Infertility: Navigating the Emotional Journey
By the author of A Couple's Handbook for When You Want to Have a Baby (More Than Anything Else)
The experience of infertility differs from one individual to the next. Often when partners feel differently about the ability to achieve fertility, feelings of isolation increase. It is important to consider these differences in order to understand each other better. Men frequently have a double agenda when it comes to infertility. They are often focused on achieving a pregnancy as well as taking care of their partner. Historically, men have been trained to “kill the bear and take care of the woman.” This ideal automatically creates the tendency for men to “try to fix it.” Additionally, society often teaches men they should be strong and not show emotions, leaving them with anger as the only emotion they feel acceptable to express. For most women society has granted permission to express a variety of emotions. Crying and talking about the pain of not being able to achieve pregnancy is acceptable. Women are able to focus solely on the pursuit of the child and don’t have the dual responsibility of worrying about themselves. Many times women just want to be able to talk about the infertility and don’t expect answers or cures. But for men, processing feelings and thoughts is often an internal process. When they talk, they want feedback or action.
These differences are important to acknowledge. You don’t want to fall into a pattern of assuming you know what your partner needs or wants, rather than asking. It often helps to remember the phrase “to understand does not mean to agree.” If you can work toward not expecting your partner to feel the way you do, but rather expect they can accept the way you feel as valid, your relationship will be on solid ground. Increased conversations about the feelings that result from being at different places with respect to emotions and decision making is vital to maintaining relationship cohesion.
Infertility poses a great threat to the intimacy experienced by couples. So often making love is equated to making babies. As infertility persists, the feeling of failure can invade your sexual relationship and cause intercourse to be a painful reminder of what is not happening.
Additionally, some procedures cause increased ovarian size, which makes intercourse uncomfortable and in some cases prohibited. Remember, there is more to intimacy than intercourse. It’s not uncommon for couples to forget to express their affection or assume their partner “knows I love him/her.” During infertility treatments, it is essential for you to increase your affection and verbal commitment to each other. Often the best gift you can give your relationship is time out from treatment. Breaks from a treatment regimen give you the opportunity to refuel your “emotional bank account” and take time for each other. Remember, you came together for what you saw in each other, not just for children you might have together.
Often society does not acknowledge grief over the inability to have children, although this grief is valid. Each cycle without pregnancy is often experienced as the death of hopes and dreams. Just as with other losses this causes grief-but often it is more difficult to resolve. The grief of infertility is “ambiguous.” There is no “body” and often there is not an arena for expression of this grief with others.
Many times acknowledging the painful feelings that are associated with negative pregnancy tests or periods that start is the first step to grief resolution. It may also be helpful to write down what a positive pregnancy test would have meant and what this child would have been like. Though these exercises sound painful, they help make your loss concrete, which increases your permission to yourself to grieve.
Discounting the significance of a treatment cycle does not cause the pain to be any less if it is unsuccessful. This practice simply makes it more difficult to allow yourself to feel the true pain of disappointment and lost hope for the attempt. In addition, the accumulation of unresolved grief makes it more and more difficult to continue on after a time.
You will each experience the grief of infertility differently. Be honest with yourself and your partner and decide what you need to do to heal from the disappointments of infertility. Many patients find it is helpful to talk to counselors who have previously worked with infertile couples. The ability to discuss the feelings of loss associated with reproductive disappointments can be very healing.
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