Infertility has been described by many couples as one of the most stressful times in their lives. In fact, infertility has been reported to be just as distressing as a diagnosis of a terminal illness or the loss of a loved one. It is an experience that can affect nearly all aspects of life — health, emotional well-being, career, finances, and relationships.
Many couples notice that infertility changes their relationship — but these changes don’t have to be for the worse! You can get through infertility with a stronger, more solid relationship by knowing how to support one another through the most common infertility experiences.
What to Focus On:
Remember that you are both a team on this fertility journey. But even the most cohesive of teams has to deal with differences and conflict from time to time. It’s natural for each of you to have different needs, wants, opinions and concerns. And no one’s needs are more “right” or important than another’s. One partner may want to speed ahead with treatments while the other believes there is no need to rush. And one partner may feel the need to tell the whole world about the details of fertility treatments, while the other wants absolutely no one to know.
It’s important to make a game plan on how to negotiate these differences as early in the infertility journey as possible. Together, imagine different scenarios and plan on how to react. For example, how do you want to handle questions from others? How should you deal with family gatherings or baby shower invites? How many treatment cycles are you willing to try? Will you both go to the medical appointments together? Will you both follow a fertility diet? Write down your game plan and remember to review it regularly and change it as you go. Couples who consider themselves a team often report feeling more supported.
Although it’s important to talk together about a fertility game plan, it’s equally important to discuss other topics too. Infertility has a way of permeating through nearly every aspect of daily life. If you notice that most of your conversations are about medications, follicles, doctor’s appointment, and blood tests, then it may be time to change the subject once in a while.
Try having a “fertility-free” night at least once a week. Or try a fertility-free zone (an hour, for example) for a portion of each day. During these times, make a rule to talk about anything and everything but infertility. What kinds of things did you talk about before infertility? Think about including current events, music, or the latest book you want to read.
This is also a great time to try out new activities and interests as a couple and on your own. New activities keep the mind focused away from fertility issues. Doing new things together helps you to build positive memories for the future. And doing new things on your own gives you lots to share during those fertility-free discussions! Indulge in that movie marathon together or that painting class you have always been interested in. This is the time to avoid putting things on hold. Live your life now.
One of the dangers of a life that is overly fertility-focused is that of intimacy — both the emotional and the sexual kind — can become depleted. If you have been trying to conceive for any length of time, you are likely familiar with the concept of “sex on demand” or doctor-prescribed sex, where intercourse is planned and takes place even when the couple is not “in the mood”. Sex can feel like work! If you’re using fertility medications, the pressure can really be on to perform on-demand. And if you’re using IVF, some couples say “why bother” with sex?
You can keep the romance and spontaneity alive during the infertility journey by making an effort to connect sexually not just to conceive, but also on non-fertile days. This allows sex to become less about a “means to an end” and more about the experience. The key here is to connect purely for the sake of pleasure.
Another way to increase intimacy is to focus more on the emotional connection. Emotional intimacy involves having a closeness and connection with your partner and doesn’t have to involve sex. Pretend you’re a new couple and learning about each other’s likes and interests for the first time. Plan activities that make you feel connected on an emotional, or even on a spiritual level such as spending time in nature, taking a meditation class, or attending a yoga retreat.
Many couples say that they feel alone during the infertility experience. Most couples want to avoid talking about their struggles with others at work or social events. And some couples even want to avoid talking about their struggles with one another!
Often couples stop talking because there is a fear of be adding to your partner’s stress. But usually, the opposite is true. Most partners say “I just wish she would tell me what to do”. If you are able to share your needs with your partner, you have a better chance of those needs getting met. And your partner will feel less helpless.
When couples stop talking, whether to others or to one another, it can result in feeling socially isolated and unsupported. Even couples with the best communication can benefit from seeking out additional sources of support during the infertility experience.
Know that you are not alone! In Canada, 1 in 6 couples are diagnosed with infertility. Ask your fertility clinic if they have a support group where you can connect with others. You can also find support groups listed at Fertility Matters (Canada), RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association (US), and MyFertility.
You may also benefit from seeing an experienced reproductive health & fertility counsellor who can provide support throughout all stages of the infertility journey. A professional counsellor can help you cope with any fertility-related challenges that may arise and can help you find ways to keep your relationship strong while you build your family.
Written by Holly Yager, M.Ed., RCC, CCC on April 30, 2021 (adapted from original article written by Holly Yager for Genesis Fertility on September 2014)