There are few things more devastating than struggling to conceive. In the United States, 10-15% of couples (that’s about 1 in 8 couples) deal with infertility. It’s particularly unnerving and downright depressing when you’ve been trying for a long time, especially when everyone around you seems to be getting pregnant so effortlessly.
Infertility is painful and stressful for each individual enduring it, but it isn’t just the problem of one partner — it is a “couple problem,” and as such, it can truly take its toll on a marriage and/or relationship.
But here’s the good news: although struggling to conceive puts a serious amount of stress on you and your relationship, according to Shady Grove Fertility, “research has shown that, for most infertile couples, the experience strengthens their marriage by teaching them life-long skills to deal with problems. Since infertility is one of many challenges couples may face in their life together, the skills learned can be adapted to use at other difficult times.”
“It was stressful, but brought us closer together. We learned how to navigate loss and grief together, which proved to be valuable skills later in life.”Bonnie, Lucie’s List reader
While this may not seem like much consolation when you’re in the throes of things, dealing with infertility together truly can strengthen your bond. We’ll get to some more of the specifics on this later, but I hope that for now this notion provides some semblance of hope and comfort when it comes to the health of your romantic relationship while struggling to conceive.
In this article, we’ll discuss how struggling to conceive can impact your relationship, and ways you and your partner can protect your relationship and cope with the pain of infertility together — as a unified team.
Causes of Infertility
So what exactly is infertility? According to the CDC, primary infertility is defined as being unable to get or stay pregnant after one year of having unprotected sex. Although, since fertility generally declines with age, some health care providers start talking about primary infertility at the 6-month mark (rather than a year) for women who are 35+ years old.
Secondary infertility (something I myself struggled with) occurs when a woman can’t get pregnant again after having at least one successful pregnancy.
According to The National Infertility Association (Resolve), “approximately one-third of infertility is attributed to the female partner, one-third attributed to the male partner and one-third is caused by a combination of problems in both partners or, is unexplained.”
You can read about several risk factors associated with infertility here, but remember that the only reason you want to know where the issue of infertility stems from is to put a proper plan in place — not so that you can play the blame game with your partner over who is responsible for the infertility, or to make each other feel badly about why you’re struggling to conceive.
Remember, you and your partner are on the same team; infertility is no one’s fault.
“[Infertility] brought us closer, because we bonded going through it together as a team. We had chemo-induced infertility so there was not a long period of ‘trying,’ which might make our situation different than most.”
Alyca, Lucie’s List reader
How Fertility Problems Can Affect Your Relationship
If you and your partner are dealing with infertility, you know firsthand how much stress it can put on each of you individually and on your partnership. Simply stated, infertility affects every single aspect of your life — and that includes your relationship.
I had the chance to talk to Robin P. Giesen, LMFT PMC-H, a therapist who specializes in maternal mental health and who works with many couples struggling to conceive, and she cited the following as just some of the ways infertility can impact relationships:
Sex loses its romance, passion, excitement and appeal. Romance, spontaneity and foreplay go out the window. Sex turns into a scheduled, timed chore that often becomes associated with disappointment and heartache (i.e. non-pregnancy and/or pregnancy loss).
In addition, if you’re actively undergoing fertility treatments, sex and “having a baby” often become medical ordeals about which your entire medical team know all the details — which can seriously feel like everyone else is all in your business. According to Robin, “When you’re living on a 28 day cycle, sex becomes purely functional. You’re always thinking about the fact that you have to have sex during the two days you’re most fertile, and men often report feeling like a work animal.” Let’s face it: there’s nothing sexy about obligatory sex.
Blame/resentment on each other. It is SO EASY to place blame on your significant other for “causing” infertility — especially if the physiological reason you’re struggling to get and/or stay pregnant lies with him/her. In addition, it’s normal for women who are undergoing fertility treatments to feel resentful of their partners because everything is happening to her body, not his. And treatment — hormone injections, embryo transfers, mood swings, weight gain, etc.– take such a toll on a woman’s body, emotional health and overall wellbeing.
“Three years of trying, then infertility treatment. We divorced when our daughter was just two. Other factors involved but the infertility years definitely contributed.”Lisa, Lucie’s List reader
Not taking into account each other’s emotional needs/feelings. When one member of the partnership feels the other one isn’t being physically and/or emotionally supportive and attentive enough, this can lead to hurt feelings, frustration, loneliness and anger. Robin urges couples to remember that everyone copes differently, and that while one member of the couple may need to talk about the infertility a lot, the other may cope by trying to focus on other things instead. It doesn’t necessarily mean your partner doesn’t care about your feelings, but rather that you have different coping styles.
