A doctor’s broken heart: lessons learned from a failed relationship

It was something out of an Indian Bollywood movie. My best friend, Raj, found a girl he liked and was completely captivated by her. We had never seen Raj with such a glow – but for our group of friends, we knew something was different with Raj, and I dare say he was in “love.” For reference, he is the kind of man who is honest, loyal, trustworthy, and hardworking physician you would know. He cares for his patients and teaches medical students and residents like he is Plato, hosting thoughtful discourses under the shade of an olive tree. His humility stems from his rags-to-riches story. The most captivating thing about Raj is his energyyou just feel this soothing and calming presence – he never cracks under pressure. These qualities were transfused into his relationships with patients, friends, family, and co-workers. He just had that aura about him. Being his friend for more than a decade, I was completely devastated by the path his love life has taken, and I feel like there are so many lessons that I can share, with his permission, about his story and the challenges of navigating relationships and medicine.

He finally made it – after decades of grueling training in medical education, residency, a fellowship, and now working as an attending. He had met the girl of his dreams, a real Bollywood heroine in his eyes, and he was ready to settle down and move on to the next chapter of his life, which focused on starting a family and cultivating a more balanced life compared to that of a medical trainee seemingly locked away for decades of training. For purposes of this story, I’ll call her Priya, and she was this energetic, lively spirit who seemingly connected with everyone she encountered. That’s one of her personality features that attracted her to Raj. They endured a long-distance relationship for years, traveled internationally, met with every opportunity they could, and spoke on the phone for hours – I remember being in residency and hearing Raj only talk about Priya. Nobody believed she was a real person, but Raj would show us photos for proof. The force was strong with Raj – women would be attracted to him at parties, but he always shied away, saying he was in a committed relationship. Eventually, we met Priyaand we saw why Raj loved her – charming, pretty, social, and very fashionable. Anyone would be enamored with Priya. Three years into their relationship, they eventually got engaged, and while they had their challenges throughout their relationship, they continued to make it work, and they did. In public, they definitely seemed like a loving couple who supported each other.

Then tragedy struck, three months before they were scheduled to be married – when their relationship dissolved. What exactly happened is hard to say. Priya did not seem happy anymore with Raj or in life in general. I remember him reaching out to me for help and saying Priya was different – he said his relationship with her weakened while the relationship between her and her friends strengthened; of note, all her friends were single women. Regardless, Raj and Priya took time apart to evaluate themselves with the plan of working through the differences. I remember talking to Raj every day – and he was determined to find a solution to resolve these challenges with Priya – he approached it with the fervor of studying for the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE). Six weeks of no contact went by, and Raj reached out to Priya – it was too late. Apparently, Raj, who had been working through introspection to improve himself for this relationship, was devasted to learn that almost without warning, Priya told him, “I wish you told me this one month ago.” Almost completely off guard – their 4-year relationship was in shambles. Priya decided she wanted to explore something different after this time away but never told Raj what happened and why there was a change of heart for this relationship they both wanted initially. The saddest part was when she began to manipulate Raj, gaslighting and seemingly blaming him for everything that she considered a failure of their relationship – DARVO: Denied, Attack, Reverse Victim and Abuser, all while saying she loved him. As Priya continued to text Raj about the relationship, I watched the life force being sucked out of him. He became a shell of who he was and was driven insane by the devastation. In an attempt to comfort him, I told him that it seemed that this relationship was at the stage of “goals of care” in hospice. There is no palliative care anymore. Within a month of this, Priya moved on to another relationship. MeanwhileRaj was emotionally brokenEven now, nearly one year later, our group of friends note he is not the same – the pain from this relationship is evident. While he seems the same on the surface, there are subtle changes in his warmth, cheerfulness, and natural smile, which seem to be more forced rather than with his lost joy through his eyes; he also seems withdrawn from socializing; these are some of the most obvious signs of heartbreak. The lessons and realizations from this relationship are immensely helpful for other young professionals as they struggle to balance relationships, dating, and a career in medicine.

First, love should be enough if done right; however, in our modern society, it fails to sustain a relationship when both people are not committed. For those who have been fortunate to have experienced love, it is one of the most potent natural drugs one could experience. It alters our brain chemistry and neural synapses and manifests throughout changes in our entire being. Losing love is equally as devastating, and the pain to undo these physiological changes and memorable bondages can be unbearable. Relationships require constant nourishment to survive. Love, compromise, discussion, and a willingness to commit to one another and the relationship are the essential ingredients for success. One person cannot dedicate themselves to the success of a relationship, while the other is halfway out the door or looking around for the seemingly “better option.” This is an apparent plague of modern dating, and people don’t value substance. There’s a general belief that hypergamy is better – but I’ll argue that it is a cancer of our society. It erodes the values and sacred bonds of two people who are committed to one another, more so that it becomes commonplace that an actual relationship itself is useless and trite when the fleeting moments of joy are easily achievable without mutual commitment. Choosing a life partner should focus on shared values, a moderate balance of compatibility, and most importantly, a commitment to grow together – without which there is a divergent trajectory for each partner as they progress through life, making it seemingly impossible to find commonality.

