Infertility can be a lonely road, but you don’t need to walk it alone.
There’s no denying the fact that infertility can take a major toll on your mental and physical health.
The hormones, the disappointment, the needles and tests all impact your well-being. There is no way to describe the overwhelming pain associated with trying — and failing — to build a new life and new family with your bundle of joy.
But what is less often talked about is the impact infertility can have on the current relationships in your life.
ResearchTrusted Source suggests that infertility is often a very lonely experience, a fact that is only made worse by the drastic shifts it causes in your existing relationships. Shame, embarrassment, and stigma all have effects. Financial strain, lack of communication, and contradictory coping strategies can all amount to major rifts between you and the loved ones in your life.
Of course, your experience may differ depending on your unique circumstances. Still, there are a few common themes infertility warriors talk about that make an already lonely road feel even more barren.
Infertility and romantic relationships
Nothing kills the love-making mood better than the military-like monthly schedule of timed sex. Then, heartbreaking disappointment and knowing that you’ll have to do it all again in just a few short weeks adds to the stress.
Not surprisingly, one studyTrusted Source from 2004 found that men in infertile couples tended to experience less satisfaction in the bedroom. This is likely because of the mental pressure to perform every month. The same study also found that women often reported less satisfaction with their marriages. In same-sex couples, even though sex is not the means of conception, stress from the assisted reproductive technology (ART) process alone may cause problems with intimacy.
Also, a lot of negative emotion is dumped onto partners. Other problems in our lives might be shared between best friend gossip-fests, water cooler chit-chats, and family vent sessions. But many couples choose to keep their infertility struggles a secret. The result is a lot of pressure on one person for support.
In most couples, individuals cope with disappointment and sadness in different ways. You may end up feeling resentful when your partner accuses you of “overreacting” or “catastrophizing.”
Meanwhile you might feel like your partner “doesn’t care enough.” Or, you may have a partner who responds to your sadness by trying to “fix” the unfixable. Maybe all you really want is for them to sit with you in your sadness and understand.
Blame and resentment can easily affect couples going through fertility treatment. If you’re a woman undergoing invasive fertility treatments as a result of male factor infertility, you might feel resentment after every injection, blood draw, or negative pregnancy test. Or, if the treatments are the result of your own diagnosis, you might feel blamed for your body’s “dysfunction.”
In same-sex couples, the question of who bears the burden of treatment, or who is rewarded the experience of biological parenthood, may also be a source of tension.
Then, there is the financial strain. Treatments like in vitro fertilization (IVF) usually cost about $15,000 or more for a basic cycle with medication, according to Planned Parenthood. And each cycle of ART only offers a 21 percentTrusted Source chance of a “normal” birth for women under 35. A “normal” birth is a full-term pregnancy resulting in a single live birth of a baby with a healthy weight.
Success rates can vary significantly depending on the conceiving person’s age, the infertility diagnosis, the lab used, and the clinic. Couples often have to refinance their house, take out loans, and stretch themselves very thin to pay for treatments.
And, still, there is no promise you will see a baby in the end. If treatment doesn’t work, the loss can be even more significant. One 2014 studyTrusted Source of nearly 48,000 women suggests that couples who are unsuccessful in their fertility treatments are up to three times more likely to end their relationship.
Infertility and friendships
If you’re in your prime childbearing years, you’re probably surrounded by others in a similar season of life. This means Facebook feeds littered with baby bumps and blue and pink balloons. When you’re struggling with infertility, it feels like every person you see in the grocery store or dog park is pushing a stroller or rocking a bump. This illusion becomes reality when your best friends start sharing their pregnancy news.
While you may want to shower your BFF with gifts like adorable onesies and accept honors like “godparent” to their child, you might not feel comfortable seeing them. You might not even want to speak to them in an effort to manage your disappointment. If they know about your family’s baby-making struggles, your friends may try to avoid making you feel bad by distancing themselves from you.
Meanwhile, if you are able to muster up the energy to put a smile on your face when you say “I’m so happy for you,” your reaction might come across as awkward or fake. Not surprisingly, in a time when you need your friends the most, at least one 2015 studyTrusted Source suggests that self-imposed isolation is common.
Compared to your childless friends, you’re in a very different, complicated season of life. You might even want to protect them from knowing about the challenges that can come with starting a family.
