progress. Asking for access to his calendar seems presumptuous, but maybe I should. At this point we have a firm date (for something I wanted to do) in mid-September. I've received one text in the last 36 hours. Two of his patients died that day, he'd been called back in at one a.m. after working until nine p.m. Because he always has his phone on, I'm often reluctant to even text in case he's grabbing a couple of hours of sleep.

Thanks again for specific suggestions.
posted by SockPuppetOfShame at 8:55 AM on June 28, 2016

Specific suggestions - you need to find a reliable way to get your dates physically into his calendar. You can either do this via access to his calendar, by always booking the next date with him when you're on a date (ie both of you get your phones out and find a slot that works for you both), or just have a recurring date night that never shifts (every second Tuesday at 8pm or something). Book phone calls in too. He can set a reminder on his phone to text you every morning. It isn't romantic, but neither is being ignored for days on end.

He has to see your dates as equally immovable as his work - and yes I am as bad at this as the next doctor, but you need to put your foot down on this. My husband did, and he was quite right to. He needs to respect your time, and the relationship. If there is literally no time that he can fence off as relationship time (ie if he is on call and could potentially be called back into work the entire time he is on your coast) then the relationship just won't work no matter how lovely he is.
posted by tinkletown at 7:52 AM on July 3, 2016

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