Relationships

What To Do When Infertility Is Hurting Your Relationship

| 04/10/2020

Illustration by Sophi Gullbrants

The decision to create a family with children is no easy choice, but the challenges of infertility can put an extra amount of stress and strain on a relationship. Here are some ways to cope with that stress.

Arguably the most difficult aspect of infertility is dealing with our long-held beliefs about the ability to conceive and produce children. There are a lot of messages, especially for women and female-bodied folks, about their value being driven by their ability to bear children. When someone finds that ability suddenly challenged, it can be quite an emotional challenge to overcome.

Challenge Myths and Stigma

Challenging stigma and stereotypes associated with infertility can be incredibly helpful and therapeutic In my practice, I’ve worked with hopeful mothers who discovered physiological challenges they hadn’t known about or needed to address until they actively started planning to expand their family. The stress of addressing those issues and their impact on fertility is daunting, but working through it in therapy has helped clients maintain perspective and find the strength to keep working towards their goal of having children. This also meant facing questions related to their worthiness as women.

On the other hand, we often assume that men suffer less when it comes to fertility issues, but we now know this isn’t necessarily the case. The idea of “virility” is very strongly connected to the ideas of masculinity and a man’s worthiness. When faced with challenges of infertility, men’s egos take a large hit. If sperm motility or concentration is an issue it can bring up those challenges to inherent worthiness and masculinity discussed previously. 

When you’re struggling to conceive, every cute post you see on social media can feel like an emotional dagger to the heart.

Even when they’re not the one with the “problem,” we know that men can struggle psychologically. If someone is struggling with feeling let down by their body, it can leave their male partner worried and seeking to offer the best emotional support they can. This can be incredibly daunting, especially if these challenges are unanticipated. And, of course, these are often very deep emotional waters which you probably don’t have a lot of experience treading.

For both men and women, infertility issues may lead to increased stress, disorganization, moodiness, and loss of focus—all the more reason why seeking out support should be a necessary part of any fertility challenge.

Seek Social and Medical Support

Struggling with infertility is incredibly isolating, especially if you’re in the typical range in which many adults have children (25-35). Depending on your social group, you may constantly face baby and toddler pictures or videos on your social media feeds. This may have even helped spark your desire to expand your family. When you’re struggling to conceive, every cute post can feel like an emotional dagger to the heart. It can lead to greater feelings of isolation and internalized shame.

Being able to find support, both social and professional, is essential for helping couples navigate infertility. This all begins with a medical team that listens to you and helps you come up with an effective treatment plan to expand your family, regardless of the origins of the challenges. These health professionals should be attentive, active listeners as they will undoubtedly be seeing you both through a trying physical and psychological journey.

In addition, working with a mental health counselor can be helpful to find an outlet to talk through all the related experiences and challenges to self-esteem. The space of therapy can also provide support for overall stress management, which, in my experience, is often necessary. For pairs, couples therapy with a therapist who has experience dealing with these dynamics can be incredibly helpful as well. Stressors like infertility often magnify long-held relationship problems. And when we are under extreme pressure, we tend to not function as well cognitively and emotionally. This can lead to a breakdown in communication and further isolation from one another. Couples therapy can help you repair and maintain the relationship as you address infertility issues.

One of the most difficult parts of infertility is dealing with loss.

Social support is also incredibly important during this time. Being able to talk with friends or other loved ones can offer a beacon of hope when things seem at  their darkest. Support contributes to lower emotional distress such as anxiety and depression, and has even been linked to greater relationship satisfaction. Another option: Attend an in-person or online support group for people struggling with fertility issues. This can offer another safe space and opportunity to express the emotions that run the gamut throughout this period.

Find Ways to Cope with Loss and Grief

One of the most difficult parts—if not the biggest challenge of all—of infertility is dealing with loss. This might mean the loss of being able to create the kind of family that you saw for yourself (in the way you desired) but it can also mean dealing with pregnancy loss and infant death. 

For most couples challenged with some form of infertility, the process to parenthood often takes years, costs a lot of money, and includes an arduous process of grief. And although we don’t often talk about miscarriage out in the open, it’s relatively common even if a couple isn’t struggling with infertility. It is estimated that somewhere between 10% and 20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage (spontaneous fetal death before 20 weeks). It is estimated that due to the possibility of unknown early-stage pregnancy, which is estimated to be very common, these numbers may be much higher. This figure also doesn’t include the number of medical abortions that happen for a variety of reasons.

For many women and female-bodied folks, not being able to carry a pregnancy to term causes immeasurable emotional and psychological pain. For male partners, it can be difficult to face the death of a potential child on their own, while also trying to be present for their partner who has had a physical and emotional experience they can never understand.

As you might imagine, pregnancy loss can also lead to relationship difficulties. The trauma of losing a pregnancy weighs heavily on both partners involved. Both partners can benefit from ongoing assessment and emotional support in the form of grief counseling. Organizations like Avail (in New York City) and Planned Parenthood offer support, too.

The path to parenthood is relatively easy for some, while others must navigate the often painful and confusing process of infertility treatments. This process can cause a great amount of stress and turmoil for each partner and both of them as a couple. Circumstances differ from person to person but self-compassion, as well as having access to appropriate care and support, is essential for surviving infertility challenges and keeping your emotional health and relationship intact.

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