If you're navigating infertility within the scope of a partnered relationship, it's unlikely that you and your partner will share precisely the same psychological experience of it. For starters, one person may be logistically going through it differently than the other. “In the case of a heterosexual relationship, one person is using their body and experiencing the physical stress that comes with infertility and infertility treatments, while the other person may be watching their partner suffer or feeling helpless as to how to make things better,” says infertility counselor Rena Gower, LCSW.
“One person is experiencing the physical stress that comes with infertility, while the other person may be feeling helpless as to how to make things better.” —Rena Gower, LCSW, infertility counselor
In other situations, you may find that you and a partner simply perceive infertility and process the stress it brings in deeply different ways—which, alone, can play a major part in how infertility affects a relationship and how you might work through it.
Below, therapists share the different ways in which infertility can infiltrate your partnership, and how to handle it in a way that builds up, rather than breaks down, your relationship.
3 ways dealing with infertility can compromise the quality of a relationship
1. Emotional distress
Similar to any other kind of stress, the sort triggered by any element of infertility can strain a relationship, whether it’s happening in one or both partners. And because of the unique ways infertility can virtually take over your life—through the requirement to make lifestyle changes, navigate decisions and logistics, and go through treatment—this particular stress can be relationally taxing, says Maya Maria Brown, relationship expert and creative strategist at relationship app Coupleness.
“The process can make you feel powerless and lose hope, and can weigh heavy on you as both individuals and people in a relationship.” —Maya Maria Brown, relationship expert at Coupleness
“The process can make you feel powerless and lose hope, and can weigh heavy on you as both individuals and people in a relationship,” she says. Add in the factor of financial stress—one cycle of in vitro fertilization (IVF) can cost $12,000 to $17,000 on average—and the potential for overwhelm only grows.
Also common are feelings of pressure to conceive or guilt around not being able to, says psychotherapist Joanna Rosenblatt, LCSW, who specializes in infertility counseling. “There is immense [yet totally unwarranted] shame in our society around infertility and sharing that story,” she says. Naturally, that can lead you to isolate yourself from friends or family members—whom you suspect might ask about (or, rather, pry into) your fertility journey—or decide to skip social situations where you might encounter pregnancy announcements, pregnant people, or babies and children, says Gower.
While understandable, these acts of isolation can, in turn, lead you to rely wholly on your partner for infertility-related support, putting undue strain on your relationship.
2. Different ways of managing or processing the situation
Differences between partners always have the potential to create tension, and when they’re related to such emotions-laden issues as infertility, that’s all the more likely. “A common trigger for relationship difficulty is when partners are on different pages about treatment decisions, and differences in their core values become evident,” says clinical psychologist Kim Weiss, PhD, whose practice centers around infertility.
For instance, maybe you want to pursue IVF, but your partner would prefer adoption; or, perhaps you’re ready to live a child-free life after two years of trying to conceive, but your partner would rather continue down the fertility-treatment road.
Beyond these logistical differences, it’s also possible that diverging perspectives on the grief and loss of infertility can create rifts, too. “There are five core stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance,” says Gower. “If one partner is in the anger phase and one is in denial, it doesn’t mean that you’re not both grieving, but it may be harder to feel supported by each other in your grief.”
The same thing is true of different—and perhaps conflicting—coping mechanisms. “For instance, one partner may feel a need to talk about their feelings, and the other may need to distract themselves,” says Dr. Weiss. “Or, one partner may feel a need to think positively while the other may need to express their fears of failure.” In any case of this nature, resentment can certainly brew as you and your partner each struggle to have your personal needs met.
3. Decreasing levels of physical intimacy
Stress is a known libido killer, and infertility-related stress is inherently connected to sex in a way that can strip the event of its natural allure. “Sex can change from being a way two partners connect to being calculated and stressful,” says psychotherapist Joanna Rosenblatt, LCSW. “The pressure to make a baby negatively impacts the intimacy you might otherwise feel.”
Separately, invasive tests and treatments and hormone medications for infertility can often make the person with the eggs feel less physically sexy or become less interested in being touched, says Dr. Weiss. “Also, it’s hard to feel good in your body when it’s seemingly failing you in a fundamental way,” she adds.
The resulting tendency may be to have less sex—which likely won’t do your relationship any favors. “Lack of physical connection can rob you of much-needed closeness, bonding, and stress relief during a difficult time,” says Dr. Weiss.