Couple isolation from friends and family. This is a very common problem among couples who are struggling with getting pregnant. It can be extremely painful to be around friends and family who seem to be getting pregnant left and right. Babies and toddlers everywhere. This is made worse when friends and family constantly ask things like, “So when are you two going to have kids?” (FYI: We’ll offer some advice on this in a bit… ) In attempt to avoid these very kinds of questions, because they tend to be emotionally triggering and painful, couples struggling with infertility may separate themselves from family and/or friends groups.
Shame associated with the struggle to conceive. Oftentimes people struggling with infertility say they feel a tremendous amount of shame about it, particularly because they feel as though their body is broken or defective. One friend who had done a lot of recreational drugs in college blamed his infertility on his party days. Left to fester, these feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt may lead couples to isolate further from others in their lives, and even from each other.
Financial strain. Infertility treatments are incredibly costly and sometimes not covered by insurance. The financial strain this can put on a relationship is huge.
Differences in opinion on how to handle things. If you and your partner are on different pages about what path and/or treatment to pursue and for how long to do it (or if treatment should be pursued at all), this can cause major conflict within the relationship. Or perhaps you’ve reached your endpoint but your spouse has not — how do you come to an agreement on when to be done trying to have a baby?
You become consumed by trying to get pregnant. It’s easy to become completely focused on trying to get pregnant and forget all the other aspects of your life as a couple and as individuals. As Robin says, “Infertility becomes this all consuming thing that eats up life; it becomes an even larger stressor than it has to be.”
It can bring you closer. As mentioned earlier, going through this significant challenge with your partner can actually bring you closer together and help you better cope as a couple with other life stressors (health issues, job loss, moving, death, etc.). As Robin points out, going through this hardship teaches you about each other’s coping styles, which comes in handy as you move through life together. For instance, maybe this experience has taught you that when your husband is stressed he needs time alone, or your partner may now understand that when you’re upset, you like your shoulders rubbed. “It’s a real strength for future stuff,” says Robin. “You learn how the other grieves, deals with frustration and disappointment. Plus it builds trust between the two of you. You become each other’s safe space to land when the hard times hit.”
How to Cope with Infertility in a Relationship
Infertility doesn’t have to tear you and your partner apart. As you navigate through this incredibly challenging process, be mindful about coming together and working through the struggles as a team. Here are some ways that you and your partner can cope with infertility together, in a healthy way:
Don’t live life in a 28 day cycle
This is something Robin tells her clients frequently. “Remember to live life,” she says. “Still go out on your date nights, and remember to spend time together enjoying the things you loved before you realized you had problems conceiving.” In other words, don’t let it become all-consuming; remember the other facets of your life and know that even though you’re dealing with this very hard thing, you are still allowed to enjoy your life and have fun.
Talk about things other than infertility
Robin reminds clients that it’s important to talk to each other about things other than trying to conceive (of course it’s okay to talk about it, too — but it can’t be the ONLY thing you talk about together…). She suggests setting an appointment with each other for when you’ll talk about anything related to infertility. That way, when you’re having fun together, you can continue enjoying and know that you’ll have time to talk about the serious stuff later. She also suggests carrying a notebook and jotting down your worries or thoughts pertaining to infertility as you think of them. Then you can talk about it with your partner later at the time you designated. “This way, the person who may not want to talk about it as much may feel less anxiety about it coming up — they know they won’t be blindsided with the topic on a dinner date,” Robin says.
Educate yourself about everything
Robin suggests really trying to understand where the infertility comes from — without obsessing over it. If you know why you are struggling with infertility, perhaps you can do something about it. “This allows you to have some agency — some control — over a situation in which you feel totally out of control,” she explains.
Avoid the Blame Game
According to Shady Grove Fertility, “Work as a team. No matter who is identified as ‘the patient,’ infertility is a couple problem. Always approach the issues as a team, working together and finding ways to share responsibility regarding treatment. Avoid finger-pointing as nobody ever wins the blame game.”
Communicate with each other
Be open and honest with your partner about how you’re feeling and what you need, and don’t expect him/her to read your mind or even to feel the same way you feel at any given moment. “You might be having a tough day and your partner isn’t,” says Robin. “That’s OK. It doesn’t mean your partner doesn’t have your back just because they’re having a good day.”
It’s also normal for couples to have different coping styles. For instance, your partner may like to fix things, while you just want to get your feelings out and be heard. “The important thing is just to be aware of your different coping mechanisms and be respectful of them,” says Robin. “You can say, ‘Hey honey, I need to talk about how I’m feeling right now… I don’t need a solution, I just need you to listen.’ Be open and honest about what you need, and ask for it instead of getting frustrated with each other.”
