Dating during residency is a job unto itself – one that I didn’t expect to balance alongside my long and frequently odd hours of work. To make matters worse, I happen to be in a field where the examination is almost entirely through conversation, involving probing questions, where maintaining calm and strength is important in the face of patient stories that often tear at my heart. Then, on a date (first or otherwise) I spend more time listening to another person’s stories while trying hard not to interpret the information through the perspective of my profession. To orient my older readers, I primarily date using the Internet and dating applications. There, my profile names me as “Resident.” This title is unassuming and unintimidating. Resident of what, potential suitors wonder, while examining carefully curated pictures of travel to exotic places and of me smiling happily with friends. I swipe right and left, matching with people, chatting digitally at first, and, if there is mutual interest, arranging to meet in person.
I get a different reaction every time I tell a date I’m a psychiatrist. It seems each man has his own expectations of what it means to date a psychiatrist. This column is a shout-out to all the physicians, and especially psychiatrists, who have been single while practicing, required to pretend our work is just like everyone else’s. Because the truth is, our work is different. How can one really describe the goings-on at a psychiatric hospital to a potential partner? Or deal with fatigue that accompanies listening to emotional suffering while at work and then needing the energy to commiserate with the person across the table?
Two personal dating experiences highlight these challenges. Some time ago, I went out with a guy for just 2 weeks. It was nice, but not what I wanted, so I broke it off. His response to me: “I thought you really understood me. You seemed like you wanted to know me. Only a psychiatrist could be so cruel.” I didn’t think I was cruel, and I don’t know how well I understood him – or why he got that impression. Perhaps I do ask more intense questions earlier on in conversation than others might? Indeed, my profession requires accessing deep truths about people’s lives in a short period of time. After a day of hearing these real stories, I don’t want to exchange small talk. I want to know the person I’m sharing a meal with.
The second experience prompted this column – a recent breakup with a man I really felt and thought I could be with. I had begun perusing fellowships in the cities where he wanted to move. Perhaps predictably, my heart was broken. I am grateful to have a specialty that encourages a close connection to my patients. I am privileged to see and consider the motives, desires, fantasies, and fears of my patients. For dating, however, this skill is excessively fine tuned. I sense too subtly when something is going wrong. As a therapist in training, I am learning to hear the manifest content and listen for the latent content. I felt it with this man, despite knowing that he liked me and was serious about our relationship. I sensed the change in his approach to me – the transference, if you will. I suspected the reason was his stated desire to move to the West Coast “eventually.” When he actually revealed his plan to move and end the relationship, however, I cried as someone who has been hurt would cry. His response was: “ It will be okay. … You’re supereligible. … Don’t cry. … I’m surprised by all your emotion – especially the way you describe yourself at work.” He expected me to have control over my emotions because of my profession.
Psychiatrists are trained to examine emotions and behaviors, characterize them first as symptoms, then as diagnoses, and finally assess the best way to intervene. The emotions of my patients sometime get tangled with my own. I try to disentangle myself through my own therapy, and filling my life with productive activities and close friends. However, I think as a young, single psychiatrist, I have a space of loneliness that is too easily filled by the pain shared by my patients. I also expect better control over my emotions, but sometimes, my cup is already full, and all it can do is overflow with tears.
Dr. Posada is a second-year resident in the psychiatry and behavioral sciences department at George Washington University, Washington. She completed a bachelor’s degree at George Washington University. For 2 years after her undergraduate education, she worked at the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases studying HIV pathogenesis. Dr. Posada completed her medical degree at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. Her interests include public psychiatry, health care policy, health disparities, and psychosomatic medicine.