The decision to have children is no easy choice. For partners, and families, who face fertility issues, the process can cause an incredible amount of stress and strain on a relationship. Here are some ways to cope with that stress.
Challenge Myths & Stigma Related to Infertility
Arguably the most difficult aspect of infertility is dealing with our long-held beliefs about the ability to conceive and produce children. There are a lot of messages, especially for women and birthing people, about their value being driven by their ability to bear children. When someone finds that ability suddenly challenged, it can be a large emotional challenge to overcome. Many women face questions related to their worthiness as women when faced with fertility challenges.
Challenging stigma and stereotypes associated with infertility can be incredibly helpful and therapeutic. In my practice, I’ve worked with hopeful mothers who discovered physiological challenges they hadn’t known about or needed to address until they actively started planning to expand their family. The stress of addressing those issues and their impact on fertility is daunting, but working through it in therapy can helped clients maintain perspective and find the strength to keep working towards their goal of growing their family.
Non-birthing Partners Need Support Too
On the other hand, we often assume that non-birthing partners don’t suffer when it comes to fertility issues, but we now know this isn’t the case. Each partner may experience infertility issues differently. For cisgender men in particular, the idea of “virility” is very strongly connected to the ideas of masculinity and a man’s worthiness as well. When faced with challenges of infertility, men’s egos may take a large hit. If sperm motility or concentration is an issue it can bring up those challenges to inherent worthiness and masculinity. This process can force the question, “How does this impact how you see yourself?”
Non-birthing partners may also struggle being effective caregivers and support systems. If someone is struggling with feeling let down by their body, it can leave their partner worried and struggling to offer the best emotional support they can. This can be incredibly daunting, especially if these challenges are unanticipated.
For both men and women, infertility issues may lead to increased stress, disorganization, moodiness, and loss of focus—all the more reason why seeking out support should be a necessary part of any fertility challenge.
Seek Social and Medical Support
Struggling with infertility is incredibly isolating, especially if you’re in the typical range in which many adults have children (25-35). Depending on your social group, you may constantly face baby and toddler pictures or videos on your social media feeds. This may have even helped spark your desire to expand your family. When you’re struggling to conceive, every cute post can feel like an emotional dagger to the heart. It can lead to greater feelings of isolation and internalized shame.
Being able to find support, both social and professional, is essential for helping families navigate fertility issues. This all begins with a medical team that listens to you and helps you come up with an effective treatment plan to expand your family, regardless of the origins of the challenges. These health professionals should be attentive, active listeners as they will undoubtedly be seeing you through a trying physical and psychological journey.
Try Out Therapy
Working with a mental health counselor can be helpful to find an outlet to talk through all the related experiences and challenges to self-esteem. The space of therapy can also provide support for overall stress management, which, in my experience, is often essential. For partners, couples therapy with a therapist who has experience dealing with these dynamics can be incredibly helpful as well. Stressors like infertility often magnify long-held relationship problems. And when we are under extreme pressure, we tend to not function as well cognitively and emotionally. This can lead to a breakdown in communication and further isolation from one another. Couples therapy can help you repair and maintain the relationship as you address infertility issues.
Social Support is Also Critical
Social support is also incredibly important during this time. Being able to talk with friends or other loved ones can offer a beacon of hope when things seem at their darkest. Support contributes to lower emotional distress such as anxiety and depression, and has even been linked to greater relationship satisfaction. Another option: Attend an in-person or online support group for people struggling with fertility issues. This can offer another safe space and opportunity to express the emotions that run the gamut throughout this period.
Coping with Loss & Grief
One of the most difficult parts—if not the biggest challenge of all—of infertility is dealing with loss. This might mean the loss of being able to create the kind of family that you saw for yourself (in the way you desired) but it can also mean dealing with pregnancy loss and infant death.
For most couples challenged with some form of infertility, the process to parenthood often takes years, costs a lot of money, and includes an arduous process of grief. And although we don’t often talk about miscarriage out in the open, it’s relatively common even if a couple isn’t considered to be struggling with infertility. It is estimated that somewhere between 10% and 20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage (spontaneous fetal death before 20 weeks). It is estimated that due to the possibility of unknown early-stage pregnancy these numbers may be much higher. This figure also doesn’t include the number of medical abortions that happen for a variety of reasons.
For birthing persons, the pain of not being able to carry a pregnancy to term is incredible emotional and psychological pain. For partners, it can be difficult to face the death of a potential child on their own, while also trying to be present for their partner who has had a physical and emotional experience they can never understand.
As you might imagine, pregnancy loss can also lead to relationship difficulties. The trauma of losing a pregnancy weighs heavily on both partners involved. Both partners can benefit from ongoing assessment and emotional support in the form of grief counseling. Organizations like Avail (in New York City) and Planned Parenthood offer support, too.
The path to parenthood is relatively easy for some, while others must navigate the often painful and confusing process of infertility concerns. This process can cause a great amount of stress and turmoil for each partner and both of them as a couple. Circumstances differ from person to person but self-compassion, as well as having access to appropriate care and support, is essential for surviving infertility challenges and keeping your emotional health and relationship intact.
If you need support our team of mental health providers is here for you. Submit an inquiry via our New Client form to get started.