When I was younger, I believed that if I ever faced infertility, I'd transition quickly from trying to get pregnant to adopting a child. "After all," I thought, "my goal is to be a parent, right?" Little did I know that my deep desire to give birth would, one day, inspire me to try more fertility treatments than I knew existed, with greater frequency than I would have previously considered reasonable or, judgy as this sounds, decent.
Infertility prompts many of us to do things we might otherwise deem ridiculous — case in point, I replaced my metal fillings with porcelain ones — and sometimes brutally impacts our self-worth, not to mention our individual and relationship fulfillment. It comes as no surprise, then, that a recent Danish study, cited in The Business Standard, reports that women who go through unsuccessful fertility treatments are much more likely to end their marriages than those for whom treatments work. Fertility issues are rough on even the best of relationships, which is why I wish the study also revealed what it was about the other women — the ones who stayed with their partners — that inspired them to remain, despite the disappointment of not bearing a child.
Like those highlighted in the study, I never carried a pregnancy to term and, like those mentioned in passing, I stayed with my spouse. Yet unlike the vast majority of couples tackling infertility, not only is my spouse a woman, she's also the mother of my adopted children. (I'll pause in case you need to re-read that sentence.) In some ways, our situation made things easier, insofar as my wife understood my desire to give birth in a visceral way, and, also, harder: After I stopped treatment, I lived with someone who succeeded in getting pregnant and giving birth.*
Despite those differences, some of the tools we used can be helpful to heterosexual couples at every stage of the fertility journey:
1. Try To Understand Your Partner's Experiences And Feelings (Even If You Don't Agree With Them)
This works both ways. Not only is it important for men to do their best to understand their partner's efforts to get pregnant and, sometimes, go to seemingly unreasonable lengths to give birth, but so too is it important for women to understand their spouse’s experiences and feelings that contrast with our own. Focus on each other’s priorities from a place of genuine curiosity, not judgment. Consider these questions:
What's important to you about doing x,y,z treatment [or not doing it]? What dreams are you trying to fulfill? And once you hear each other out: Even if they contrast, how do our priorities also intersect or complement each other?
2. Practice Compassion
Expressing compassion, like understanding, doesn't mean we agree — e.g., your partner is convinced you can't afford more treatments while you're sure you can swing another — but it invites you to express care and concern: You disagree with your husband yet still express tenderness about his money fears and do your best to alleviate them.
3. Differentiate Opinions From Expressions Of Love
Often, if our partners don't share our priorities, we confuse their opinion with a lack of love. "If you really loved me, you'd agree to try again, or you'd stop worrying about money, or [fill in the blank]." Or reverse it: "If you really loved me, you'd stop trying to bankrupt us." If we take love, and criticism, out of the equation, we're back to understanding and compassion. And we have an opportunity to express our love to each other, even if we don't agree.
4. Learn From Previous Disagreements
While the stakes of other relationship issues are rarely as high as those posed by infertility, we can learn from the past. Think of two or three issues you once disagreed about that you didn't just resolve, but resolved with contrasting strategies, e.g., in one case, you deferred to the other person; in the other instance, you came up with a hybrid approach. Consider these questions:
What helped us resolve past disagreements? How can we apply those strategies to the present? If the past isn't applicable: What other strategies can we try to more forward together?
If these efforts don't ease the stress with your partner, or if you're looking for more tips, find a Life Coach who specializes in relationships. Many of us, myself included, offer at least one complimentary session, plus I know from my experience with individuals and couples, that one or two sessions can sometimes make a big difference.
Because fertility treatments are hard on relationships, finding ways to ease the negative fallout remains crucial to our individual wellbeing, and our chances of keeping our relationships intact, regardless of the fertility outcome. Plus, staying connected with your partner while you navigate fertility treatments can make your bond even stronger than it was before, which is something for which my wife and I remain grateful to this day.
* Fortunately, my wife went out of her way to include me in her pregnancy experience as much as possible, including offering detailed descriptions of what she was feeling, which I found touching and helpful. Some of the sting of infertility also eased when I watched what she went through to have our kids and to recover from giving birth. Finally, while I still feel sad when I think about my infertility, I can't imagine loving my kids any more than I do now. I'm just glad and grateful they came into the world, however they got here.
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