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Coping with Infertility by Addressing Shame, Couples Communication & Fielding Others’ Questions

In part 2 of this blog series, four marriage and family counselors reveal more pearls of wisdom for couples and individuals coping with infertility.

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A previous blog, “Couples Counseling When Infertility Dashes Their Dream,” touched on the emotional and psychological aspects of coping with infertility, including the secret grief that often accompanies a diagnosis. This blog offers additional insights on the psychology of infertility, as well as some practical tips for coping with infertility in a healthy, productive way.

To begin, it is critical that we tackle the subject of shame as it relates to infertility. This type of shame is a quiet, self-blaming voice that can affect one or both partners.

These sorts of thoughts and feelings are entirely normal. As rational beings, humans have an innate tendency to assign meaning, cause and blame to negative life events, even to events that are largely out of their control.

The key to addressing the voice of self-blame is to talk about it. Shame only grows fiercer when it is kept secret, and it shrivels and shrinks when it is openly addressed.

Let’s talk about what you don’t want to: the shame of infertility, a quiet, self-blaming voice that can affect one or both partners.
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Self-blame is sustained by silence

“Question it and talk about it,” advises Dr. Carol Stoney, LPC, MHSP. “Invite your partner to discuss the self-blame when it comes up so that you can listen and provide comfort. Holding it in will only allow the feeling to fester.” She adds, “Patients who gravitate toward self-blame likely do so in other areas of their lives as well, but they can learn to manage it so that it does not manage them.”

Meredith Fielder, MS, MFTI, advises people to process through why they’re feeling guilty, and accept the emotion as part of the experience.

“If your partner is feeling this way, acknowledge and validate how they’re feeling. You can’t move past feeling a certain way until you feel heard, understood and validated,” she says. “A big fear that rises up with the shame is, ‘Is my partner going to leave me?’ That fear needs to be dispelled.”

It’s easy to get caught in self-blame, but it is ultimately unhelpful, says Tricia Henderson, LPC-MHSP.

“My clinical supervisor has a saying: Stinkin’ thinkin’ leads to stinkin’ drinkin’. That speaks to how those negative thoughts we use to blame and shame ourselves don’t lead to positive outcomes,” says Henderson. “We are so desperate to find something to blame that we reach for the easiest and closest answer: Ourselves. You do not deserve to have this pain in your life, you haven’t done anything in your past to cause this punishment, and you are not a bad person.”

Coping with infertility requires healthy communication

Addressing self-blame with honest and open communication brings forth a principle that can be applied much more broadly to all aspects of coping with infertility. And while it may seem like a no-brainer to say that communication is key, it cannot be overstated here. When coping with infertility, there is a strong temptation to bury feelings and emotionally pull away from the relationship – by shutting down communication – sometimes without realizing it.

“Learn to communicate with each other, treat each other with respect, and show compassion and kindness,” urges Henderson. “Sounds easy, right? It’s not. But you can find ways to live your life to the fullest and find enjoyment in your relationship. Remember that there is no magic formula and no perfect answer.”

Remember, too, that asking questions of your partner can be just as important as sharing your own thoughts and feelings.

Stoney advises, “Take time to check in regularly to ask ‘How am I doing with helping you get through this? What else would help?’ We’re not psychic! Showing up to ask those questions shows caring and a true attunement to how a loved one is surviving the uncertainty and fear that accompanies infertility.”

Fielding questions from friends and family

Friends and family are prone to ask couples about when they’re going to start having children or why they don’t have a child yet, often without considering that the couple may be quietly struggling to conceive. This is where it’s important for couples to have a plan before encountering situations where these questions might be asked.

This becomes particularly important during the holidays, when family and children take center stage. The plan should establish clear boundaries as well as how to tactfully respond to the questions.

“Try to prepare by thinking of how you want to handle the questions from family and friends who don’t know about your struggle,” says Henderson. “In my personal experience, I always liked to use humor when people made irrational statements about our family building process or just didn’t think about how their statements impacted me.”

Fielder says to make it personal in a way, adding, “Utilize the strengths of your personality. If someone is really good at injecting humor into an uncomfortable situation, for example, embrace that.”

Courtney Armstrong, LPC-MHSP adds that it’s okay to be honest with friends and family when a particular situation, conversation or event is emotionally difficult. A mother recently diagnosed with infertility may need to politely decline a baby shower invitation, for example.

“It’s okay to be honest with your friends and say ‘I’m happy for you, but this is hard for me,’” she says. “You can’t compare your life to theirs. Remember that everybody has something they are struggling with. Be open to the fact that your journey in life may be different.”

The bottom line

In almost all situations, clear, honest, loving communication is important. This is true whether you are talking with your friends, your family, your spouse and most importantly with yourself.

Infertility is cruel enough. So make the conscious decision to be kind and loving to yourself. It may not always be easy, but if you try it, you may find it’s easier than being mean.