Being single poses unique challenges for doctors

Medical Post
Helping Hand Column, May 23, 2006

Busy schedules, rules about dating patients among obstacles to finding love for those who want to change their status

I have just returned from a weekend at an out of town conference. While the days were busy, long and full, I returned each evening to the beautifully appointed hotel room alone. I appreciated the sound of silence, and the awareness that things were just as I had left them (OK, not really, they were cleaner!).

It was such a treat to be in control of the television remote and watch whatever I wanted. At home, there is no way the boys would ever let me watch What Not To Wear if there was any hint of sports on another channel.

Finally, I stretched out and luxuriated on the huge bed, revelling in having all four pillows to myself. The assumption is that singles get to live like this all the time, relax when they want, yet live an exciting joyful life, happily meeting all their needs, working hard to succeed, taking exotic holidays, driving fancy cars, going to fabulous parties, and having more money and freedom than they know what to do with. Wouldn’t this be great all the time?

In fact, it isn’t. Many single doctors would prefer not to be single. (I did try to get some statistics on how many single doctors there are in Canada, but Google directed me to some very interesting sites that did not have this information, but did contain the words “single,” “doctor,” as well as others such as “sexy” and “dating”—but I digress.)

Let’s accept that there are many single doctors—some never committed, some separated or divorced, some widowed. Often, they tell me stories of being lonely and solitary, especially when they are suddenly left alone. They go home and are shocked by the silence and wish there was something to do, and someone to do it with. Barbara Holland, in her book One’s Company, states: “No doubt about it, solitude is improved by being voluntary.”

It is not easy for single doctors to find a partner. People assume they are busy and not available, and do not invite them to events. If one lives in a small town, the list of those who are not patients and therefore potential candidates is extremely short.

The lifestyle is often too busy or hectic, leaving little time to meet people and pursue relationships. However, patients tell me there are some good ways to meet people that take less time. There are evenings of speed dating, where one gets to meet about 20 people of the opposite sex in succession, with a few minutes to talk and establish a connection with each, with the option of exchanging contact information.

Online dating sites are now very acceptable and attractive to the busy professional, again allowing for the opportunity to meet a lot of people with little investment of time. In the Vancouver and Toronto areas, It’s Just Lunch is a service that focuses on bringing together two busy professionals.

No amount of wishing will change the single’s situation. It helps to identify the part one can control and focus on that.

The first step is to stop waiting for it to change and find a way to settle into it for now and make it comfortable. I recall when I first arrived at university and saw the tiny room in residence that I would call home for the next year. Some of us on the residence floor did nothing to our room, spent as little time in it as possible and complained about how awful it was. Yet, I recall a friend down the hall whose room we all hung out in. She had hung up some posters, put up her own curtains and a matching bedspread and bought a soft rug. We all spent the same time there at the dorm, but she did it more comfortably, enjoyed it and was actually rarely alone. The irony is that the one who is content being on his own is rarely left alone.

Look proactively for what’s good about being alone every day. Identify areas of interest you have not had the chance to pursue and do so now. Take a class and learn something new. Join a group that focuses on the activity or area of interest you enjoy. Think about what other people would want time alone to do, and do that—shop, read, go to the spa, watch TV or a movie, do nothing.

Friends are an anchor for the single person. Sure, couples have friends, but they don’t need them the same way, and the friendships often do not reach the same depth.

Single adults need their friends. There are many different kinds of friends, and we need them all—the ones who support us emotionally, the ones who are direct and push us to do more, the fun ones, the ones who keep us young, the ones who inspire and mentor us. For some, single friends are ideal since they can have the same needs. You just need to watch and ensure they are not too needy or draining.

It is easier for those who are extroverted to make friends, and perhaps easier for women than men. Gather your friends around you; throw a party. Use the Tarzan rule—don’t end a fun event without planning the next one—to keep these contacts going.

Pets are great for company and unconditional love. They are constantly there, and come running when you arrive back home. They don’t care if you’re having a bad hair day. All they want is that you know how to operate a can opener—a small requirement for a big payoff! While some doctors feel they are too busy to have a pet, in fact, the pet and the care it requires serve to slow the pace of their life down to a sustainable level.

Family—parents and siblings—can be a big source of support for the single person. As with friends, the main thing for doctors is learning how to let others help them. They see their role as taking care of others and may find it hard to be on the receiving end. Children in the home keep you busy and full of a sense of purpose. Yet, sadly, they eventually leave—just as they are becoming less work and more fun. Don’t worry—they may be back!

Work is great. It gives structure to your life, earns money and is a place where you can interact with people. However, it can overtake you too easily. There is always more to be done, and the single doctor can feel guilty and responsible enough to stay longer and do more.

Sometimes, the single doctor is asked to do more, on the assumption that they do not have to go home to a family. It helps to set limits in advance, remembering that you have a life, too, and that a healthy work-life balance is best.

Take care of yourself. For some, it is not easy to cook interesting foods for themselves, yet that does not mean it is not possible. You are worth it! Kraft Dinner again is not acceptable. Pretend your best friend is coming over for dinner—what would you make? Enjoy it for two days on your own. Make time to exercise and stay fit. Laugh. Reach out and get therapy if you feel it may help you understand and accept the situation.

Keep yourself open to meeting new people and to love.

Mamta Gautam is an Ottawa psychiatrist who specializes in treating physician patients. If you have a question you would like addressed in this column, please contact Dr. Gautam at mgautam@rogers.com. Please include “Helping Hand” in the subject line. All inquiries will be confidential. Your questions will not be replied to, but may be selected to be answered in this column, which is intended to be educational, not therapeutic.