7 ways to minimize stressors of infertility within your relationship and strengthen your connection
1. Remember your "why"
At the core of any partnered infertility journey is you and your partner’s desire to start a family. Remembering that intention can be a helpful way to avoid getting bogged down by the process it might entail, says Brown: “This likely began with a desire to create and give love, and getting back to that longing can help each action feel like a step toward a meaningful goal.”
2. Work to get on the same page for fertility decisions
It’s essential to communicate openly about decisions at each stage of the fertility journey so you can identify discrepancies in how you and your partner feel and then find compromises. “Even if your partner expresses the same desire to press forward with fertility treatment, they may disagree about financing, timing, or priority of treatment over other life goals,” says Rosenblatt. Resolving any and all of these disagreements upfront will keep them from festering and surfacing as resentment down the line.
3. Share your coping techniques with each other
Maybe you need to cry or vent in order to process the feelings bubbling up; maybe your partner needs to get away or spend time alone. Whatever the case, communicating these coping methods is the only way to ensure both of your needs are being effectively met. “However much you might wish that your partner could read your mind, it’s always better to explain what you need rather than not to receive the necessary support,” says Rosenblatt.
It’s also helpful to acknowledge that you don’t need to feel the same way or cope the same way to be helpful to each other and to demonstrate your care and understanding, says Dr. Weiss: “You can show each other that you accept the other person’s way of processing the situation, even if it’s different from yours.”
4. Think of this phase as part of pregnancy
Ongoing fertility treatments can feel like wasted time (especially when they repeatedly fail), but it's far more beneficial for your relationship to steer clear of that mindset. Instead, work to view this time as a useful period to prepare for the parenting that will hopefully come, says Brown: “The clock doesn’t have to start only when the test is positive. Take this time to be kind to your mind and body and to bolster your relationship.” After all, this phase will not last forever. “One way or another, things will resolve and the crisis will recede,” says Dr. Weiss
5. Split the infertility responsibilities as evenly as you can
When one person takes on a disproportionate amount of the infertility-related responsibilities, things can quickly turn hostile. “It’s common for the person with the eggs to be solely responsible for all of the tracking, research, and logistics, not to mention the physical and emotional roller-coaster of infertility and treatment,” says Brown. “While the other person likely can’t take on most of the physical responsibilities, they can certainly educate themselves, read books on the topic, schedule appointments, and the like.”
In fact, going to appointments together, in particular, can lend itself to a bonding experience, says Dr. Weiss, who also suggests video-chatting a partner into a visit if pandemic rules don’t allow for both people to be there in person.
6. Continue with the rest of your life, as much as possible
Remember: Infertility is not your identity. “As much as you may want to plan around a baby coming, you shouldn’t put off other things you want to do ‘just in case,’ when you don’t know if or when that will happen,” says Brown, who recommends you still plan that trip, start that hobby, or aim to do whatever else you might feasibly do if infertility wasn’t an issue.
That can also direct your attention away from the stress of infertility whenever you’re not actively dealing with it—which is a good thing. “It’s easy to let infertility overshadow everything in your life to the point where you don’t remember what you talked about before your fertility challenges started,” says Rosenblatt. To that end, it’s essential to spend at least a few minutes each day talking about something other than fertility with your partner, adds Brown. Make a point of reminiscing on good times you’ve shared, ask each other random questions, or engage in a new activity together with the sole purpose of sparking joy.
7. Build a support system
The only thing more difficult than navigating a stressful experience is navigating it alone. “It’s so important to gather a few loved ones in your corner who can support and nurture you throughout this journey,” says Gower. “The hardest part is making the ‘ask’—but doing so can make a huge difference in your ability to cope with the process.”
If you’re wary of asking people in your circle, you can also turn to online communities of folks who may be in the same infertility boat as you are, like The Broken Brown Egg or The Fertility Talk, and encourage your partner to do the same. “Simply knowing that your partner also has other people they can count on can help you feel more relaxed, and not like you have to carry the weight of their whole experience yourself,” says Brown.
Separately, if the reality of infertility is leading you to feel depressed, anxious, or otherwise preoccupied to the point where you’re having trouble living your life productively, it’s also smart to seek professional help in the form of a couple’s therapist or a therapist who specializes in infertility (go to ReproductiveFacts.org and click the button labeled “Find a Healthcare Professional”). “This is someone who can help you navigate both partner difficulties and social situations related to infertility, as well as the inevitable grief along the way,” says Gower.
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