Often partners are still reeling from the diagnosis of infertility when they have to start wrapping their minds around the possibility that they may never conceive. This is a tremendous loss, and in many cases the threat of the death of a dearly held dream. Everyday life does nothing to lessen the pain for these couples, as family and friends around them seemingly conceive quickly and effortlessly. Women share with me that everywhere they go, they see pregnant women or moms with children; men say that they feel like “less of a man”, particularly around their friends with children. Often the partner who has the infertility issue feels ashamed, guilty, and responsible for the pain of the other. The grief over this part of life not happening quickly – or maybe never happening – takes on a life of its own, and can alienate partners from each other as each deals with the issue in their own way.
The longer a couple tries unsuccessfully to conceive, the more difficult the process can be on a marriage. No one truly knows the pain of infertility except those who have gone through it themselves, and that is why each partner is in a unique place to help the other, if they can reach out to each other in their grief.
I worked with a couple in which the man didn’t seem as devastated by the infertility as the woman, and this was a source of pain for her – she interpreted his quiet as a lack of caring. In therapy, it soon became clear that he was also devastated, but felt the need to be “the strong one” for his wife, and adopted a position of what he hoped felt to her like quiet strength. In actuality, she felt alone in her grief. When they were able to share with one another what they really felt, thought, and needed, he realized that what she needed most was a witness to and a partner in her pain – someone who could understand hers and share his own pain too.
Oftentimes men don’t feel the pain in the same way as their partners, and that’s okay. Each person doesn’t have to feel the exact same thing as the other, or feel it to the same extent, whether the issue at hand is infertility or something else. Indeed, it can be a blessing that each doesn’t feel the same amount of pain as the other at the same time – that way one can be a support and sounding board when their partner is struggling. The most important thing for couples to communicate and live out with one another is that each is not alone in the struggle.
As in other issues facing couples, communication is key to finding a way out of the pain caused by infertility, regardless of the outcome of the infertility itself. It’s okay for one or both partners not to know what they want or feel at any given time – dealing with infertility is like being constantly bombarded by artillery. Like any drawn-out, constant stressor, infertility can cause an “emotional sunburn” – where one is so raw, so spent with emotion, that they are intensely sensitive to what would otherwise be harmless comments or incidents.