Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Infertility: "His" and "Hers"?

Much of the research on reactions of individuals to infertility divides along gender lines. Women often are portrayed as more likely than men to reach out for social support and to use certain escape or avoidance strategies (wishing, hoping, fantasizing and social avoidance). Men, on the other hand, are seen as more likely to distance themselves emotionally by focusing their attention on other issues, carefully regulating their emotions, and viewing infertility as a series of problems that need to be solved. Actually, all of these reactions are developed in an effort to protect yourselves against the emotional dangers of the infertility experience. In their own ways, both males and females are striving for feelings of mastery, as well as searching for opportunities to distract themselves from the inevitable painful realities of their infertility. So what might this mean for you in your relationship with your partner?

I would suggest that one way couples can join together more supportively is to have conversations about how infertility is affecting them, both individually and as a couple. This will prevent falling into the common trap of complaining that “H/She doesn’t understand what I’m going through!” Furthermore, as you and your partner are sharing your separate perceptions of how infertility is affecting you, each of you can use that time to express how you hope your partner could be supportive and comforting. As you have this conversation, it is important to fully concentrate on what your partner is expressing, and to ask for clarification whenever you need to. By the way, I wouldn’t overdo these conversations; once or twice a week for 30 or 40 minutes should be enough time to feel as if both of you are staying connected emotionally. And be sure not to have these conversations in the bedroom – that is a place that should be saved for sexual pleasure and sleep, not associated with sadness and problem solving.

While I’m on the subjects of sadness and problem solving, let me encourage both of you to admit together that sadness is probably an inevitable response to many aspects of infertility: unclear diagnoses, failed treatments, pregnancy losses, dwindling finances, and diminished self esteem. It is important not to discount this sadness for yourself or for your partner; rather, this is the time to ask for support and to ask your partner what you can do to offer comfort. Even though you may not share the same sadness at the same time as your partner, or even the same hopes for comfort, being able to be emotionally responsive to one another is the challenge you are both hoping to embrace. And as for problem solving, which can be initially discouraging, if you can share this time consuming and emotional load, you may find yourselves feeling even more united in your efforts to be resilient against the challenges that infertility poses in your lives. In my book When You’re Not Expecting: An Infertility Survival Guide, I offer a wide range of examples of how couples I have counseled come together emotionally to face the hurdles that infertility has thrown into their path.

Inevitably you and your partner will need to make decisions, whether about treatment options, alternative paths to parenthood, financial planning, or keeping your relationship resilient at each new stage of your infertility journey. Just as earlier you may have had different perceptions about how you responded emotionally to some of the infertility challenges you faced, here too you may find significant differences in your readiness to make decisions or in the outcomes you are valuing. And, here again is my encouragement to share your perceptions about what is important to you now, and then listen very carefully to your partner about where s/he is in being ready to contemplate some decisions. If you hit an impasse, it may be a good idea to invite a trusted third person to help both of you to sort out your differences, clarify your priorities or assess what issues are most compelling right now. What is important is that you as a couple are committed to communicating as openly as possible, to respecting each other’s right to think differently about your infertility, and to seeking resources when you feel “stuck,” either emotionally or practically.

And, remember too, that even as infertility may hover over you like an unwelcome cloud, you both need to seek respite from that cloud. So on your “to do” list, be sure to include hobbies, time with friends, weekend getaways, and other fun experiences to reinvigorate you emotionally and reinforce your commitment to being together, even through the unknowns that your future may hold.

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