As a Couple...
The demands of an infertility journey - particularly during treatment cycles - can often be all-consuming and put a strain on relationships. So, while achieving a pregnancy and having a baby will be your focus at this time, it's vital that you look after your partner or key support people.
Having an awareness of how each partner copes and deals with things is important as, more often than not, partners cope differently. It's also helpful to talk in advance of treatment about what each person finds helpful for support during challenging times.
Tips for couples
- Agree on a level of communication about fertility which suits you as a couple – often one person wants to discuss the journey more than the other.
- Strike the right balance for you - somewhere between only discussing fertility, and ignoring it completely. For example, there may be an agreed time set aside without distractions such as phones and TV, for these discussions.
- Enjoy intimacy and sex in your relationship that is not focussed on conceiving, i.e. not just during the fertile time of the month.
- Although women bear much of the load of fertility treatment, the support role is crucial and people can support their partner by attending appointments with them. They can also take a proactive role in learning about such things as their diagnoses, treatment and fertility health, asking questions, and being together when getting results.
- Both partners are responsible for optimising their fertility by living a healthy, balanced lifestyle while trying to conceive. Also, encourage each other to take time out for self- care activities such as a walk, massage, reading a book, sports, hobbies.
- If you are embarking on single parenthood, you will have one or two support people who are closely involved in your journey. Let them know what you need – i.e. what feels supportive, and what doesn't.
- You may like to acknowledge their support and what it means to you. This may be at certain times such as Christmas or beginning a treatment cycle.
- Even if you are embarking on this journey with a partner, it may be helpful to have someone outside your relationship whom you can trust to share your emotions with and supplement the support from your partner.
This information is not to provide sweeping generalisations about men and women as groups, but to highlight some recurring differences around men’s and women’s emotional experiences of infertility.
Men and women will come to counselling for different reasons. Most often it will be the woman in a couple who will initiate counselling, finding that she seems to be the one who is experiencing the most emotional pain around not being able to have children. Women will often wonder at their partner’s lack of feelings and think that maybe the counsellor will be ‘able to unearth from hidden depths their mate’s ‘real’ feelings’. Or on occasions it will be a man who ‘brings’ his female partner to counselling because he is so distressed by her level of pain that he is seeking help to know how to help her. In the counselling situation their different perspectives unfold.
A male perspective
Sometimes, the man may have feelings that he is not expressing. It is often not a man’s style to openly talk about and express sadness. He is more likely to deal with his painful feelings privately or he may express his grief as anger or frustration at the situation he finds himself in. He may see himself as having to ‘support’ his partner and to do this he thinks it is important to ‘stay strong’ or ‘be a rock’. “We can’t both collapse” is something that both men and women say. Quite often men will say that they feel positive and very hopeful that they will achieve a pregnancy in the future – they put their faith in the medical profession being able to ‘fix’ the problem. Whilst they carry such hope, “why grieve or worry about something that may never happen?” Typically, when faced with a problem, men will want to move into action mode to try and fix things. The difficulty they face with infertility is that it is outside of ANYONE’S control. This inability to fix the problem and therefore take away their partner’s distress leaves many men feeling powerless and useless. Despite their partner’s attempts to engage in conversations they may try to avoid talking about infertility because no matter how much they talk it does not (in their minds) solve things. Having said things once they feel there is nothing more to be said.
A female perspective
Contrast this with the common strategy used by women. They will often feel better after talking about their feelings - simply expressing feelings is a release from the thoughts going around in their heads. Being able to cry their tears and be held and listened to is the comfort they seek. For many men this is a mystery: they wonder how talking can help when essentially the problem (from their perspective) remains unfixed. When women cry, their partners may do all they can to stop the crying. They may use humour to try and cheer them up. They may tell them not to cry, e.g. “I’m sure we’ll have a baby. You’ll see, it will all turn out in the end.” They may get angry and withdraw. Whatever their strategy, the man’s goal will often be to stop the tears as soon as possible. Women will at times appreciate their partner’s attempts to cheer them up with humour and optimism. Sometimes however, they may feel continually frustrated in their attempts to talk and grieve because their partner is unwilling to just listen and acknowledge their pain. Many women seem to know intuitively the benefits of being allowed to cry fully until the tears stop naturally – and believe us, the tears do stop in the end. As the tears finally subside (for the time being) there is often a sense of calmness, peace and a letting go of tension that then allows a person to move onto other things.
Women who do not have ‘permission’ to cry may spend a lot of energy containing their sadness, which may eventually cause anxiety and feelings of depression. Alternatively the tears may be finally triggered and the floodgates opened in social or work situations that leave her feeling exposed and vulnerable.
Men and women are grieving childlessness from a very different perspective. Women very often feel the grief earlier than men. They were ready to be mothers yesterday and the longing for a pregnancy makes each monthly period a signal of their loss.