When you’re dealing with infertility, it can feel like you and your partner are alone in a sea of happy new families. That’s both understandable and untrue. The truth is that nearly one in six couples in the U.S. — 7.3 million people annually — struggle with infertility after at least one year of trying. Though popular culture often portrays the woman as more likely to struggle with issues of infertility, reproductive problems are fairly equally spread between women and men. And silence about the issue hampers understanding.
Infertility treatments have been shown to successfully help 90 percent of couples to eventually conceive, but only 50 percent of those struggling with infertility actually seek medical intervention, according to research published in Human Reproduction. Why the delay is getting help? Depression, guilt, and shame all play an unfortunate role in holding couples back. Regardless of which partner is facing fertility issues, men tend to assume an inordinate amount of the blame, says Connie Shapiro, Ph.D., an infertility expert in Champaign, Illinois, and author of When You’re Not Expecting: An Infertility Survival Guide. “You feel like you’ve put your life on hold to try and get pregnant, and there is a real frustration that nothing either partner does is making a difference.”
Cliché but true: Women tend to cry or verbally share their upset while men are more likely to say nothing or shrug off attempts to describe what they are going through. “There is a cultural assumption that women experiencing infertility are entitled to grieve, while the man is expected to support her,” says Shapiro. “But of course, men feel the loss, too. And now he is caught needing to support his wife without anyone acknowledging his feelings.”
What To Do First
Maybe you think marital counseling is for couples fighting over money issues, or breaking up over an affair. But actually, therapy can be really beneficial when you are struggling to get pregnant, and there are plenty of psychologists who specialize in the topic of infertility. “Of the more than 300 couples I counseled through infertility issues, only two ended up divorced, and they split for reasons that had nothing to do with the challenges of getting pregnant,” says Shapiro. Therapy may actually bring the two of you closer together, and give you a neutral space to express you sadness, anger, guilt, or whatever else is on your mind.
“Often, couples experience grief differently,” says Shapiro. “They may assume their partner understands because they are going through it too, but grief is a very personal thing. It helps to hear how the other person is dealing with it.”
Ways To Cope
The seemingly never-ending grind of fertility treatments, scheduled sex, doctor’s visits, and so on can add a huge layer of stress to even the strongest relationship. If you’re feeling exhausted, deflated, and generally discouraged about the whole thing, it may be time for a vacation. Seriously. “I tell couples it’s time to take a vacation from treatment,” says Shapiro. “Take three months off before you try again. Give yourself a chance to get out from under all that pressure and the expectation every month of, Did it work? Just going back to living your normal life can be a huge mood boost.”
Another tip: Reshape your routine so that you are engaging in positive activities, especially ones that focus on improving someone else’s circumstances. “Infertility can make you feel stuck, like you’ve put everything on hold until you know whether or not you can start a family,” says Shapiro. “Doing things that take the focus off you and your problems can expand your universe and help you gain a different perspective.” Volunteering in your community or adopting or fostering a pet are two ways to get that feel-good vibe to help counterbalance the upset of fertility issues.
Other Mood Boosters
Nothing can remove that sense of loss and frustration when you want to start a family and find yourself struggling. But these strategies from the National Infertility Organization can help you keep your sanity until the situation resolves itself:
*Follow the 20-Minute Rule. Limit talk about infertility to 20 minutes max every night.
*Write in a journal. Some feelings are too raw to say out loud. Writing them down is cathartic and lets you feel validated, even if no one else knows.
*Garden. Even if you’ve never had a green thumb, buy seeds of hardy plants that don’t need a lot of expertise and watch them grow. Studies show gardening is a stress reliever; if nothing else, it symbolically reassures you that you can create and nourish new life.
*Practice the relaxation response. Through deep breathing, muscle relaxation techniques, meditation or yoga, you can learn to let go of stress for a brief period of time.
*Prepare for the holidays. Someone will inevitably ask when you are planning to start a family. Pre-empt the upset by deciding in advance how you will respond.
However you work through this tough time, the bottom line is that feeling depressed is a normal reaction—one millions of other men and women are going through right now. Remember that infertility is no one’s “fault,” and assigning blame will do nothing to improve the situation. Remind yourself that the person you were before this situation arose has not changed, and whether or not you biologically conceive a child does not define you as a man or as a husband.