May 7, 2014
Most close relationships will go through phases of highs and lows in terms of attraction and enthusiasm. In a close relationship it is not uncommon for there to be periods where one or other partner may feel that the relationship is not as close as it used to be or that they are not getting the support that they previously experienced.
Infertility can have a profound affect on a couple’s relationship.
This will be unique and differ from couple to couple. While some couples find their relationship is strengthened through their mutual focus on the infertility crisis many others find that the constant stress and disappointment can be overwhelming.
For some couples it can be a time of closeness in that each partner works with the other to try and make sense of the situation and lend support to the other. For other couples it can be a time when they feel very alone and each partner is in their own world.
If the cause of the infertility is known one partner may feel guilty and responsible or feel that the other partner is blaming them. If the cause is unknown it can be enormously frustrating for both parties. Couples often have a difference of attitude to treatment with one partner wanting to pursue all options and the other may want to stop treatment at an earlier time to the other.
Unprepared for the emotional upheaval
Most couples are unprepared for the emotional upheaval of infertility and the subsequent treatment. The layers of problem are inclusive but by no means exclusive of financial pressure (it is a costly process), professional will I miss the chance of promotion and many women are reluctant to change jobs in case they are stressed during treatment and if successful they will need the maternity benefits of their current job.
There is emotional stress as to decisions around length and type of treatment and what to do if treatment fails. Infertile couples often have difficulty and stress engaging with friends and family who have children
Coping with infertility can be a different experience for men and women. As most treatment for infertility is done with women they often bear the most strain physically and emotionally.
How Women feel about Infertility
Individual women will have different experiences of infertility according to their physical, emotional and mental makeup.
Some women may feel angry and frustrated at not being able to have children and others might feel guilty or to blame if they have previously had terminations or postponed conception to pursue their career.
Some women find it very difficult to be around children and resent other pregnant women. Women sometimes say things like “everywhere I go other women seem to be pregnant without even trying” and “I find it very difficult to know what to reply when family friends and work colleagues keep asking when we are going to have children”.
Some women feel like their body has let them down or is “broken” in some way. Infertility is a sign to some women that they are not fulfilling their role as a female to reproduce which can lead to a sense of being less sexually attractive or valuable as a female.
Medical treatment for infertility can increase a women’s sense of a life put on hold as they wait for the next phase of treatment. Their feelings go through a range of emotions and it is often described as an emotional roller coaster of hope on the up part and despair on the down part when their period arrives.
A female is often programmed and expected as part of societal demands to reproduce so the failure to do so can for some women increase feelings of inadequacy and despair. Their role as a female has been thwarted and they can feel useless As one women put it “of what use am I if I cannot reproduce and be a mother”.
How Men feel about Infertility
Men can feel that they are left out of the loop as the focus of treatment is mostly on the women. If the infertility is due to a sperm dysfunction some men can feel like they are less than a man. Some men equate fertility with virility and a low sperm count can make them feel impotent and even lead to physical impotency.
If a couple proceeds with donor insemination in order for them to conceive this can exacerbate feelings of sexual inadequacy for the man.
How Infertility and Relationship difficulty Impacts your Sex life
Treatment for infertility can impact on a couple’s sex life. Sex can become a functional routine thing with the goal being to have a baby and can lead to a lack of spontaneous sex for enjoyment.
Most couples find the procedure very intrusive with many personal questions about the most intimate aspects of their relationship. The timing of intercourse to coincide with ovulation is exacting and makes sex as a command performance which can put strain on a man’s sense of potency and virility. A woman often feels like a baby making machine and that there has to be a purpose to the love making.
Frequently both partners will find that their libido is affected and that sex has become a chore. If the couple is required to proceed to donor insemination the having to produce a sample on cue for the man can lead to enormous strain on the relationship and even to bouts of impotency or premature ejaculation for the man, and possible vaginal dryness for the woman.
Communication and Infertility
Men and women rarely communicate feelings and thoughts around fertility in the same way.
Females will usually be able and willing to discuss and ruminate about the various difficulties around treatment. Men frequently will keep feelings under control and give the message to their partner that they can’t or wont discuss the issues. Men might be perceived as emotionally distant and less likely to express their emotions outwardly despite their deep concern and commitment to their partner.
Women frequently will have an outlet and need to talk about their experience with their partner or family and friends. It is not uncommon however for men’s male friends to show little understanding.
If a couple are infertile due to sperm dysfunction they might feel they need to keep this secret from their family and friends. Often females will come to counselling at this time without their partners as they need to express feelings and get support as they are not free to turn to their friends and family. It is not unusual for a female to be quite protective of her partner at this time and feel that she needs to deal with her emotions of anger and frustration on her own so as not to further burden him with feelings of shame and inadequacy.
Some Positive Strategies
Although infertility is a potential source of strain many couples also experience a closeness around fertility treatment. Frequently couples feel they can work as a team in their focus on treatment resulting in feelings of confidence that their relationship can withstand any future crisis it might encounter.
A central principle for tackling and coping with infertility is to make the relationship the number one priority. Couples need to remember the reasons why they got together in the beginning. Any relationship needs time and nurturance. One example is the importance of both partners being informed about the process of the fertility treatment.
It is necessary and important that partners remain supportive and wherever possible attend medical appointments and treatments together. Couples can keep each other informed and discuss which events and functions they feel able to attend and which they prefer to abstain from. This will differ from couple to couple and for individuals for example, baby showers, birthdays and mothers day can be very stressful for some couples.
Communication is key to any successful relationship and especially when the couple are experiencing a life stressor such as infertility. Most couples find discussions about infertility emotionally and physically draining. Therefore, it is equally important to remain respectful of each others coping styles and limit each conversation to 20-30 minutes.
During this conversation it is important that it takes place at a time when you both have enough emotional resources and that there are not other stressors competing for your attention such as trying to get to work, watching TV or taking telephone calls. At this time it is helpful to not blame or label but to use I messages to the partner. The process goes like this, when you do A in situation B I feel C. For example, when you do not accompany me for my fertility treatment I feel scared and alone. At this time it is important to avoid "you always" and "you never". Keep your statement focused on the immediate event.
Sexually it is important to keep connected to the love in your life. Enhance your intimate life by giving each other massages taking baths together, watching erotic movies. Try and schedule romantic evenings away from the time of ovulation. Change the time and settings that you normally make love. Increase the amount of physical affection outside the bedroom. Take time out as a couple to have fun.
It is important that you remain mindful of the reason why you were attracted to your spouse initially. What were the reasons that made you decide that he or she was “the one” that you wanted to spend the rest of your life with?
It is useful to ask yourself the question if you knew that the future with this person would not include children would you still want to be with them. Think and engage in the activities that made you enjoy each others company. Try and find the humour in the situation.
Take time out for yourself as an individual in whatever gives you meaning and pleasure and find a hobby and interest that you can engage in together.
Turn for support to family friends.
Counselling is a valuable means by which you can develop coping mechanisms and decision making skills. Sometimes one needs a third party to provide a safe space where partners can express feelings, thoughts and concerns. It is an environment where couples can feel supported in their emotional and stressful journey through infertility.
Beverley, one of our Sydney Relationship Psychologists, specialises in helping you manage your relationship while navigating infertility. She has had many years of experience in this field and brings her empathy, knowledge and skills to help you manage this often difficult time of your life. She also offers Skype session for those located anywhere is Australia.