Looking back, I think the most difficult side-effect of infertility is the impact it has on a couple’s relationship. It’s a time when many clichés will be thrown in your direction, normally including: ‘At least it makes you grateful for each other’ and, of course, the classic, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. The truth of the matter is, while the pressure is on to discover the hidden strengths of your partnership, the two of you are facing an emotional crisis that inevitably brings all your weaknesses to the surface.
In a situation where guilt, blame and resentment are forever threatening to rear their ugly heads, it’s not surprising that even the most supportive of partnerships are said to be tested to their limits. Or that even the greatest communicators can start to feel misunderstood and alone.
What can we do to protect our relationships and ensure that, whatever happens, we’re at least able to say that we’re still fighting for the same side?
I’ll be honest: Throughout my own years of infertility and IVF treatment, I never did find a satisfactory answer. But I think perhaps the most important thing to realise is that it’s normal and even expected for infertility to rock a relationship. Knowing that it’s a natural reaction, and that other couples (even the ones who enjoy the strongest relationships you know) would be unlikely to fare much better can help to relieve some of the feelings of failure and being unable to cope.
When you’re the one with the ‘problem’
It’s hard to imagine many things in life that could destroy a man or a woman’s self-esteem as effectively as an infertility diagnosis. There are the immediate feelings of failure and inferiority compared to all the fertile people around you. But, as if that isn’t enough, there might also be a gradual and growing sense of guilt as you realise that your partner is going to be heavily affected by this ‘failing’ of yours as well.
Even though our diagnosis (or rather lack of one) was ‘unexplained infertility’, I had quickly arrived at the conclusion that, by default, there was something, as yet undiscovered, wrong with me. My body was broken and I wanted it to be fixed.
Inside me, a war was being waged, and for every small victory there would be a price to pay. My body was free of caffeine, alcohol and sugar, but my life was free of fun. Or my anxious mind was calmed by a much-needed glass of wine with a friend, but my fertility (supposedly) would be plummeting with every sip.
I questioned what I might have done wrong over the years, to deserve infertility as my fate. And I wondered whether my husband might have been happier in another relationship; one where he’d already have a bouncing baby or two on his knee.
With these kinds of thoughts weighing heavily on our minds, it’s understandable that people with infertility problems can become withdrawn, argumentative and even self-destructive at times.
But as hard as it is for the person dealing with the infertility diagnosis, it’s also a real challenge for their partner to know how to help. And this is where trouble can start to brew.
When you just don’t see eye to eye
It seems there are so many situations designed to divide when you’re a couple going through infertility. Will you commit to another cycle of IVF if this current treatment doesn’t work? Will you visit the family member who’s just had a baby? Will you both drink or stay sober at the work party you’re attending? And, when it comes to having a family, to what lengths are the two of you actually prepared to go?
Regardless of where the fertility problems lie, it’s common to find that you have different mindsets, different approaches, different limits and different answers to these questions. Frustration and resentment inevitably start to build, and it can start to feel as though you’re never on the same wavelength anymore.
When this was my life, my husband, as far as possible, wanted to try to keep things normal. He felt a sense of desperation that infertility was robbing us of every opportunity to enjoy ourselves, and he felt as though, increasingly, we were choosing to ‘let it win.’
I, on the other hand, wanted to hibernate. It took so much strength for me to get my mind, body and heart into a positive and healthy state that I didn’t want to risk it being destroyed by somebody’s ill-considered comment or opinion.
Knowing that time was not on my side, I wanted to prioritise getting pregnant, and I was prepared to sacrifice virtually everything else for that cause.
My husband, it seemed, could compartmentalise his heartache in order to enjoy other experiences and other people’s happiness, but I could not do the same. Perhaps I didn’t try hard enough. Or perhaps my heartache was simply too unwieldy to be neatly stored away in a box.
When we talked, it became clear that he wanted me to promise to try harder to embrace the rest of the world. And I wanted him to try harder to understand why I didn’t feel I could. Compromise, in this kind of circumstance, can be so hard to reach.
The big question, then, is what can any of us do to support one another through this experience?
What you can do to support your partner
I think the single most supportive thing you can do in this situation is to treat it as a shared problem. If your partner has been advised to make changes to their lifestyle, make changes to yours, too. Go teetotal together, take vitamins and supplements to boost your own fertility (it should do no harm, after all), and treat it as ‘our’ plan to get ready for treatment. By taking it seriously, you can help the partner with the fertility issues to feel less pressurised and less alone, which can make all the difference in the world.
Communication, as we’, is key. And where this is proving more problematic than you feel it should, counselling can often help. You may not be able to agree on a course of action for the next year, month or even day, but being able to accept and respect the other person’s viewpoint can prevent a relationship from irrevocably breaking down.
Face-to-face support groups and online support forums can provide a welcome place to vent and to talk to people who are dealing with very similar problems. It can also be helpful to speak to people who’ve been through infertility and come out the other side; people who can provide evidence that this isn’t forever and that, regardless of the outcome, relationships can survive.
Sometimes however, in spite of everyone’s best efforts, infertility can still take you to a very dark and difficult place. It is a uniquely challenging illness. It turns your world upside down, requires you to change pretty much everything in your life, and places an invisible strain on every relationship you hold dear. And at the same time, it’s said to be in the interests of your fertility and a positive outcome that everyone maintains a calm, relaxed and generally sunny demeanour. If it sounds like an impossible task, that’s because it is.
You may reach the point where one of you (only half-jokingly) offers to leave the other, in order to offer them the chance to meet and have children with somebody else. Or even where one, or both of you, question whether you’re even cut out for parenthood. After all, you’re stressed out, depressed and in a less-than-happy marriage; would it even be fair to bring a baby into your life right now?
If this sounds familiar, try not to judge yourself or your partner too harshly. And try not to let your relationship or your future be defined by how you’re feeling at this moment. Remind yourselves and one another of why you wanted to become parents in the first place, the qualities that you’ll bring to parenthood (or any other endeavour in life) and what made you choose your partner as the person with whom you’d celebrate all of life’s pleasures and weather all of life’s storms.
And, perhaps most importantly of all, never forget that there are very legitimate reasons why neither of you is feeling or acting quite yourself just now.
Where to find support
The British Infertility Counselling Association (BICA): http://www.bica.net
Find a qualified counsellor near you who specialises in infertility
Fertility Network UK: http://fertilitynetworkuk.org
Information, advice and details of face-to-face and online support