While your friends may still be swiping right on Tinder and buying bottle service, you’re mortgaging your condo for fertility medication, and are fully consumed with your monthly cycle. Yet most people who have never tried to conceive still think that getting pregnant or getting someone else pregnant is as easy as a broken condom or a missed pill. And it may be, for them!
For same-sex couples, having a baby is naturally more complicated. There may be donor eggs or sperm, and the complicated world of surrogacy to explore. You may find yourself unsure of what to talk about with friends because your whole world is consumed with concepts they’ve never thought about before.
Infertility and your parents
Even for couples who are not struggling with infertility, the question “When am I going to get a grandchild?” is annoying AF. But when all you want is to be able to gift your parents a framed ultrasound photo as a surprise gift, this innocent question starts to really sting.
A lot of couples suffer through months of infertility and IVF treatments without telling anyone else in their lives. Some may not want to make their parents worry, while others don’t want to disappoint them prematurely when a pregnancy doesn’t stick.
To avoid awkward conversations — as well-meaning as they may be— you may feel the need to withdraw from your family. You might want to avoid family get-togethers where prying eyes analyze your wardrobe and drink choices, and baby-making jokes are sure to fly.
For people with very traditional parents, or same-sex couples whose families are struggling with their identity, ART like IVF may be seen as morally wrong. This adds another layer of stress if you’re suffering in silence.
Infertility and older children
If you’re facing secondary infertility (difficulty conceiving after having a child), or going through fertility treatments for baby number two or three, there’s an added pressure of child care on top of the daily infertility grind. Between potty training, sleep training, and the nonstop action of toddler life, it’s hard to find time to add “have sex” to your already packed (and exhausting) schedule.
Being present for older kids is hard if you’re experiencing infertility. Trying to conceive may mean skipping out on your child’s morning routine while you go in for early ultrasounds or blood draws. It also means you may be just too exhausted to give your little one the time and attention they crave. The financial strain may mean fewer family vacations or fewer activities to keep your kids happy and engaged.
Often, our little ones are too young to understand that there’s another baby on the way. It’s hard for them to understand why their parents are fighting and too emotionally drained to sing “Baby Shark” for the 10th time that day.
Parental guilt is overwhelming on a good day, but faced with the choice to give your child a sibling at the expense of giving them attention right now, it feels like you’re burning out.
How to maintain your relationships while facing infertility
While undergoing fertility treatments, your social circle may feel really cramped and small. It might feel like it’s just you, your partner, and your doctor navigating the uncertain roads ahead. If the relationships in your life are strained at a time when you need them most, here are some tips to help keep them strong.
Decide who you can trust and share your experience
Everyone’s comfort level is different when it comes to sharing their infertility journey. If you’re finding that silence is making your relationships feel disjointed, consider choosing one or two people in whom you can confide.
It might be someone you know also struggled with infertility, someone who gives good advice, or someone you know is non-judgmental and a good listener. Try opening up to one person and see how it feels. Or, if privacy is something you value and it brings you anxiety to share your news, joining an anonymous support group may help.
Craft new connections
While infertility is a lonely experience, the reality is you are not alone. As many as 1 in 8 couples struggle with infertility, and fertility treatments for same-sex couples is on the rise. That means a lot of people you know are silently suffering as well.
Whether you connect with others online, in your clinic, or through other infertility support groups, through this process you may foster new friendships and connections that last.
Ask for the support you need
Whether you’ve decided to share your experience, or you’re keeping it between you and your partner, let your support system know the kind of communication you need. They won’t know if you like frequent check-ins or if they should wait for you to reach out to them. Let them know what feels good to you.
Likewise with your partner, if you want them to sit in your sadness with you rather than trying to “fix” the problem, tell them that. Or if you need someone to talk you off a ledge and give you a realistic outlook, ask for what you need. Everyone’s communication style is different. We do not process grief and sadness the same.
Know your triggers
If going to a baby shower or children’s birthday party is just too painful for you, it’s okay to decline.
It doesn’t mean you have to completely pull away from that relationship (unless you want to, of course). Decide what’s best for your mental health. Find other ways to connect with people who are not so focused on baby or pregnancy.
Make room for romance and fun
While sex may bring up feelings of expectation, anxiety and disappointment, you can still be intimate without the pressure of sex.
Try scheduling a weekly date night or just cuddle on a random Tuesday night. Maybe you’ll take up a sport together, go see a comedy show, or bake a pie. Even though infertility can feel like a dark cloud, it doesn’t have to steal the sunshine from every moment in every day.