Intimacy that isn’t focused on TTC
Remember what it’s like to have sex just for sex’s sake?! Not to try and conceive, but really just for fun, pleasure and to reignite the spark between you? Do that more often. That said, if you’re doing IVF or any other type of fertility treatment and you have strict orders not to have sex, or only to have sex on your fertile days, there are plenty of other ways you can be intimate with each other that don’t involve sexy time… get creative and have fun!
Struggling to conceive is an extremely stressful, traumatic and exhausting emotional rollercoaster. Utilizing mindfulness and meditation techniques can be really helpful in reducing some of that anxiety and tension. Robin recommends trying the Four Square Breathing Technique, which allows you to really slow down, focus on your breath, and become mindful of your anxiety. If you’re not into that method, any type of breathing exercise will do. She also does a lot of passive muscle relaxation with her clients as a means of releasing physical tension from the body. Robin recommends practicing these mindfulness techniques regularly, so that when it’s transfer or injection time, or time to take a pregnancy test, you can utilize the strategies easily. There are also a lot of apps you can download that offer guided imagery, breathing exercises and various mindfulness techniques, such as Headspace and Calm.
In a similar vein as mindfulness, finding acceptance for yourself — and all your thoughts and feelings associated with your struggle — can be so helpful in working through infertility. Robin states that often, feelings of shame are associated with jealousy, as in “I’m so jealous my best friend is pregnant, and I’m so embarrassed and so ashamed that I feel jealous instead of happy for my friend…”
She reminds clients that what they feel is always OK. “All emotions are just signals to us that something needs to be attended to. Jealousy is natural. Anger that someone is able to get pregnant right away and you’ve been trying for years is natural. Give yourself GRACE for that.”
Learning to come to terms with and accept your real, raw feelings about the situation at hand is where true healing and self-compassion can take place.
Allow each other to grieve
What you are experiencing is hard and it’s OK to feel sad about it. You and/or your partner may be mourning many different things, such as the idea of being able to conceive easily or in the way you’d always imagined, the loss of failed pregnancies, the way you wish your body would function, and so much more. All of this is normal, and it’s important to let each other grieve these losses.
Take time alone to yourself or with your family and/or friends to do the things you enjoy the most. Bonus: when you come back together you’ll have new experiences to talk about.
You may not feel comfortable talking about what you’re going through with your family or even your closest friends right now. Robin recommends making friends with other couples who are going through the same thing. “Finding a fertility support group can be really helpful because then you’re not isolated, and you’re connecting with other couples who really get what you’re going through,” she says. “Resolve offers support groups, and many reproductive endocrinologists have resources and sometimes even hold support groups through their offices.”
Do not forget to take care of yourselves. It’s easy to let self-care fall to the backburner when you’re so focused on trying to conceive, but try not to let this happen; you and your partner need to make yourselves a priority. Whether that’s a date night out, spending time with friends, going on a weekend rendezvous, enjoying a couple’s massage, or even taking a break from trying to conceive and/or fertility treatments, do it. Above all else, you both matter and practicing self-care will go a long way in your overall health, happiness and wellbeing — as well as the health of your relationship.
Seeking the help of a mental health professional to help you navigate this overwhelming experience might be very helpful — especially if the two of you are becoming gridlocked over a particular issue (i.e. one of you wants to tell your inner circle about your infertility issues and the other does not; one of you wants to be done with fertility treatments and the other does not, etc.). RESOLVE has a directory of mental health professionals who specialize in fertility and perinatal mental health, as does Postpartum Support International.
Struggling with infertility is an emotional, mental and physical roller coaster that affects every aspect of your and your partner’s lives and relationship. If having children is something you’ve both always wanted, it also cuts to the core of each of your individual identities, as well as your identity as a couple (a couple who wants to become parents). This is so painful for a million reasons, but especially because it often feels like some kind of personal failure — as though your body just isn’t able to do what it was “designed to do” (which is a total fallacy — but a common sentiment, nonetheless). Together you may feel “less than,” particularly if everyone around you seems to be getting pregnant easily.
While this is completely understandable, here’s something important to remember: while what you are enduring right now is absolutely agonizing, this pain is not forever. It may not seem like it now, but the ache and struggle of infertility WILL cease.
And at the end of the day, you and your partner are on the same side of things and want the same goal: to start a family together. It may not be the way you always envisioned, but the good news is that in this day and age, there are a myriad of ways to do that. Sometimes letting go of one dream — no matter how fervently you’ve always held onto it — opens the door for a new and even more beautiful reality to take shape.
In the meantime, we are sending hugs and support to each and every one of you as you navigate your way through this journey. If you have been through this experience and have any advice to share with our readers, please do so in the comments below.
- Center of Reproductive Medicine — Texas
- VeryWell Family
- American Society for Reproductive Medicine
- MGH Center for Women’s Mental Health