Fertility struggles can put enormous pressure on a relationship and it is a huge thing to go through as a couple. After time ‘Project Baby’ can take the focus away from you as a couple - you forget that before ‘trying’ you had a loving relationship and that you got together for a reason.
The impact of infertility on relationships
Even if you have a very strong and supportive marriage/partnership, fertility issues can still put a strain on your relationship. Although your partner may want a baby as much as you do, their experience of the process can be very different to yours.
Remember that your partner may be struggling with the inability to conceive too (especially if the issue is on their side), its important for you to talk it through with them.
Struggling to conceive can make the focus of most of your discussions about ‘trying for baby’ and ‘fertility treatment’, making you feel like you have nothing else in your life and that you are defined by your struggle to get pregnant. If you haven’t got anyone else to talk to about your issues, you can each feel a lot of pressure to be/seem ‘ok’ so your partner isn’t worried, and it can lead to over-reliance on each other.
When the focus becomes making a baby and creating a family, we often forget that we are already a family, and that there is a reason why we got together in the first place. This can lead to you both feeling unappreciated, un-attractive and un-important.
Fertility issues can also affect your sex life. Sex becomes about making a baby rather than pleasure, which puts extra pressure on both sides to perform and loses the intimacy.
Many couples find that they don’t go out and do things together like they used to (due to saving money for IVF, not wanting to be around others with families or not feeling in the mood to do anything), which again means your relationship becomes focused on baby making, rather than enjoying what you already have together.
How men and women cope differently
It may seem like your partner isn’t as bothered about having a baby as you are if they don’t seem as upset that your period has come, or that they don’t feel like having sex at the best time of the month, but often this is just differences in the way men and women cope with stressful and upsetting situations like infertility, or them not wanting to upset you further.
Men and women have a very different experience of trying to conceive and going through treatment.
It is the woman that has the heartache of seeing their period arrive every month, the woman that has to endure the invasive side of fertility treatment and it is usually the woman that has always known they wanted to be a mother, so their plan for their life is called in to question.
On the other hand the man has to watch his partner go through treatment, which can lead to feelings of guilt if the issue is male factor, and many feel that they have to be strong and supportive for their partner, so hide their feelings to be the rock whilst going through treatment.
Women tend to use coping strategies such as seeking social support, escape/avoidance, accepting responsibility and tackling the problem head on. They often feel more comfortable talking to friends about emotional and sensitive issues, will go on forums for advice and speak to a counsellor. However they are often more likely to feel and show their emotions more freely, want to talk about the issue more than their partner and feel more depressed that their life isn’t how they imagined it would be.
Men on the other hand tend to use strategies such as problem solving, distancing and self-controlling. For men, infertility can be felt as an attack on their manhood, causing them to feel like a failure (which isn’t true). Due to this they often limit who they talk to about the problem as there is an element of embarrassment. They may take a practical approach of researching treatment, focusing on work and keeping their feeling hidden.
This can mean that there are differences in what you both need for coping with infertility and treatment, and you need to ensure you work together to get through it and cope as a couple.
Try to make time to see things from your partner’s perspective. Warning signs to look for:
Getting through it together
Remember why you are together and what you love about each other
When you are struggling to conceive and the focus of your relationship has become all about the best time to try, fertility treatments and comparing yourself to others it is hard to lose sight of what you love about your partner and the reason you got together in the first place.
Remember that you are not defined by your infertility, you were a couple before you started trying to conceive, with shared interests and interesting conversations. Its always good to remember what you love about your partner (and even more importantly) remind them what you love about them.
Each write down the below things, then swap them over and enjoy reading them.:
Don’t place blame
It is really important to see the fertility issue as a joint issue (whichever side the problem is on). Placing the blame will create a divide between the two of you, you need to see it as something you need to overcome together. Talk about ‘our’ problem (not mine/yours).
Set designated ‘No baby/IVF’ talk times
Set time limits for how long you talk about the treatment and infertility so your conversations don’t just revolve around trying for a baby. This can add to the stress and pressure in the relationship. Also set times when you don’t discuss it – for example if you’re out for a meal, so it gives you time to focus on the other good things in your life and each other.
Plan in quality time together
Make time to do things together as a couple where you can focus on your relationship. Book a date night or a weekend away where you don’t talk about the issues and just relax/have fun together. If money is tight it doesn’t have to be anything expensive – find places that are free and have some day trips together.
Create a list of things used to do/enjoy together and do them
Trying to conceive and going through fertility treatment can often limit the things you do – whether that is going out for a few drinks to limit alcohol intake, avoiding strenuous exercise or generally not feeling in the mood to go and do things.
Think about the trips and activities you used to enjoy doing together and make like a bucket list of places to see, things to do, activities to try and then work your way through the list.
Plan in the dates you are going to do them, and work them around your treatment/expected period date to give you something to look forward to. The list may need moderating slightly to accommodate treatment etc, but keep it things you will look forward to.
Accept that you may cope differently
Don’t assume you know how your partner is feeling - you may have different ways of coping with the infertility and the process, so you need to discuss this so you don’t feel like your partner isn’t as bothered by it as you are – they may just be coping differently.
Allow each other time and space to deal with your emotions around it in your own way. Respect that you may both be dealing with it in different ways and be there to support in whichever way is needed.
Talking to each other is one of the most important things you can do – tell each other how you are feeling about the process, be honest, that way you can work together to get through it and support each other in the way you need it. Allow each other to have your turn to talk without interruption to make sure the conversation stays calm and you both feel listened to.
Have some support other than each other
Only having each other to talk to can put a lot of strain on the relationship, and may lead to one or both of you holding back on how you feel so as not to upset your partner. It's really important to talk through exactly how you are feeling so you can process it, so think about who you feel comfortable talking to, it could be a close family member or friend, a professional or support group. Also encourage your partner to do the same.
If either of you don’t feel comfortable talking to someone else you could try writing it in a journal that you keep private – that way you can at least that way you are getting your thoughts and fears out of your head.
If your partner is feeling depressed, overwhelmed or anxious about the situation a mental health professional can help – encourage them to seek help from an infertility counsellor or coach, who are trained to support individuals and couples dealing with infertility and fertility treatment.
Don’t just have baby making sex
When you are trying to conceive sex can become very routine and on demand, its takes all the fun out of it when you are trying to do it at the right time and it can create pressure to perform. It is recommended that you have sex regularly throughout the month rather than just concentrating on when you are ovulating, and this also ensures that there isn’t a pressure on a few attempts, and makes you both feel that you are doing it because you want to and not because you should be.
If you find that the fertility issues are affecting your relationship, it may be worthwhile considering taking a short break from treatment to rekindle the romance and remember what it is that you love about each other.
Remember, you were a couple in love before you were a couple struggling to conceive. Whatever happens with treatment/TTC you still have each other, make sure you work together to keep your partnership strong, so that you are in a better place to support each other on this journey.
I run a free Facebook support group called TTC Support UK that you are more than welcome to join for peer support, advice and comfort from me and lots of lovely people who understand how hard it is.
This article covers lots of feedback I have heard from patients, in the hope that it will help doctors and nurses understand how patients really feel, and also help everyone that is going through IVF know they are not alone.