One of the things many couples talk about when they are talking about their future is if they want children and, if so, how many. They rarely talk about what would happen if they wanted children but were unable to have them. It was a discussion my husband and I were pressed into having after a miscarriage and the realization that my age and irregular cycle might be a problem. We decided that we would make some effort to conceive but wouldn't go to extremes to become parents. That decision was never tested as we were able to have a family on our own.
Unfortunately, not every couple is as lucky as we were and the price of infertility can be high. A recent Danish study reported in Business Standard determined that couples who ultimately were unable to have a child were more likely to break up than couples who achieved their dream of being parents. Relationships often don't survive the death of a child and the death of the dream of a child is no easier to handle.
Infertility issues can create multiple types of havoc in a marriage. The first is differing levels of desire to be a parent and being able to accept all the costs that entails. Infertility can bring disruption to your finances, the spontaneity of your intimacy, and to how each of you feels as a man or a woman. One of you may reach a point where the effort becomes too much and wants to stop, while the other is not yet willing or able to give up. The hurt and resentment this disagreement creates, no matter who ultimately prevails, can be difficult to overcome.
Another challenge to your relationship is the intentionality of sex that fertility issues require. Physical intimacy is one of the greatest ways couples can connect and show their love for each other. But there is little that is romantic about sex on a schedule. Having to perform on demand, regardless of what else is happening in your life, adds stress to an already stresssful situation. Even if you are successful in your parenting quest, your intimate experiences may not always have been as pleasant as those when procreation wasn't your goal. Those experiences will continue to be part of your memories and your associations with sex. This can make it tough for your intimacy to return to a more loving and spontaneous pattern, resulting in a less satisfactory relationship.
The greatest challenge for a couple dealing with intimacy is the impact of the grief that is inherent with this condition. First, a couple has to deal with the grief that they are not "normal"; they won't be able to get pregnant the way most of their friends and family do. This can involve grieving for how you view yourself as a man or a woman. If your view of yourself is of a virile man, infertility can be a blow to your ego. If you believe that you aren't a "real" woman until you give birth, you are going to have a strong emotional challenge to accepting the diagnosis of infertility. Grieving these images you've probably believed for years is just the beginning
The second type of grief a couple faces concerns the highs and lows of the monthly watch. Each month that passes with a negative pregnancy test creates another round of grief. You would have to be almost robotic not to get caught up in the monthly roller coaster of hope and disappointment. But each failure is its own little death that must be grieved by both of you. There is no way that this does not take a toll on you individually and on the overall health of the relationship. The longer this lasts, the greater the damage.
At some point, the ultimate result must be faced. Infertility has won and there will be no baby. How you each handle the grief associated with this final result will be the determining factor in whether your relationship can survive. If there isn't equal acknowledgment that the end has come, one of you may begin the final grief process while the other is still hoping against hope. The different grief paths you are on, and the individual way you each handle that grief, is what creates the chasm that brings down many marriages.
Being with someone who is a constant reminder of this life impacting failure becomes too painful and all the positives of the relationship can be overwhelmed. The couples who survive are the ones who find a way through and create a new meaning for their lives and relationship. Couples can survive infertility, but it is a hard road that leaves casualties. And that's just one more way it is supremely unfair.
To learn about more challenges to marriage, go to www.afearlessmarriage.com
More marriage therapist advice on YourTango: