A Couple’s Guide to Coping with Infertility

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If you and your partner have been trying to get pregnant for a year or longer but haven’t yet conceived, it’s possible you are facing fertility issues. You might already have started talking with your doctor about these challenges and your options for getting pregnant.

Most likely, your doctor is monitoring all aspects of your physical health. But it’s important to take care of your emotional well-being too. People who want to have a child but struggle to get pregnant may face a range of emotions, including anger, frustration, grief, and shame. If these emotions aren’t dealt with productively, they can fester and contribute to pain, resentment, or mental health issues such as depression.

Infertility not only affects you and your partner individually, but also your relationship. Here, we’ll discuss problems you may face as a couple if you’re dealing with infertility and ways you can address them. When difficulties are managed in healthy ways, you’re more likely to grow stronger as partners than grow apart.

Social Stigma Around Infertility

Discovering how common infertility is surprises many people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12% of American women between the ages of 15 and 44 have trouble getting pregnant or struggle to carry pregnancies to term when they do conceive.

Once a couple marries, it’s often assumed they’ll begin trying to have a child. Certainly, this assumption is flawed in more ways than one, but one main issue is the stigma that often results. Your parents and friends might ask prying questions. Social situations may become uncomfortable if your friends don’t seem to understand what you’re going through. People may avoid inviting you to events like birthday parties or baby showers. Even if they do so out of good intentions, you may still end up feeling excluded.

It’s important to experience your feelings as they come, but it’s also important to avoid blaming yourself or your partner. Blame, self-directed or otherwise, can trap you in a painful cycle that leads to more distress.In the past, women took much of the blame for infertility. While it’s known today that infertility can result from male or female factors, women may still struggle with feelings of failure or shame. Men may deal with similar pain but find it harder to talk about. In society as a whole, there can be a general feeling that couples without children are somehow incomplete, a judgment that can make the distress of infertility even more painful.

In recent years, many celebrity couples have shared their experiences with infertility, including Michelle and Barack Obama. Maybe you’ve talked about your infertility with a loved one and felt empowered and supported by their reaction.

Infertility issues often feel like a private struggle. But reducing the stigma could help more people feel comfortable talking about their own difficulties becoming pregnant. People who don’t feel ready to open up may still draw support from knowing they aren’t alone. No matter which factors contributed to infertility, neither you nor your partner should feel shame.

Avoiding Blame and Shame

Letting yourself experience grief is an important part of coping with infertility. Even if you’re pursuing fertility treatments, facing the reality that becoming pregnant may not be possible can have a heavy emotional impact. Grief and sadness may be your first reaction.

Sometimes the cause of infertility can’t be determined. But finding out infertility issues stem from you can lead to decreased self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. If your partner is the one who is infertile, you may might feel frustrated. You may struggle to keep from blurting out that it’s their fault, not yours.

It’s important to experience your feelings as they come, but it’s also important to avoid blaming yourself or your partner. Blame, self-directed or otherwise, can trap you in a painful cycle that leads to more distress.

Counselors who work with couples dealing with infertility recommend talking to your partner about how you feel, openly and honestly. This might be difficult when you’re angry, but remember: You and your partner are a team, and communication is essential in a good team. Even if you’re angry, hurt, or ashamed, it’s usually better to talk about your emotions calmly, rather than waiting until they burst out during an argument or stressful moment. You may decide not to share your struggles with family and friends, but commit to being honest with each other.

Choosing Other Fertility Options

Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) helps many couples treat fertility issues. When considering your options, it’s important for you and your partner to agree on how long you’ll pursue treatment, how much money you can spend, and what treatments you’ll try.

Have an honest discussion with your partner about treatments you’re uncomfortable with before planning on any procedures.Your insurance may not cover all (or any) of the cost of fertility treatments. Beginning treatment with a financial limit can help you avoid putting yourself in financial difficulty by continuing indefinitely.

It’s also helpful to decide on a length of time you’ll try treatment for. ART can give you hope, but treatments don’t always work right away. Sometimes they don’t work at all. The uncertainty and stress associated with treatment can have a negative effect on your relationship. Though you may feel renewed grief if you approach the end of the time period and still haven’t conceived, having a limit in place can help relieve some of the uncertainty and emotional distress.

Depending on your specific fertility issue, a range of treatments may be available. Options include medication, in vitro fertilization, and intrauterine (also called artificial) insemination. You might also choose to use donor eggs or sperm or have a surrogate carry a fertilized egg to term.

Some of these options may not work for you due to religious, ethical, or personal beliefs. For example, some people consider freezing embryos to be unethical. Have an honest discussion with your partner about treatments you’re uncomfortable with before planning on any procedures.

Addressing Infertility in Couples Counseling

Though it’s possible to maintain a strong, committed partnership while navigating infertility issues, taking preventative steps can help keep your relationship healthy. Research suggests infertility is a highly stressful and upsetting experience, and any type of stress can affect a relationship negatively. Couples therapists recommend seeking help early on instead of waiting until the crisis you’re facing starts to significantly affect your relationship.

A 2017 study found evidence to suggest couples with compatible coping methods had better communication and were more likely to develop a stronger relationship despite infertility. In other words, it is often better to deal with the issue as a team, even when your instinct may be to deal with your pain alone. Therapy can help you and your partner develop strong coping strategies and quit maladaptive behaviors such as avoidance.

Therapy also provides a safe space for you to talk about your feelings regarding infertility and mental health symptoms you’re experiencing. (Talking about these in individual therapy may also be recommended). Your therapist can support you and your partner through finding helpful ways to cope, relate, and connect during infertility challenges.

If you aren’t already working with a couples therapist, it can help to begin seeing one, even if fertility issues aren’t affecting your relationship at the moment. Some couples therapists may even have specialized training in infertility counseling. You can begin your search for a couples counselor in GoodTherapy’s directory.

References:

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  4. Infertility. (2018, March 8). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/infertility/symptoms-causes/syc-20354317
  5. Itkowitz, C. (2018, November 9). Michelle Obama is one of millions who struggled with infertility. Here’s why her broken silence could matter. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2018/11/09/michelle-obama-is-one-millions-who-silently-struggled-with-infertility-heres-why-her-broken-silence-could-matter/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.8d2645a61c30
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