The discovery that you have fertility issues can be devastating for a couple. In a culture where there is 'family planning' and 'birth control', our fertility is often taken for granted. The grief inherent in this process, coupled with the physical, financial and emotional challenges of the journey ahead, can be overwhelming.
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.
The following are not intended as sweeping generalisations, but are patterns of behaviour that fertility counsellors often observe in men and women. It's not that one way of coping is right and the other wrong, it's just different coping styles.
Men may see themselves as having to 'support' their partner and to do this they think is important to 'stay strong' or 'be the rock'. Often, 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. This can be exacerbated by the fact that women typically bear the load of fertility treatment, and men can feel left out of the process.
Despite their partner's attempts to engage in conversations, men 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.
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.
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. For many men this is a mystery: they wonder how talking can help when essentially the problem (from their perspective) remains unfixed.
Many women seem to know intuitively the benefits of being allowed to cry fully until the tears stop naturally. 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 on to other things.
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, 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.
Other help is available, too. You may like to attend your local Fertility NZ support group to meet others 'in the same boat' in a safe environment.
It is very comforting to talk to others going through similar experiences and to then know that your feelings are 'normal' and you're not alone.
Counsellors offer specialist support – we recommend seeing fertility clinic counsellors who are knowledgeable in the decisions and challenges faced during fertility challenges (you do not need to be a patient of the clinic to see a counsellor there).
Sharing your thoughts and feelings with others or being there as a 'listening ear' without needing to fix anything or give advice, can bring much comfort and build closeness in relationships. Acknowledging that partners might cope differently and respecting these differences is really important too.
Let partners and other support people know what you need and what you don't need, and lots of self compassion, will all help to get you through your fertility journey in the best shape possible.
Ironically, times of trial can be opportunities for growth and consolidation. Hold on tight to those who are on this journey with you.