In part 1 of this blog series, four marriage and family counselors give expert advice on maintaining a healthy relationship while battling the secret grief of infertility.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 8 couples experience some type of difficulty getting pregnant or sustaining a pregnancy. Yet few envision themselves having to face such a struggle until they are squarely in the midst of it. Once they do grasp being infertile, hardly any consider themselves in need of couples counseling.
Couples don’t start out thinking about infertility, because after all, what is more innately human – more natural – than bonding with a partner and raising offspring together? Barriers that prevent us from living out this deep-set instinct seem unfair at best, perhaps even cruel.
We are fortunate to live in an age where infertility does not always get the last word. Medical advancements made in the last few decades alone have made pregnancy possible in circumstances where it wouldn’t have been an option just a generation ago. But this by no means makes today’s struggles with infertility devoid of grief, pain and relational strain.
In this series of blog posts are insights from four professional therapists who regularly help couples navigate the ups and downs of fertility and infertility treatment through couples counseling.
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Touching a nerve: Why infertility strains relationships
Dr. Carol Stoney, LPC, MHSP, explains that the reason infertility has a powerful ability to introduce relational conflict is that it is essentially a collision of two common stressors.
“Infertility involves two functional areas where couples struggle: Money and sex,” says Stoney. “Because creating a family is often connected to many of our dreams and future plans as couples, the shift in planning and helplessness to push toward those dreams can be overwhelming. Relationship strain comes from having to navigate and manage those tricky emotions while also needing to show up for an equally distressed partner.”
Coping with infertility as a loss of a dream is a common theme among therapists.
“One of the dreams that couples have is to become parents together,” says Meredith Fielder, MS, MFTI. “It’s really about the loss of a dream – the loss of the possibility of a biological family. A lot of people don’t think that it can happen to them. It’s not something you expect. It’s also not something that’s tangible. When someone dies, people gather around you to support you. Infertility is often a secret grief.”
Couples counseling addresses the grief and obsession of infertility together
Whether a couple decides to pursue fertility treatment or not, the emotions spurred by an infertility diagnosis must be acknowledged, and grief should be seen as a natural response to the situation. As is the case for most relational conflicts, open and honest communication is vital throughout this grieving process, says Tricia Henderson, LPC-MHSP.
“Be open about your emotions and talk about where you need support and what that support looks like,” she advises. “Your partner doesn’t know how to help support you without you telling him or her. If you need to seek couples counseling or counseling on your own, it isn’t admitting defeat. It shows your strength.”
Courtney Armstrong, LPC-MHSP, adds that coping with infertility may quickly turn into an obsession toward finding an answer. This unchecked obsession, helpful and productive as it may seem at first, is harmful to the relationship in the long run.
“The relationships that don’t last are the ones that let it consume them,” Armstrong explains. “They become obsessive. You have to guard against that. This is a process. You can’t rush through it. Take breaks, step back between treatments, and keep your relationship strong. Find other ways to get joy out of life.”
Peace and acceptance regardless of outcomes
One of the most important aspects of coping with infertility in a healthy way is making peace with the various possibilities and outcomes that may result. Often this can help a couple reclaim a sense of empowerment in a situation that is largely out of their control.
“Acceptance of the thought, Things are not what I thought they were going to be, is important, but so is knowing that other options are available,” says Fielder. “The diagnosis of infertility can bring so much helplessness, which can require grieving. But after that, couples can look at their options, whether it’s fertility treatment, living without children or adoption.”
Armstrong adds, “Acceptance is a process. What people have to ask themselves is, What is it about being a parent that is so important to me? Sometimes this can help couples figure out what options make the most sense for them.”
As couples communicate honestly, acknowledge the difficult emotions that accompany infertility, and make peace with uncertain outcomes, they are able to move forward in a healthy way. From there, the next logical step often becomes clearly visible, and the health of the relationship is preserved.
Read part 2 in this blog series, in which counselors discuss some practical ways that couples can help support one another through infertility, conquer self-blame and deal with uncomfortable and often hurtful questions from family and friends.