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Marriage and medicine: Balancing love and the workplace

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With the arrival of Valentine’s Day, two doctors who are approaching their 20th anniversary share their insights on taking time for each other.

As they approach their 20th anniversary this spring, Gary Stallings and Alison Stallings have learned plenty of lessons about communication and helping each other.

Gary leads the medical residency program at Northern Westchester Hospital, part of Northwell Health in New York. Alison is a dermatologist at Northwell Health Physician Partners.

They both have long hours, along with the responsibilities of parents; they have a son and daughter. But they both stress their ability to talk to each other and let each other know what they’re going through.

“I think the biggest thing is we're really good at communicating,” Alison says. “We will talk about absolutely everything, do not hold anything back. Nothing's ever going to bubble up inside and then explode.”

Sometimes, that includes being candid about being too busy for long discussions.

“We can at least tell each other we're struggling. And I love you remember, I still love you. And I will always love you. But I have no time for you, today,” she says, with some laughs.

Rather than bring home baggage and stress, Gary says at times, he’ll talk about a work issue with Alison. “I just need someone to bounce it off of and ... I think that works,” he says.

Gary and Alison met in medical school and they both say it helps that they have a shared understanding of the stress of being doctors.

“We knew a lot about each other and we knew our goals and expectations of each other and I think expectations of each other in a marriage,” Alison says. “You know, leading the lives we were going to live as doctors. So I think we kind of went into it knowing a lot of what was going to be ahead.”

“If you were to zoom out and look at the conversation we're having, it is highly inappropriate to have at the dinner table,” Gary says with a laugh. “But to us, it’s totally fine. And now our kids are used to it, too. Because … that's the job.”

Both Gary and Alison point to the value of having dinner together, which they do on most weeknights. Because they have longer days, dinner might be later in the evening, but they typically have their meal together.

“We always make that time to have dinner as a family,” Alison says. “It's rare that everybody's going to be randomly eating at their own time. We try to sit down as a family almost every night, if possible. It might be at eight o'clock if that's how it goes that day, but we still try to do that. So I think that makes a difference too.”

Gary also points to another lesson when he’s home with the kids, and that’s not getting consumed with work when he’s still at home. And he says that means he’s not glued to the phone and isn’t constantly checking emails. When he’s home, he’s home.

"When you are home with your family, you need to be with them 100%," he says. "Don't be with them for four hours, but you're on your phone doing work stuff."

“I made this cheesy phrase that I actually used with a friend of mine today,” Gary says. “But the only emergencies in life are coding, when your heart stops, or crowning, you're actually delivering a baby. So if it's not coding or crowning, it is just not an emergency. I don’t care what it is. It’s just not. So it can wait.”

Since he works with residents and students, he says they may get worked up about a grade or a schedule, and Gary says that’s when he’ll gently reinforce a boundary.

Assuming that no one is “in harm’s way,” he’ll politely say the issue can wait until the next day. As he says, “I know it seems really important to you right now. But my daughter's recital is happening. So, we're gonna do this later.”

Alison also says they maximize the time at home.

“Last night, we had a three-minute dance session in the kitchen with the kids, and just that tiny few minutes of fun, everybody was more relaxed and happy,” Alison says. “Those little moments are really helpful. Even if you don't have hours to spend quality time which we know you do not during a normal week, you're never going to find that. So you have to work with what you got.”

They both cite the value of taking time for each other, even if it’s just a text in the midst of a busy day.

“If you're having a good day and thinking about your spouse, then shoot a text, ‘Love you, thinking about you,” Alison says. “Those little things matter.”

Both Gary and Alison also say that taking time for themselves also helps them be happier together. For Gary, it may be taking time for a bike ride or to go downstairs and play his guitar. But Gary says when he retreats for some guitar time, he talks about it with Alison.

“I make sure that Alison knows, ‘I'm not, like, hiding from you in the basement.’ I just need time for me a little bit, so I can reset, so I can give you healthy, happy me, when we are together.”

Alison echoes that sentiment, saying, “We all need to just have time to ourselves, too.”

“You can be very happily married and not want to spend time at that moment with your spouse,” she says. “You just need to be alone. You want to go exercise, go for a walk, go do something and get away from everyone. And that's okay. And he always feels guilty…. But you need that time for yourself, too, or you're never going to be happy in the marriage. You each have to be happy individually. And make sure you're setting your own personal goals and you know, doing what makes you happy. And then you can come together and be happy together. But if you're not taking care of yourself, it's not going to work very well either.”

Gary also stresses one other tip: don’t try to fix your spouse’s problems. He says that can be tough, because he wants to help.

Alison says the biggest help comes with simply listening.

“Sometimes you just want somebody to listen, right? You don't always need all of the advice. You just want to let it out,” she says.


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