Allow Yourselves to Feel
After seven grueling years of trying to get pregnant, countless fertility treatments, and immeasurable heartache, Angela and Brian finally received the news they had longed for—they were going to have a baby.
Angela and Brian, who conceived through in vitro fertilization (IVF) after trying nearly every fertility treatment in the book, were absolutely elated. The road leading them to this joyous point had been a long and bumpy one—one that, at times, put an immense strain on their marriage.
“We literally tried everything, and the stress of the treatments was the worst stress of all,” Angela says. Although the process was a harrowing experience, Angela said she’d do it all over again. “Every single second was worth it to hear the nurse tell me on the phone that we were pregnant. Every single second.”
Angela and Brian are not alone—6.1 million couples in the United States have difficulty conceiving, according to the National Women’s Health Resource Center (NWHRC). That number represents 10 percent of childbearing-aged couples.
Unfortunately, a great many marriages don’t survive the stress of fertility treatments. The painful hormone injections, the endless collection of sperm, the loss of intimacy, and the shame and anguish that often go hand in hand with fertility treatments prove to be too much for some couples.
And yet, many couples emerge from the challenge of fertility treatments even stronger than they were before. If you and your spouse are undergoing treatments, there are many steps you can take to ensure your marriage stays healthy and strong through it all. Here is some helpful advice from marriage experts and couples who have been there.
Before embarking on fertility treatments, you and your spouse should brace yourself for an emotional roller coaster ride. “If there is an emotion on the planet and in our bodies, we felt it—happiness that we had a great marriage, sadness when things didn’t go as we hoped, fear that it would never happen or that we were doing something wrong, frustration at the situation, and anger,” says Angela. “We also went through a strong feeling of confusion as to whether we should go further with fertility treatments and ‘play God’ with nature.”
“I felt inadequate as a woman,” says Elizabeth, who also struggled with infertility before becoming pregnant through IVF. After suffering an ectopic pregnancy, Elizabeth discovered that both of her fallopian tubes were blocked. The doctors told her and husband Grant that IVF was their only option for pregnancy.
“I knew it was my fault that we could not get pregnant naturally,” she says. “We both felt sorrow from the ectopic loss and the thought that we might never have our own children. During the actual IVF process, I felt frustrated because I had no control of the situation and if one thing was wrong the entire process was put on hold for another month.”
Marriage counselors and infertility therapists say that it’s perfectly normal for couples undergoing fertility treatments to experience a wide range of overpowering emotions. “Both partners can be under a lot of stress,” explains Linda Peterman, a certified rehabilitation counselor (CRC) and licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) in Tampa, Florida. “Couples will experience grief if there have been miscarriages or other fertility treatment failures. They will experience sadness, anger, hopefulness, excitement, and a range of emotions.”
Peterman says that you should allow yourselves to experience these raw emotions as opposed to keeping them locked up inside. “This emotional roller coaster is normal,” she says. “You should be aware of your emotions and look to each other for comfort, support, and understanding.”
Some, but not all, clinics offer (or require) counseling as part of their services. When deciding on a clinic to use, find out about the type and extent of services available.
We’ve all heard the old adage: Good communication is the key to a strong, happy marriage. If it’s a cliché, it’s because it’s true, and this invaluable advice has helped countless couples survive fertility treatments.
Take a Break
“Keeping things bottled up until they explode or refusing to deal with the emotions will cause a distance in the relationship, which can lead to more problems and even divorce,” Peterman warns. “The best way for any couple to handle this is to talk openly and honestly about their feelings—good and bad. They need to be able to communicate in a way that is non-critical and non-judgmental toward their partner.”
The counseling setting is a safe place where partners can express all of their feelings with the help of a good counselor who will encourage them to do so even if those feelings are hard for their partner to hear, says Peterman.
Angela says that she and Brian worked hard to keep the lines of communication open during their treatments. “My advice for another couple dealing with infertility would be to talk to your partner about your feelings, regardless of how stupid you feel or how hard it may be,” she says. “It will make all of the difference in the world to know you aren’t alone—which is what you’re the most concerned about anyway.”
Not only should you and your spouse talk to each other—you may also want to open up to other loved ones. “We handled the emotional ups and downs through prayer, open communication between the two of us, and open communication between friends and family,” says Elizabeth. “It really helped not to keep what we were going through to ourselves. You shouldn’t be afraid or ashamed to rely on friends and family for support.”
During fertility treatments, it’s easy for a couple to become completely consumed with the ultimate goal: getting pregnant. After a while, all of your thoughts and conversations may revolve around your fertility treatments, getting pregnant, and babies. However, it’s important to give yourselves a break every now and then.
Make a Plan
“Talk about things other than conceiving a child,” says Peterman. “Talk about other wishes, hopes, dreams, plans, events, feelings, people, and current events. Do the things you did while you were dating. Go out on a date!”
Focusing on something else will not only take your mind off of your infertility issues for a short time, but it will also bring you and your spouse closer. When you’re facing an enormous marital challenge such as infertility, it’s important to remind each other why you got married in the first place.
In the shadow of infertility, a couple can quickly slip into the blame game. In search of a scapegoat, you may feel the urge to point an accusing finger at your spouse. But this little game can quickly lead to a serious marital crisis. If you want your marriage to survive, you and your spouse need to rely on each other and work as a team.
“One or both partners may blame the other for their infertility issues, and this can cause problems,” Peterman says. “Be a team, united in your efforts instead of getting on opposite sides.”
Throughout their trying times, Elizabeth and Grant turned to each other for support, which is what kept their marriage strong. When asked what advice she would give other couples dealing with infertility, Elizabeth says, “Don’t blame each other, forgive each other, love each other. One person cannot do this alone. Both have to engage in the process.”
In the event that things do not work out the way a couple hopes and fertility treatments do not work, the partners need to address it and work through what is next in their lives. Hopefully, superstition against talking about negative outcomes (which comes naturally to everyone) will have been overcome and some conversations about this will have happened early in the process. But, in the end, the decision to stop treatments is a painful one, even when people are mentally prepared for it.
First and foremost, couples should seek counseling for their grief, suggests Linda Peterson. They will be grieving over a real loss—the loss of having their own biological child.
Offer Each Other Hope
In counseling, after they have dealt with their grief, they can explore other options such as adoption, foster parenting, and using a surrogate or donor gametes. If they opt to remain child-free, they will need to discuss their life and future without children and revise their family vision. They need to discuss what will give their marriage meaning and purpose as well as what will give each of their lives meaning and purpose.
If adoption appeals to a couple, they should be encouraged to research it in depth. This includes talking with other adoptive parents, joining a support group, and seeking out many different types of adoption agencies to find the right fit for them and to make an informed decision.
On the darkest days of infertility, your dreams of having a baby may seem completely out of reach. During these times, you and your spouse have to look to each other for that extra boost or glimmer of hope.
“We had hope and relied on blind faith that everything would work out,” Elizabeth says. “We tried not to dwell on what we had lost and focused on what we had to do.” And in the long run, Elizabeth and Grant’s hope and refusal to give up led to a healthy pregnancy.
Angela says that her husband Brian’s hope and optimism kept her going through even the worst of times. “So many times I wanted to give up, but Brian kept me going,” Angela says. “He wanted to make sure we gave it our complete efforts before we decided to stop.” Because they pressed on and kept hope alive, Angela and Brian not only succeeded at becoming pregnant—but their marriage is even stronger than it was before their journey began.