Relationships and Infertility

By Joni S. Mantell, C.S.W.

"Infertility is the kind of experience that you have to handle together, or else it will tear your marriage apart." While that quote from a Fortune Magazine 1994 article on infertility may overstate your feelings, there's no denying that infertility is stressful on a relationship. Here we will look at some ways to keep your marriage healthy during this difficult time.

Any medical problem stresses a marriage but infertility changes the usual model of one partner being ill and the other partner being the caretaker. Infertility is a joint problem requiring mutual solutions regardless of who has the diagnosis. The decisions affect both partners deeply. So the usual roles in which one partner protects the other can be broken down and lead to much confusion.

Couples communication is essential to maintaining harmony. Individuals must listen and share, remembering their partner may have different needs. Partner support is essential to surviving this crisis. Yet many find that men and women cope differently with infertility and that this can lead to misunderstandings and tension.

Women and men were socialized to feel and respond differently, Most women grow up looking forward to motherhood as one of the roles that they will definitely fulfill. While males anticipate being strong providers, their identity is often less consciously bound to the wish to be a parent. When the news of infertility is initially presented to a couple, women often very quickly experience a major loss of self-esteem, some depression and even guilt due to their inability to fulfill their early childhood wish. Men, on the other hand, often suppress emotions associated with fertility and may respond by immersing themselves in a variety of activities in an attempt to appear strong and in control. Men may even defensively ignore the problem because of the feeling of powerlessness that it engenders. However it is important to note that men are affected deeply by the threat of infertility and are concerned about not becoming fathers. Male grief may not be manifested as early on in the process as it is for females.

Women seem to need to talk and emote about infertility more than men. Men seem more able to compartmentalize the experience, by putting it away and only taking it out when it is necessary to deal with it directly (i.e., at the doctors, in decision-making). While many men can focus on areas of success like work or sports, many women experience a spread effect, feeling badly about themselves in other areas as well as about the infertility. Women can learn from their husbands in this regard, taking pleasure in some other activity during treatment.

Men need to realize that their wives are not crazy but feel better letting their feelings out. Husbands may feel helpless about consoling their wives especially in this instance when their wives grief triggers their own sometimes less conscious pain. If men can listen to their wives' feelings without trying to give advice or to find a solution, they will probably find that their wives respond well to this emotional validation. Women should try to decrease their need to be repetitive about the emotional experience of infertility and to acknowledge the discomfort or feeling of helplessness this might engender within their husbands. These gender differences probably occurred around other issues in the relationship, but the added pressure in infertility is that both partners are extremely vulnerable at the same time. Since women experience the need to talk more, they might initiate joining a support group, either for women or for couples.

In addition to gender differences, you will have timing differences in facing the steps along the way. While this can feel threatening when you are trying to reach such an important goal, try not to panic and try to give your partner the support he or she needs to consider their feelings about this next step or issue.

Couples also often complain about the lack of spontaneity in lovemaking during treatment. Try to explore different ways to experience affection and romance together. Find mutual activities that you both enjoy in order to preserve your sense of compatibility. These activities will build your relationship and may even revive your sense of spontaneity at times.

Infertility can become almost all-consuming and it is important to remember that we do have other facets of our lives. Whether it's taking a walk or a vacation, time together away from dealing with the issue can be both rejuvenating and a reminder of what you have to be happy about.

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