Just as infertility causes emotional stress to an individual, it also impacts relationships—most especially, your romantic relationship. Trying to conceive can create conflict and tension, but it can also bring couples closer together. It can do both at once! Here are some of the most common relationship challenges brought out by infertility, followed by practical steps you can take to heal and grow from the experience.
Note on the research: the vast majority (if not all) of studies on couples and infertility stress have been done with heterosexual married men and women. More studies are needed, especially ones that include a variety of relationship styles. Until then, we can use what we learn from marriage research, and at least partially apply those results to other kinds of romantic partnerships.
Sexual Stress When Trying to Conceive
Your sex life may be the very first victim of trying to conceive stress. At first, whispering, “Let’s make a baby” can be a turn on. After months of trying, it’s the last thing either of you wants to say or hear.
Stress in the sexual relationship is even more common for couples trying to time intercourse for their most fertile time. Research has found an increase in sexual dysfunction—both for men and women—when timed intercourse is used to get pregnant.
Because sex is also a way to feel closer to your partner, stress in your intimate life can lead to tension in your overall relationship.
Disagreements on When to Seek Help
When should you get help? Well, from your doctor’s standpoint, this is a straightforward question. If you’ve been trying to conceive for one year, you should see your doctor. If you’re age 35 or older, you should seek help after six months. If you have any symptoms or risk factors for infertility, talk to your doctor right away.
Some couples have no arguments about seeking help when the time comes. However, what happens when one of you wants to get help now, and the other wants to wait? This can lead to conflict.
Disagreements on Telling Other People
With the exception of single women (or men) trying to have a baby with a sperm or egg donor, infertility is usually a couple’s problem. Talking about the struggle with other people is a decision you’ll need to make together. If you agree on who and whether to tell, great. If not, things can get complicated.
The partner who doesn’t want to share may be experiencing shame or embarrassment. They may feel infertility is too personal of a topic.
The one that wants to talk to others about the fertility challenges may feel isolated and lacking social support. This can lead to more trouble coping with infertility itself, feelings of resentment towards the partner who insists on keeping things secret, and increased relationship tension.
Fears Your Partner Will Leave
“I’m afraid he’ll/she’ll leave me because I’m the infertile one. I’m afraid they will leave me for someone who can give them a child.” This is a very common fear and one that many people never reveal to their lover.
If your relationship is otherwise strong, infertility is unlikely to break you apart. The best way to deal with this fear? Put it out there. Talk to your partner about your fears. Interesting side note: research has found that those who resort to self-blame and criticism—it’s my fault, I brought this onto myself—tend to have higher levels of infertility stress.
Researchers propose that some men and women choose self-blame as a way to take away stress from their spouse. In other words, by saying, “This is all my fault,” they hope to reduce the emotional pain of their loved one.
However, studies have shown that this kind of thinking hurts relationships. It is of no benefit to anyone and doesn’t take away or relieve any stress for the other partner.
Tension and Resentment
Who has it worse, the one who is subjected to the most procedures? Or the one who is infertile (if only one of the two), and therefore has the emotional burden of feeling at fault?
Who has it worse? The one who has invasive fertility testing, or the one who has to go into a room alone, in a fertility clinic, and masturbate on demand? For some couples, these issues lead to resentment. The Pain Olympics are not unique to couples. This occurs between fellow fertility challenged peers, and certainly outside of the infertility community.
Everyone copes with stress in different ways. Studies have also found gender differences in the way people cope with infertility.5 These differences can lead to misunderstandings.
For example, one partner may accuse the other of “not caring enough” if their coping style is more subdued. On the flip side, one partner may accuse the other of “overreacting.”
Studies have also found that women are more likely to experience marital stress than men, regardless of the cause of infertility.6 This doesn’t mean the men don’t care. Only that their relationship stress levels from infertility are lower.
Arguments over money are not unique to infertile couples. However, because infertility can be very expensive, tension over finances is common. Co-pays, fertility tests and treatments not covered by insurance, travel to and from fertility clinics, lost work time due to procedures and appointments—all of these may lead to financial strain.
Most couples will not require IVF treatment. For those that do, it can lead to long-term financial burdens. Almost all couples that go through IVF need to borrow money. This can mean years of debt.
Even once infertility or IVF is behind you, the financial stress of infertility may follow for quite some time. Other possible sources of financial stress include:
- disagreements over whether to pursue treatment (due to costs)
- whether and how to borrow money
- whether or not to ask friends and family for financial help (like through crowdfunding)
- whether to skip treatments and go straight to adoption (which is also expensive)
Differences of Opinion on Moving Forward
Some couples may disagree on whether to pursue IVF treatment or any fertility treatment. Those disagreements can be related to debt and bills, but they can also be about discomfort with the treatments themselves.
