There’s almost no aspect of a couple’s relationship that a fertility journey doesn’t disrupt. There’s the emotional aspect of the grief and overwhelm, the physical side as you learn about hormone injections, tend to your diets, or visit acupuncturists (and that’s not even touching on how it can affect your sex life), the financial toll—the list goes on.
As a registered psychotherapist who has worked with countless couples, I’ve gotten an up-close look at how relationships can either thrive or suffer as a result of infertility. Fortunately, research paints a helpful picture about what elements can help couples go from despair to delight in their relationship.
Communication is key.
Communication is important in any relationship, but it’s particularly crucial when it comes to infertility. One study found that couples who didn't communicate with one another were at greater risk for marital dissatisfaction and general discontent during their fertility journey.
To make sure that you’re communicating respectfully, avoid what psychologist Dr. John Gottman dubbed the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” These are the four most destructive habits and biggest predictors of divorce: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling (A.K.A. withdrawing from a conversation).
Instead of criticizing your partner, try to find one small thing to empathize with. Avoid contemptuous practices like name-calling, eye-rolling, or sarcasm. Rather than becoming defensive, listen to hear rather than listening to respond.
And finally, take time-outs if needed rather than simply mentally or emotionally disengaging from the conversation. I like what therapist Terry Real calls “Responsible Distance Taking,” which involves saying why you’re leaving a conversation and giving your partner the heads up about when you’ll be back. For example, you can try, “I’m feeling myself getting worked up so I’m going to take a breather and will be back in 10 minutes.”
Remember that everyone grieves differently.
A common complaint I hear among women in heterosexual relationships is that their partners either don’t understand what they’re going through or don’t care. However, recent research highlights that the emotional impact of infertility is nearly balanced. In other words, it’s inaccurate to presume that one gender suffers more than the other; it’s just that their ways of handling the suffering might be different.
Although the research confirms that women’s distress around infertility is more overt than men’s, this could very well be the result of the different ways in which men and women have been socialized to cope in general. In search of maintaining what’s often considered a “masculine” identity, men have been taught to suppress their emotions as a way of protecting their partners, and withdrawing can be one way to achieve this goal. The study also found that while women are more focused on the pain of loss during infertility, men tend to gravitate towards problem-solving and search for practical issues to resolve as a way of coping.
It’s worth noting that it’s not uncommon for same-sex relationships to have a similar dynamic where one person is more solution-oriented while the other is not.
It’s also important to remember that the stressors that people with eggs and people with sperm face during infertility are different, too. The study also showed that male infertility is associated with a lack of virility and masculinity in Western culture, and males tend to feel hopeless about how to help their partner with eggs. On the other hand, people with eggs often carry the physical burden of attending appointments, receiving hormone injections, and being aware of their each and every bodily symptom.
The takeaway? Try your best to avoid making assumptions about how your partner feels or what their behaviors mean. They're probably doing their best to cope in the ways they know how to. When in doubt, ask. The stories we tell ourselves can be so much worse than reality.
Learn the art of validation.
If there’s one skill that each of us could benefit from learning, it’s how to validate others. Validation has been described well as the recognition of another person’s thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviors as understandable. In other words, it’s a way of communicating understanding and acceptance.
Western society simply doesn’t handle grief very well. And when we don’t know what to say or do, we might jump to providing solutions or finding the silver lining of the situation. Despite the positive intentions behind these gestures, they can unfortunately do the exact opposite of what they’re trying to accomplish.
One way to validate someone is to simply be present and curious. Asking open-ended questions can be super helpful (for example, “How did it feel when you heard that?”), as can saying the phrase, “That makes sense to me.” Remember, validating isn’t necessarily about agreeing; it’s just recognizing that someone’s feelings or thoughts are valid.
You can also try these helpful phrases when you’re feeling stuck:
- “Tell me more about that.”
- “How can I help?”
- “What was it like when that happened to you?”
- “It makes sense that you feel…”
Speak to your partner’s specific love language.
By now, the term “love languages” has become so popular that they’re listed on peoples’ profiles in dating apps. Created by Gary Chapman, the term refers to how partners express and experience love:
- Words of affirmation: Using words to communicate love (for example, saying, “I love you so much,” or “thank you so much for cleaning up the kitchen last night”).
- Physical touch: Using touch to communicate affection and love (this includes holding someone’s hand, stroking their hair or cuddling together on the couch).
- Acts of service: Showing your love through actions that are intended to have a positive impact on your partner (such as, driving them to their fertility appointments, cooking dinner, etc.).
- Quality time: Demonstrating your devotion by giving your dedicating time and undivided attention to the other (for example, doing tasks/activities together, making time for uninterrupted conversations, etc.).
- Tangible gifts: Communicating love and affection by buying them thoughtful gifts and/or items that they’ll appreciate (this could be buying them their favourite chocolate bar after they’ve had a hard day).
While all five love languages are important, one of the five categories listed above causes us to feel especially loved and cared for in a significant way. For example, you might like physical touch, but love hearing words of affirmation. Alternatively, words of affirmation might not really resonate with you, but having someone bring you your favorite drink from Starbucks makes you feel warm and fuzzy all day long.
Most of us automatically use our favorite love language to communicate our love to others. So, if your go-to is tangible gifts, then you’ll likely often buy little gifts for your partner. However, it’s common for partners to have different love languages. To make sure your partner is receptive to your message, tune in to what their love language is rather than assuming it's the same as yours. From there, it’s about doing things that specifically speak to their love language—even if we have no idea why or how it's helpful.
You can even have an open discussion with your partner about what their love language is and come up with a list of specific things you could do to honor that. As always, the more communication, the better!
Make space for joy in your life.
It’s easy to feel completely consumed by all things related to fertility. Sex can become mechanical and results-oriented, and conversations can revolve around appointments, next steps and feelings about the process.
Unfortunately, many of us don’t make much time for play and fun in adulthood. But research that analyzed studies looking at 15,000 participants over the course of 30 years showed that playfulness between romantic partners is crucial for bonding and establishing relational security. The researcher found that the humor that couples created together is strongly related to relationship satisfaction.
Though it’s much easier said than done, it's important to be intentional about making time for fun and joy in your relationship so that you can get a mental break from the world of fertility and reconnect as a couple.
There are many ways you can do this, whether it’s at home or out:
- Take a dance class together.
- Have board game nights at home.
- Cook new recipes/cuisines.
- Build Lego together.
- Connect with your creative sides through joining a paint class or pottery group.
- Do things that make you laugh, whether that’s going to see stand-up comedy, watching a new light-hearted TV series together or reconnecting with your playful side in whatever way works for both of you.
The good news is that if you can offer the right kind of support that speaks to your partner, communicate openly and find ways to reconnect with joy and laughter, the process of fertility can and will bring you closer together. In fact, some of the most committed, kind-hearted, respectful, fun couples I’ve met are people who have trudged through some very difficult periods of infertility together. Have faith that you and your partner have what it takes to be there for each other and be gracious to yourselves and each other along the way.