Every fertility journey should be one of hope, happiness, connection with your partner and family growth. However, when we face fertility challenges, we go through a rollercoaster of emotions that can be difficult to manage and ends up impacting on the relationships and ability to feel connected.
Impact on relationships
Most couples are unprepared for the emotional upheaval of facing fertility challenges, and subsequent treatment. It can affect couples in ways they had never imagined. Couples may feel:
- Social pressure from friends and family, asking when they are going to have children.
- Feelings of isolation, as others seem to get pregnant rather easily.
- Financial pressure, to pay for costly treatments.
- The need to make decisions around their professional career, considering the uncertainty of their reproductive futures.
- Emotional stress of making other important decisions together. Couples may have different motivations for treatment, different opinions on what treatment to consider or how long to try for. Couples may also cope with stress and loss differently and have different views on what to do if treatment fails.
Despite the challenges, couples can develop increased feelings of connection and resilience through this process. Research shows that 1/4 of women reported that infertility had a negative impact on their relationships, whilst 1/3 of women in that same survey said their infertility struggle actually benefited their relationships with their partners. 3/4 of women also said their partners were very or extremely supportive while they went through infertility treatment and 90% of women were still with the same partner they were with when they went through infertility treatment. Those that separated said the treatments were not a major reason for the breakup.
Understanding the woman’s experience
Individual women will have different experiences of infertility (physical, emotional and mental situations as well as life experiences). Some women may feel angry and frustrated at not being able to have children and others might feel guilty or to blame (due to previous terminations, delay in starting a family for work or love, or if their body isn’t doing what it ‘should’ be doing). Some women may also find it very difficult to be around children and resent other pregnant women.
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. Women are often expected as part of societal demands to reproduce, so the failure to do so can increase feelings of inadequacy and despair, which can also lead to a sense of being less sexually attractive or valuable as a female. Their role as a female has been thwarted and they can feel useless.
Understanding the man’s experience
As most diagnostic interventions and treatment is performed on women, men can feel that they are left out of the loop. If there is a male fertility factor, some men can feel like they are less of a man. Some men equate fertility with virility and a low sperm count can make them feel impotent.
3 Strategies to regain wellbeing as a couple
There are a few strategies you can put in place to regain wellbeing, feel more connected and aligned in your journey to baby.
Be mindful that men and women tend to communicate feelings and thoughts differently. Women are more often able and willing to discuss and even sometimes ruminate about the various difficulties around treatment. Men frequently keep feelings internalised and give the message to their partner that they can’t or won’t discuss the issues. Therefore, men might be perceived by their partner as emotionally distant and less likely to express their emotions outwardly despite their deep concern and commitment to their partner.
Remain respectful of each other’s coping styles and remember the reasons why they got together in the beginning. Share information about the process and remain supportive about the process. To avoid letting the ‘fertility talk’ take over all your time together, try to limit conversations about the topic to 20-30 minutes. This may mean just tackling a bit of the topic or concentrating on how one or you both are being affected – rather than going around the same topic over and over again. You may not resolve every aspect in that time, but you will move forward a bit.
It’s a good idea to agree on fertility free talking time and equally time set aside for talking about it. Have some breaks during the week when this topic is not discussed. You can also have areas in the house where this topic is not discussed. And make sure you both have enough emotional resources and there aren’t other distractions competing for your attention such as trying to get to work, watching TV or taking telephone calls.
2. Activities that you can enjoy together
Just as talking about your fertility journey is important, it is also good to have fertility-free time, when you get to enjoy other aspects of life. This is an opportunity for you to remember things you used to do together, before the trying to conceive journey started, and maybe start doing them again. Think about activities that bring you pleasure, achievement and connection, that you can engage in together.
3. Bring back the intimacy
When trying to conceive, intercourse can become more functional or routine than it was previously. This can lead to a lack of spontaneity or enjoyment. Couples often say that their language around sex changes from intimate and fun to purposeful, timing and biological functioning.
To bring back the intimacy, you can designate different rooms in your house for your trying to conceive sex versus intimate and playful sex. Remember the ways you enjoyed sex early in your relationship and find ways to recreate it. Plan romantic encounters at non-fertile times, such as a bubble bath together or giving a massage.
Trying to conceive can impact relationships and couples’ ability to feel connected. The strategies above can help you regain balance and wellbeing as a couple. Getting professional help can also help you navigate difficult conversation and find a way forward together.
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