Doubting Spouse Syndrome

By Howard J. Bennett, MD

I was sitting in my office the other day contemplating medicine, the economy, and how I could get my 12-month-old to sleep in her own room. With no revelations in sight, I decided to see some patients. Being a typical day in primary care, I did a number of physicals, ignored a pile of insurance forms, and made one or two good diagnoses. When I arrived home that night, my wife greeted me with a look that said I better sit down, because we needed to talk.

“The rash is back,” she said.

“The rash?” I said.

“You know, those little dots on Ryan’s legs.”

“They’re just little dots,” I said. “It’s nothing to worry about.”

“Why do they keep coming back?” she said.

“I’m not sure,” I said, eyeing a two-inch roast that was sitting on the counter. “That’s what little dots do, they come back.”

Jan must have sensed my hunger pains because she pulled out her best trump card.

“Let’s call Linda,” she said.

“It’s 8 o’clock at night. We’re not going to bother Linda because of a silly rash.”

Linda, of course, is Ryan’s pediatrician. I am merely his father and part-time medical consultant. Loosely translated, this means that I’m the one who has to go out at 2 o’clock in the morning if we run out of Tylenol. Linda, on the other hand, is Ryan’s real doctor. Never mind that I spent eleven years in academic medicine and that I was one of Linda’s mentors during her training. When it comes to discussions of this kind, I have about as much clout as a third year medical student.

At this point in our conversation, I learned what all husbands eventually learn—no rash is silly to a baby’s mother. So we decided to compromise. We called Linda.

Jan spoke with Linda for less than five minutes, but she hung up the phone with the gratified look that all physicians hope for at the end of successful medical encounters.

“What did Linda say?”

“She said it was probably a mild skin irritation and that it wasn’t dangerous.”

“Isn’t that what I tried to tell you?” I said, somewhat exasperated.

“No,” she said. “You just told me not to worry about it.”

It was at that point that I had the revelation I was looking for earlier in the day. What I had just experienced was a classic case of Doubting Spouse Syndrome. This is a common condition that occurs if a doctor foolishly attempts to minister to his own family. When doctors do this, their impeccable credentials and high standing in the community pale in comparison to the other parent’s need for objective information. As a consequence, a generally adoring and attentive spouse will snarl like a dissatisfied patron at a four-star hotel.

Ironically, I have seen Doubting Spouse Syndrome numerous times in the medical families I care for and have counseled professional couples on how to deal with the condition. Nevertheless, given the power of denial, I never dreamed that it would ever happen to me!

So the next time Ryan has a medical problem, I’ll be sure to explain things to Jan the same way I would to a patient. If I don’t, I may never see a pot roast again.

© 2012 Howard J. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.

(First published in Stitches, The Journal of Medical Humor January 2002.)

For more articles and other information,
please visit Dr. B’s website at