Protecting your Relationship from Infertility Stress

April 24th – 30th, 2016 is National Infertility Awareness Week. Infertility affects 1 in 8 couples and 7.4 million woman in the United States alone. This week we will be posting in honor of NIAW and to raise awareness about this year’s theme #StartAsking.

Couple Holding Hands

When we marry and pledge to love each other “for better or for worse,” even the most pragmatic of couples tend to only imagine the “for better” part. Unfortunately, none of us are immune to life’s stressors and the additional pressure they can put on our relationships. For 1 in 8 couples, that stressor comes in the form of infertility – the difficulty or inability to conceive.

For many couples, what starts off as an exciting decision to add to the family – a decision that often comes with the expectation that conceiving and bringing children into the world is a natural and easy process – slowly gives way to frustration, anger, and sadness over watching treatments fail, medical bills pile up, pregnancies lost, and years passing by. The stress is further compounded by two different people, with different personalities and perspectives, working through his or her grief in different ways and on different timelines. Infertility can (and oftentimes does) bring many marriages to their breaking point.

On the other hand, just like the Thomas Carlyle quote “No pressure, no diamonds”, weathering life’s stressors can also make relationships stronger and ultimately more valuable in the end.

So how can you help your relationship withstand the pressure of infertility and even become stronger because of it? Here are a few tips that are useful no matter what challenge your relationship is facing…

  1. Acknowledge each other’s fears. When you encounter behavior that seems out of character for your spouse – perhaps an exaggerated display of anger and/or tears that seems disproportionate to the situation at hand, or you find yourself in an argument that just doesn’t seem to make sense – you can bet that there is a strong underlying fear that is fueling the situation. If you can catch yourself before you both tumble down the rabbit hole of reactivity, take a deep breath, and ask yourself and your partner “what are you afraid of right now?” you will have a much better chance of turning a potential fight into a productive conversation. The fears can be as varied as the people who have them, and they can change over time, but a few common ones include “I’m afraid I will never be a mother/father”, “I’m afraid you will leave me if we can’t have children”, “I’m afraid there is no end to the treatments and we will end up bankrupt”, “I’m afraid you will be sad forever”, “I’m afraid the best years of our marriage are already gone”, “I’m afraid you don’t want children as much as I do”, “I’m afraid that children are more important to you than I am”, “I’m afraid that I’m a failure”. It doesn’t matter what the fear is that is driving the reaction, the important part is identifying the fear and then addressing it. More often than not, once the fear(s) have been uncovered and talked about in a loving and supportive manner, the conflict dissipates and the two of you will feel closer as a result.
  2. Be aware of gender differences. Men are from Mars. Women are from Venus. It’s an oft repeated and rather cliché phrase, but at the end of the day, there is quite a bit of truth behind the notion that men and women process information and react to events differently. Men are linear thinkers, able to set aside information that doesn’t suit their immediate purpose in the name of pursuing a specific goal. Women are web thinkers, taking into account a multitude of variables and potential outcomes in any given situation. There are pros and cons to both thought processes and when approached with appreciation, these very different styles can actually complement each other quite well. However, if you ignore these differences, chances are you will find yourself frustrated, resentful, and maybe even a tad condescending when your partner just doesn’t seem to “get it.” This is where having a “tribe” (see previous post) comes in handy. Having a few close friends of your particular gender who you can turn to when your spouse just doesn’t make sense can be worth its weight in gold.
  3. Take Breaks. No, I’m not suggesting you “just relax” or take a vacation and then you will magically conceive. What I am suggesting is that non-stop trying, whether that is in the form of timed intercourse or IUIs or IVFs, is unsustainable. You and your relationship will eventually crumble under the weight of effort and expectations. As discussed previously, infertility is often a marathon and not a sprint. Blocking out a month, or even a summer, to not think or talk about trying to conceive and instead using that time to have fun, reconnect, and remember who you are as a couple outside of your fertility struggles is an excellent way to recharge and to regain a positive outlook for when you do get back down to the business of trying to conceive. Just make sure that you are both on the same page about how long the break will last and if/when you will resume treatments.
  4. Avoid polarization. It’s easy to slip into polarizing positions during times of stress. He wants to have children right away; she wants to wait a few years. She wants to pursue IVF; he wants to continue trying to conceive without intervention. He wants to pursue egg donation; she prefers adoption. He wants to stop treatments; she wants to try a new fertility clinic/intervention. The opportunities for polarization are endless and can often lead to gridlock – a conflict that seems to be without resolution. When you and your partner find yourself occupying opposing positions on any given subject, the best way to get “unstuck” is to try on the perspective of the other. Instead of restating your position for the hundredth time in a futile effort to convince your partner that you are right, try arguing his position for him. This may seem counterintuitive or even disingenuous at first. But the goal is an admirable one – understand your partner’s position so intimately that you can begin to empathize with his or her perspective. When both partners are able to accomplish this, the chances for finding common ground and moving from conflict to resolution are much, much greater.
  5. Find something to nurture together. One of the biggest motivations couples have for wanting to raise a child together is the opportunity to share an experience of nurturing something other than themselves or each other. And while no one is suggesting that getting a dog will take the place of that deep longing to have a child – getting a dog, or a hobby, or joining a cause that helps you both experience the feelings of nurturing something together can be incredibly fulfilling and healing. Having a joint venture, no matter what it is, can serve to help keep you both connected and allow you to express love, enjoyment, creativity, and a shared sense of purpose. This can serve to both prepare you for your future parenting roles and at the same time remind you both that there is more to life than just a singular focus on one particular goal.
  6. Show appreciation. Studies show that appreciating and showing that appreciation to your partner leads to happier and more stable marriages. In good times and (especially) in hard times, make a concerted effort to acknowledge what you love about your partner. Celebrate her successes, say “thank you”, give a heartfelt compliment, take on his least favorite chore – it doesn’t matter so much as to how you show appreciation, just show it. Think of these small acts of appreciation as a vaccine of sorts, protecting your marriage from the dangers of prolonged stress.

Mandy Persaud is a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in College Park, a distinct neighborhood in Orlando, Florida. She and her husband have personally traveled the road of infertility, including endometriosis, diminished ovarian reserve, and multiple failed IVFs, and had their first child via egg donation.