The Ticking Biological Clock: When To Stop Taking Birth Control

Sex Advice: Birth Control Methods & Contraception
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It's a scenario we've all heard before. Jane and her boyfriend, John, both successful professionals in their mid-30s, are in a committed relationship. They know they are going to be together for the long haul and that they will, eventually, get married. So they buy an expensive loft together in the city — perfect for their fast-paced life of happy hours, fine dining, art exhibits and traveling.

Then it happens. One by one, Jane's friends begin to have babies. She's invited to countless baby showers, baptisms, and brisses. Jane realizes with a start that her own biological clock is ticking. She thinks, "Maybe I should stop taking birth control and just see what happens." One day soon thereafter, she broaches the topic with John in a fairly casual manner — after all, their relationship has run smoothly up to this point, right? Imagine Jane's alarm, then, when the conversation doesn't go as planned. John says that, of course, he wants to have children someday. But that now is definitely not the time. He's not yet willing to give up the lifestyle that they so carefully crafted for themselves. And he certainly doesn't want to leave such a big decision up to chance, just "seeing what will happen" if Jane stops using birth control. Jane tries to change his mind, giving him all sorts of statistics about infertility in older couples. But John doesn't budge. Stalemate.

Many women find themselves in a similar position: They are ready to stop using birth control as a first step toward having a child (or another child), only to learn that their partners are not on the same page. When this occurs, it's easy to start catastrophizing, thinking in all-or-nothing terms, and focusing on the worst-case scenario. ("If we wait any longer, then I'm never going to get pregnant!") All of a sudden, the only thing they think about is their longing to get pregnant. The waiting and the uncertainty can be excruciating — and can put pressure on the partnership.

It is tempting in this situation to discontinue birth control, anyway. "My partner will never know, right? If we do get pregnant, I can just say that it was one of those rare accidents and that the pregnancy must really be meant to be." As attractive as this option might seem, I unequivocally recommend against it. Most women find that knowingly being dishonest with their partner is fundamentally inconsistent with their values, principles, and the person they strive to be. They would be starting the next, and very important, chapter in their lives on a note of secrecy and deception. If their partners find out about their dishonesty, there is a strong likelihood that the trust and good will that have been built up throughout the course of the relationship will be significantly diminished. Pregnancy is stressful enough without the added worry of relationship distress.

What should you do if you find yourself in this situation, when you want to stop using birth control, and your partner does not? First, check your thinking and see if you are focusing on the catastrophic outcomes I mentioned above. Although it can feel as though the situation is dire — that you must take action right away — the reality is that taking a few months to work through the issue with your partner will not significantly decrease your chances of getting pregnant when the two of you are finally ready to start trying. Fertility is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon, and you do not "miss" the chance to get pregnant forever if you do not try in any given month. If you are over 35, should you and your partner begin to firm up a plan to start your family? Yes. But do you need to do something drastic, like discontinue birth control against your partner's wishes? No.

Couples find that many issues arise as they make the decision to stop birth control and try to have a child. Some of these issues are as follows:

  • The state of the relationship: Do you both feel that the relationship is on solid footing? Are you both committed to taking their relationship to another level by adding a child?
  • Finances: What are the additional expenses you would expect to incur by having a child? Can you afford to have a child?
  • Trade-offs: A newborn requires a great deal of time and energy (in addition to money). Are both of you willing to give up some of your individual pursuits and luxuries in order to make room for the new addition to the family?
  • Pros and cons of trying now versus waiting: What are the advantages and disadvantages of discontinuing birth control now? What are the advantages and disadvantages of waiting? Do both of you see the advantages and disadvantages in the same way?

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Hopefully, after a heartfelt discussion in which you both honor and respect each other's viewpoints and wishes, you will come up with a mutually agreeable plan for discontinuing birth control and trying to get pregnant. However, you might find yourself in a position in which your partner has not changed his mind. I saw a couple in therapy who were in this position. The wife became quite resentful toward her husband, and as a result, she withdrew affection and became simply much less nice to him than she had been in the past. Our couple's therapy work focused on achieving acceptance and developing a rich, valued life together focused on the present, rather than on family planning that would occur in the future.

The couple was able to reclaim some of the closeness that they had shared earlier in their relationship by remembering what drew them toward one another in the first place and engaging in valued activities that made them feel more connected. Doing this helped the husband to feel more secure in their relationship, which in turn made him more open to the idea of discontinuing birth control and trying to get pregnant. And it helped the wife to see that their relationship gave her much fulfillment even if they were not at the point in their lives at which they were expanding their family.

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The bottom line is that there is no getting around the fact that this is a challenging situation. If you want to stop taking birth control, and your partner does not, it can feel as though your desire to start a family has been held, hostage. Take a breath and remember not to catastrophize. Just because your partner does not want to stop using birth control now does not mean that he will feel the same way in the future. Obtain your partner's commitment to talk about the issue again a few months from now. But secretly discontinuing birth control against your partner's wishes is not the way to go. When you do start trying to get pregnant, you want to create a shared sense of shared hope, optimism, and connection without secrets that have the potential to push you apart.

Dr. Amy Wenzel is a clinical psychologist, author, and consultant who uses cognitive behavioral therapy to help individuals and couples navigate countless interpersonal issues, including family planning issues. To learn more about Dr. Wenzel, visit her website at http://dramywenzel.com.