While sharing one’s life dreams together doesn’t happen at first, pay attention to the ability to share dreams and aspirations, undertake challenges, and stick things through rather than running away to the path of least resistance. Life is full of challenges, and if this person can’t handle the simplest forms and jettisons away at the first hurdle, it may be worthwhile to reconsider if this is someone you would want to marry for a long-term relationship. Be sure this person adds value and happiness and enriches your life in more ways than one; ask questions in reflection: what does each person bring to their relationship, and if the balance is unequal, what can I contribute? If there is an imbalance between the two, one person will carry the weight of the relationship, and the other will be guarded with feelings of inadequacy, needing constant reassurance, and will likely be the source of fights. Remember, beauty is not just skin deep – it is looking into the essence of a person and understanding if they have a soul compatible with yours. Also, reflect if you feel comfortable showing your physical, mental, and emotional scars to someone; will they judge you, comfort you, or weaponize it? Do a litmus test and see what you find; if it is mentioned negatively after revealing some scars, then rest assured it will be ten times worse with deeper wounds you worked hard to overcome in your life.

Second – understand why this person is attracted to you. Are they attracted to you as a person or the idea of you and what you offer? When you are with them in public, how do they treat you? Do they shame you? Fight with you for the seemingly simplest things? One of the telltale signs of poor intent is that they are eager to tell everyone you are a physician – even when the setting is not appropriate. Raj would tell me that Priya would blurt out to everyone, even just walking down the street, that he was a physician for no reason, especially in social settings. While this could just be pride, it most likely was her validating why she was with Raj. This is a huge red flag for this relationship. Another important question to assess is if they are accountable. If they have no accountability, everything fights and failure in the relationship will be your fault. Can the person you are dating accept when they made a mistake, or do they deny, deflect, attack, or reverse the victim/abuser relationship (DARVO)? These could be signs of an underlying personality disorder, which is very important to consider and is often overlooked by physicians because of our belief we can “fix” people, which is certainly not true. You cannot help someone who doesn’t want to be helped, and you cannot fix someone, fall in love with the idea of who they can be or were; rather, you have to love the person who they are today. So how do you screen for these behaviors? Let their actions speak more than their words because words can be very deceptive; however, actions are not.

Third, be aware of your energy. By nature, physicians are caregivers, nurturers, and empaths. They love to fix things and people. But, sometimes, people are just broken and cannot be fixed. By sharing your healing energy with others, you will continuously be drained by their presence as they rebuild themselves under your aura. One day, they will be whole again, only to realize that they want to go back to that which broke them. Many physicians possess this healing and nurturing energy, which, unfortunately, attracts broken individuals. You need to look beyond the surface of intent from the beginning. Did this person shapeshift into the ideal person that I’m attracted to? If they seem too perfect of a prospective partner, then it’s probably not real. Do they do things and act a certain way with you, but totally different in public or around their “people”? Do they buy you things to change anything about you like clothes, glasses, shoes? Do they body shame you? These are key red flags to look out for – all things that Raj mentioned. Raj told me that one of the most infuriating aspects of his relationship was that when he would talk with Priya, she seemingly would say a lot and not say anything at all – a word salad. A mixture of half-truths. This is a manipulation technique to try and confuse you as a person about what is real or not real, allowing you to make your own conclusions about the conversation without them saying or agreeing to anything. As a married man to a loving wifefor 15 years now, I assured Raj – this is not normal and I will tell you the same.

The lyrical songs, colorfully gleeful dances, and the hopeless romantic flavors in Bollywood movies make excellent entertainment for finding a life partner. It is far from the realities and practicalities of finding a life partner today. Beauty is more than the surface. Love is the currency of commitment. Commitment is the fabric upon which the relationship is builtTrust, honor, integrity, effort, support and encouragement are the pillars along the way that keep the foundation of the relationship stabilized. Without it, failure is certain. Pay attention to who you share your energy with, and ensure that the overarching goals between two people guide you along a beautiful path. Without these aspects and commitment to each other, you may find yourself in a damaging separation like Raj and Priya, a Bollywood fairytale with a heartbreaking ending.

Dharam Persaud-Sharma is an interventional pain fellow.


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