How Infertility Affects Our Relationships
The infertility rollercoaster
There’s nothing easy about infertility treatments. You might be sore and covered in bruises from injections, while being expected to celebrate friends’ successful pregnancies and trying to tolerate being asked again if you’ve considered adoption.
You might have been told, “it will happen if you just relax.” But infertility treatments are anything but a relaxing experience. Instead, this can be one of the most stressful times in your life, and there’s no guarantee of the happy ending of bringing your newborn baby home.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that, in the US, about one-quarter of women aged 15 to 49 with no prior births have difficulty getting pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to term. Yet many of our clients who struggle with infertility tell us they’ve never felt so alone.
Conception isn’t easy even without fertility treatments — requiring healthy sperm and egg, unblocked fallopian tubes, successful fertilization and implantation, a robust embryo, and a strong and stable full-term pregnancy. The impairment of any one of these factors can produce infertility.
There’s also the rarely addressed physical and emotional toll of infertility, and the impact on your relationship. It might not feel like it, but you are far from alone.
The physical and emotional toll of infertility
In vitro fertilization (IVF) is never as simple or quick as what you see on TV.
The steps may seem straightforward, from monitoring to egg retrieval and then fertilization and transfer. But the process is complicated, and each stage can bring increased levels of anticipation and anxiety, not to mention the very real physical and emotional work you’ll be doing along the way.
There are the oral medications you’ll take, in addition to hormone injections, along with potential side effects like moodiness, hot flashes, headaches, and bruising. This can be a lot on top of any anxiety you may already be experiencing. There’s also the parade of medical appointments, including blood draws and ultrasounds to monitor your readiness, and that’s only leading up to egg retrieval.
If the egg retrieval process results in a couple of healthy eggs, you move onto fertilization and transfer. And then comes the waiting, which can be the worst part of the cycle. Did IVF work? Are you pregnant?
Even then, you may need to bolster your new pregnancy with weeks of progesterone injections. After that, there’s still the rest of the pregnancy.
It’s difficult to imagine the stress and strain involved, unless you’ve been through it. The physical and emotional are very real. IVF has been rated as one of the most stressful life events for both partners, ranking alongside divorce and death of a loved one. It’s an intense process that touches literally every part of your life.
IVF impacts your work schedule, social activities, personal and professional relationships, and home life. You may become so focused on infertility treatments that your other interests and responsibilities fall away. It might feel like your life is on hold while self-confidence takes a nosedive. With images of happy families on magazine pages and on every screen, feelings of frustration and resentment are common, especially if those around you seem to have no trouble getting pregnant. You and your partner may be challenged by reduced intimacy. Some research indicates that an infertility crisis may ultimately bring couples closer together with improved communication and coping skills, though those boons are hard won.
Gender differences: who’s to “blame”?
When working with clients around infertility, it’s not uncommon to encounter the issue of blame. You might blame yourself, your partner, or both. Conversely, your partner may blame you.
It’s a burden to think of yourself as depriving your partner of the family life you both crave, and you can also be worn down feeling like infertility is your partner’s “fault.”
One out of every six couples in the United States is impacted by infertility, and feelings of grief, depression, and even failure are common for both partners. It’s easy to point a finger at each other, even when you recognize that you are partners trying to solve a problem together.
Disappointment is natural when struggling with infertility. But making each other feel guilty or blaming your partner as the cause of the problem only compounds the issue. Sometimes the blame is coming from outside the partnership, from in-laws or acquaintances who question your commitment or even your moral fitness. You might also turn this blame inward on yourself, reinforcing feelings of shame and self-hatred.
When these feelings have a negative impact on your relationship, couples can seek help from professionals who are experienced with infertility issues. It’s important to remember that you’re not alone, and that help is available.
The truth is, infertility is complicated, and the treatments and other options can be confusing and overwhelming to navigate. No one is to blame. It’s vital to acknowledge these feelings and discuss them with your partner. Being open with each other is an opportunity to deepen your bond while healing this shared trauma.
Differing roles in the relationship: A recipe for disaster
Another potential stumbling block is the inherent unequal burden of infertility treatments. There’s no getting around the fact that one partner will spend considerably more time, effort, and physical endurance in the quest to get pregnant and give birth.
Even when your partner wants to be present and support you every step of the way, there are some things they simply cannot do. The hopeful mother-to-be is the one who must endure initial testing, daily injections, hormone checks, ultrasounds, and other invasive and even painful procedures.
In this context, it can be maddening if your partner pushes back with a complaint about delivering sperm samples or accompanying you to another ultrasound appointment. Your upset and anger are legitimate and valid.
When you’re both exhausted and pushed to your limits by infertility treatments, your differing roles in the process can be a recipe for strife and discord.
Discussing options and finding common ground
Although struggling with infertility can cause and inflame marital stress, it also presents the opportunity to learn how to cope and grieve together. Going through this experience can actually make your marriage stronger.
The first thing to realize is that not all treatment options work for each person, not only due to their biology or medical difficulty, but also their personal preferences, finances, and beliefs as a couple. Thus, it is important to work with a fertility specialist that won’t have one approach, but will tailor their approach weighing all the pros and cons of each option. For instance, we often recommend Generation Next Fertility to our patients located in NYC, as we have personal experience with them, and are impressed that they not only offer Traditional IVF, but also Natural IVF and Mild IVF for those who would like to go with more natural approaches.
When you discuss treatment options and make plans together, you reinforce the fact that you are partners working toward a common goal. Taking breaks between IVF cycles offers the space and time to reconnect as a couple and to remember what you like and even love about each other.
According to a National Marriage Project report, making time for “date nights” can have multiple benefits, including improved communication, deepened understanding and empathy, discovery of mutual interests, rekindling your romantic spark, reduced stress, and sharing new experiences and adventures — along with a decreased likelihood of divorce. These benefits were found to hold for couples both with and without children.
Couples therapy is another key strategy for dealing with the challenges of infertility.
Many people assume therapy is only for people experiencing mental health problems. They may not realize that the stress of going through IVF can lead to a diagnosis of adjustment disorder — a stress-related condition in which your emotional and behavioral reactions are greater than would otherwise be expected. These reactions can lead to increased feelings of anxiety or depression and can interfere with work, school, and daily life.
Symptoms of adjustment disorder can include sleep disturbance, lack of appetite, frequent bouts of crying, difficulty concentrating, avoidance, and feelings of sadness and overwhelm. Adjustment disorder can be the result of significant life changes and stressors — like infertility.
The good news is that you don’t have to struggle alone — help is available for you and your partner. It’s important to find a professional who specializes not only in work with couples but also in issues around infertility.
At a time when you might otherwise be dragged down by deep feelings of shame, frustration, and isolation, getting the help and support you need can open up a path to healing.
Our Infertility & Loss Experts are Clinical Psychologists at NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy that specialize in combining hypnosis and therapy for medical issues related to pregnancy. To get in touch or learn more about how combining therapy and hypnosis can help you, please contact us here.
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