Couples may disagree on whether to take a short break from testing and treatment. They may disagree on whether to keep trying or move on for good. They may disagree on whether to pursue adoption or live a childfree life.
When the question of using a donor or surrogate arises, decision making becomes even more difficult and complex. This is why almost all fertility clinics require couples to speak to a fertility counselor before pursuing donor or surrogate fertility treatments.
How to Reduce Relationship Stress
While some research has found that men and women faced with infertility may be more likely to feel dissatisfied with themselves and their marriages, other studies have found that it can bring couples closer together.7
This isn’t because these couples breeze through infertility and don’t struggle. On the contrary, according to the research, it’s the struggle—and their need for mutual support—that leads to a more secure bond. Here are ways you can lower tensions and cope better as a couple.
Talk to each other. Share fears. Don’t walk around worried your partner may leave you and never say anything. While it can be terrifying to bring up, you will likely be relieved when your partner assures you that infertility is not going to send them away.
Talking about infertility can become a problem if one partner’s primary coping mechanism is to avoid the topic altogether. It can also become a source of tension if one partner talks about infertility “all the time.”
The key is finding balance. Be willing to talk, or be willing to talk about it less, depending on which side of the coin you fall.
Connect in Other Ways
Speaking of balance, it is important that infertility doesn’t take over all your communication. Especially in the midst of fertility testing and treatment, infertility can shadow everything in your life. You may not remember what you talked about before your fertility challenges hit.
Make an effort to connect in other ways. Yes, this will likely require actual effort. Think back to what you did during your dating days. Or, pursue a new hobby or activity together. Sit down and make a list of things to do together.
Speaking of connection, don’t neglect your sex life. Reclaim it back from infertility, and make it about intimacy and love again. This, too, will take effort.
Allow for Differences
Everyone copes differently. You can’t judge how much a person cares about an experience by looking at them or even by their actions.
Not everyone wears their emotions on their sleeves. At the same time, what looks like an overreaction to you may be perfectly normal for them.
This also brings up the issue of the Pain Olympics. There will always be someone in this world that has it “worse” or “better” than you. That person may or may not be your partner. It doesn’t matter. If your partner breaks his arm, and you break your little toe, does your toe hurt less because his broken arm is “worse?” Of course not.
Emotional pain is emotional pain. Offering each other support—without preconditions or comparisons—is the path to peace.
Reach Out for Support
Please don’t try to cope with infertility alone. Shame does keep many individuals and couples from reach out for support. However, research has found that couples that receive social support have improved relationships. Social support has also been found to be key for women dealing with infertility.
You don’t have to “tell the world,” so to speak. You can decide to share the information with only specific friends or family members. Just don’t try to do it all on your own.
Sit Down and Make a Plan
Research has found that putting together a practical plan of action helps improve marital satisfaction, especially for men.9 In some ways, infertility is not plan-friendly. You may not really know how long your struggle will be or what testing or treatments will be needed. However, you can at least make short-term plans. You can also make flexible plans.
It’s okay to talk about what you would do if you needed IVF, even if IVF isn’t on the radar. And it’s okay to make those plans, knowing that you may change your minds later.
Putting together financial plans—especially a savings plan—is a smart choice. The sooner you start putting money aside, the better. If you don’t need it for fertility treatment bills or adoption costs, you can use it for something else. No harm done.
Whether it’s an argument over who to tell or how to pay for a treatment cycle, avoid black-and-white thinking and aim for compromise. Does one of you want to tell others about the infertility, while the other wants to keep it secret?
Decide together on a select group of people who can be social supports. One of you wants to stop for good, while the other wants to keep going? Compromise by taking a temporary break instead, with plans to discuss moving forward when that break is over.
Sometimes, you’re not going to be able to reach compromises alone. A counselor can help you communicate and reach mutual agreements.
You may assume that counseling is only for those considering divorce, or situations of clinical depression or anxiety. This is a myth. Counseling is for everyone who can use some extra help with stress or a difficult situation.
Whether you see a therapist as an individual, or as a couple, it can help. When you feel supported, you’ll be better able to tend to your relationship.
Remember Infertility Is Not Forever
You may or may not have children one day. But you won’t be struggling to conceive forever. Research has found that feelings of depression and anxiety peak around three years post-infertility diagnosis. However, six years post-diagnosis, couples are feeling stronger, and depression and anxiety symptoms lessen.
Your relationship can survive this tough—but temporary—challenge. With time, and possibly counseling, your trying to conceive years can bring you closer together. Eventually, you’ll either have a child or stop trying to conceive. But there is life after infertility. Hold onto that hope.
Source: Verywell Family