Recently, my wife accompanied meon a trip to a medical conference.She came along to visit her elderlymother and siblings in a nearby city. Welooked forward to our short time together—the flight, dinner in a nice restaurant,and an overnight hotel stay—before herdeparture. However, our time togetherwas anything but fun. It was strained,tense, prickly, and puzzling. Even our kissgoodbye in the morning felt awkward, ifnot fraudulent. Both of us began our daysapart miserably. So, what happened?
Accepting the reality of an aging parentor parents can be tough. We fight itbecause we see ourselves in our mothersand fathers—their facial appearance,unsteady gait, stooped posture, diminishingheight, and small fixed smile. It's as ifwe've just pressed the fast forward buttonon our life when we look at them. This canexplain our postponed visits, impatiencewith them, and sometimes less than kindbehavior toward elderly kin.
And if we don't emotionally preparefor a visit with our aging parents, therewill likely be consequences. For example,we may displace our feelings onto otherloved ones in a confusing and demoralizingmanner. Upon reflection, my wifeand I think that this is what caused us todisconnect and our communication toderail that day at the conference.
The Physician Factor
There is another factor involved in thedilemma, and it's one that is unique tohealth professionals. We don't alwaysturn off our role as physician and simplybehave like a son or daughter. Sometimesour families put us in that role byasking medical questions or expecting usto take care of them. They want us toweigh in on the care they are receivingfrom their primary care physicians andconsultants. And if they don't, we oftendo it anyway, critically questioning thephysician's diagnosis and treatment plan.
In fact, some of us may say harsh thingsabout the physicians tending to our agingmothers or fathers, putting them on thedefensive. And while our intentions aregood, sometimes we're wrong and thecare is actually quite exemplary. It's hardto see that, though, because we rarelyhave the same information as the treatingdoctors. In addition, our reasoning is different—it's not the reasoning we woulduse in our own practices.
When it comes to our marriages, is itpossible to separate ourselves from whatwe do for a living? Maybe—maybe not.What's important is that we examine, asbest we can, whether we're playing doctorwith our spouses. If we are, we needto acknowledge that and try to understandwhy. While this is usually a two-waystreet, it's most often our spousewho first identifies the problem. Please leave your MD at theoffice and just be a husband, wife, son,or daughter when you're among family.
Michael F. Myers, MD, a clinicalprofessor in the Department ofPsychiatry at the University ofBritish Columbia in Vancouver,Canada, is the author of Doctors'Marriages: A Look at the Problemsand Their Solutions (Plenum Pub Corp;1994) and How's Your Marriage?: A Book forMen and Women (American Psychiatric Press;1998). He is the past president of the CanadianPsychiatric Association and welcomes questionsor comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.