Managing infertility, IVF and your relationship
The experience of infertility and IVF can challenge relationships in ways few other experiences can. Learning to navigate disappointment, stress, fears, and financial pressure together, while at the same time supporting one another, creates enormous pressure on couples. The pressure can hijack relationships and cause tension and misunderstanding, but it can also strengthen relationships and bring couples together. Not surprisingly, it can do both at the same time.
Below are some experiences that couples often report when going through IVF treatment.
Finding it difficult to talk
The way partners cope with the stress of infertility and IVF can differ greatly from one another, and this can lead to misunderstandings.
I feel like I’m not supporting her well. I know she needs to talk about all of this, but I just don’t know what to say to make it better. It’s my fault we’re going through IVF, and I’m feeling pretty useless”
Some people naturally reach out for social support to help them through stressful events, preferring to talk their way through their feelings. Conversely, other people will distance themselves from their distressing emotions, preferring to look for ways to solve the problem rather than talk about how they feel. Within couples different coping styles might be interpreted as one partner not caring enough, and another partner talking too much.
Couples may go through different emotional stages, and not necessarily at the same time, when coming to terms with their situation. One partner may need longer to grieve a failed cycle, while their partner is already looking at options for the next cycle.
Some people find the continual focus and conversation on conception, treatment, decisions hijacks their relationship. It is very easy for IVF to take over, whether it’s because you are planning for the next cycle, undergoing a cycle, or recovering from a failed cycle. Sometimes it feels like there’s little room – or energy – for other interests and activities.
Decision making stress
Embarking on IVF entails numerous decisions – the decision to embark on infertility treatment, whether to tell family and friends about IVF, treatment options, whether to use an egg or sperm donor, the decision to take a break or stop treatment. For same sex-attracted couples some of the decisions involve who is going to be the biological parent, who will be the birth parent? These are all highly emotive and highly personal issues and decisions. The process of making these decisions can easily create tension and disagreements between partners, particularly if the decisions trigger resentment, inadequacy, shame or guilt.
Impact on intimacy and your sexual relationship
There’s nothing fun and spontaneous about infertility, so it’s very easy for sex to become associated with loss and disappointment and take on negative connotations.
The irony is that in trying to create a family we became more and more distant”
Many people report that the pressure to have sex at the right time of the month results in sex feeling like a demand rather than a pleasure. Many people who struggle with infertility find that at times sex becomes a means to an end, and the enjoyment and intimacy is lost.
The rollercoaster of IVF treatment adds its own impact on intimacy – hormone injections and anxiety can reduce libido, or the discomfort and pain of the procedures becomes a barrier to intimacy. Once pregnant, many women also report that their fear of miscarriage adds a further barrier.
Even with all the relationship pressures of infertility and IVF treatment, many couples report their relationship was strengthened as a result of going through infertility together.
We always felt close, but going to hell and back together to create our family has brought a new depth to our relationship, and an even greater respect for each other”
For these couples, the painful struggle is also an opportunity to be vulnerable together, to practice empathy and to appreciate each other. Research studies have found the crisis of infertility can positively benefit relationships by forcing couples to be self-reflective and improve their communication, and it encourages partners to develop effective coping strategies together.
What you can do
Talk with each other about what you are thinking, how you are feeling, and what you need from each other. Be clear with your requests and don’t assume your partner knows what you need.
Through lots of trial and error, misunderstandings and hurt, we found ways of hearing each other”
Of course, this can be difficult if your coping styles are very different. If this is the case for you, try and talk about your difference support needs and see if you can find a balance. Being willing to talk more, or being willing to talk a little less, even if it’s not your natural style, can help take care of each other.
Recognise that some significant decisions are complex and difficult to make
Many of the decisions that are made as part of the IVF process entail unfamiliar, deeply personal, and often confronting issues for many people. It can take time to understand and process information, to explore options, to feel comfortable with challenging ideas, and to let go of how you thought it would be. A willingness to allow yourself and your partner the time and space to work through decision making at your own – often different – pace is important.
Find ways to connect that are unrelated to IVF
Create space and opportunity for shared activities and interests. Remember what you used to do together before the IVF roller coaster began and make it part of your time together now. Create ‘IVF-free’ evenings or days when talk about IVF is off-limits.
Consider support from a psychologist
Sometimes couples need additional support to navigate their way through the stress of IVF. Relationship counselling can help partners learn to communicate more effectively with each other, to understand each other’s perspectives, and to explore decisions. It can also be a welcome opportunity to talk with someone who is not family or friends.