By Jean Campbell, LMFT
Carol and Tom waited four years after their storybook wedding to start planning for the family they always assumed would be part of their life together. When they announced to their families over the Thanksgiving holiday that they were ready to become parents, the eruption of cheers heightened their own excitement. The couple expected to make a more dramatic announcement within a few months.
Now decidedly less naïve, Carol looks back on that time with sadness. After a year of frequent, unprotected sex, she and Tom joined the 15% of couples who struggle with infertility. Passion, hope, and planning had gradually given way to anxiety, frustration, and a loss of control as Carol’s periods continued like clockwork, month after month. The joyful sex the couple enjoyed in the early days as they imagined creating a new life together turned into a chore timed around ovulation. There were even times when Tom couldn’t perform, and that only intensified the sense of failure that hung over the couple like a dark cloud. They were growing more distant, and there was a sharper tone in their arguments. As they waited for their appointment at a fertility clinic to start the round of tests that would determine the source of the problem, each secretly hoped that it was the other’s ‘fault.’
Most people, like Carol and Tom, just assume they will be able to have children. Almost no one is prepared for infertility. When problems occur in achieving pregnancy, there is often a period of shock and disbelief, followed by anger and resentment. Infertility can precipitate a major life crisis and a loss of perspective. Life can become distilled to a single focus, with everything else taking a back seat to getting pregnant. Infertility treatment is emotionally and physically demanding, as well as financially costly. Couples undergoing treatment often find themselves on a roller coaster of hope and despair.
Of course, individuals react differently to a diagnosis of infertility depending on how much importance they place on having children in their life. Women are often more heavily affected because their sense of female identity is closely associated with pregnancy and motherhood. A woman who is unable to become pregnant may experience anger, guilt, inadequacy, and disgust toward her own body. She may avoid friends and family who have children and burst into tears after receiving an invitation to yet one more baby shower for a co-worker. Increasing isolation can cut a woman off from the very support needed to deal with the emotional pain of infertility – support that isn’t always forthcoming from her partner.
Relationships are heavily strained by infertility. The infertile partner may fear abandonment, while the fertile partner may struggle with feelings of blame and anger toward the other. As each partner attempts to cope with their own feelings, they may find it difficult to empathize with each other. Humor and spontaneity are often casualties of the strain.
There are frequently differences between partners in their intensity of desire for a child, especially if one already has children from a previous relationship. Conflict often erupts over what treatment options to pursue or even whether to pursue treatment at all. Financial considerations weigh heavily on many couples as they attempt to balance a life dream with a secure future. All of these stresses can leave couples feeling emotionally distant and numb.
Couples can minimize the negative relationship impact of infertility by becoming informed, getting support, and seeking counseling.
Knowledge is power, and couples facing infertility need as much information as possible to counter the terrible powerlessness they feel in their situation. Becoming knowledgeable enables people to make informed choices about tests and treatment options.
People who receive support from their partner, family, and friends do much better at coping with the challenges posed by infertility than those who remain isolated. There are also support groups that can serve as both a source of information as well as a source of empathy and understanding from others with similar problems. If you need help in locating a support group, you can contact RESOLVE: The National Fertility Association at www.resolve.org.
Counseling with someone trained in dealing with infertility issues enables people to voice their fears and concerns and to address any relationship dynamics that are interfering with the couple’s ability to stay connected. Getting professional help is particularly important if either partner is experiencing emotional symptoms that are persistent and are seriously affecting their ability to function.
Infertility is one of the greatest challenges a couple may face, but the relationship can be a source of strength and comfort if couples maintain open communication and stay committed to nurturing their connection with one another. A crisis can either divide or unite. Successfully coping with infertility can create a stronger relationship bond that will help a couple weather future challenges – with or without children.
Jean Campbell, LMFT, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and a clinical member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT). She has worked in the mental health field for 30 years specializing in relationships and sexuality. Jean started her career working with adolescents in a mental hospital. She then moved on to Planned Parenthood of Louisville where she became a sex educator and counselor. She later worked for eight years at a private, non-profit mental health agency prior to going into private practice in 1994. Since that time, Jean has maintained a full-time private therapy practice and is writing a book on how adults of all ages can keep their sex drive alive. Jean has been married for 21 years. She has 2 children and a stepson who are grown and living on their own. Two cats now keep her and husband company.