We asked our readers to share how infertility has taken its toll on their romantic relationships, and how they’ve handled these changes. The results? Communication is key.
Over to Sophie Braybrook…
Infertility isn’t something couples ever expect to encounter, which means we’re never prepared for it, and often don’t know the trauma it brings or the means of coping with it until we’re knee-deep in stress and anxiety. “For most people, infertility is very difficult, and it often puts a huge strain on romantic relationships,” relationship specialist Lisa told Fertility Help Hub. In the face of an emotional crisis like infertility, even the healthiest relationships struggle.
It’s so important we open the conversation, share stories, similarities and coping mechanisms. We asked our wonderful community of Fertility Help Hub readers to find out how couples’ relationships have changed with infertility struggles, and the results were, in many ways, similar. Our readers’ most common responses include dissipated sex lives, feelings of disconnection and increased financial stresses. We asked our participants, and sex and relationship experts, how they worked on these issues, and the results all had one thing in common: communication.
Sex is “Just a Chore”
The majority of participants told us sex with their partner has changed as a result of infertility – with what was once flirtatious and lustful now a scheduled “chore”. One Fertility Help Hub reader, who’s 42, suffers from PCOS and has been trying to conceive (TTC) for four years, says their “Fertility struggle has killed the romance and doing it is normally just a chore.” Another, who’s in her 30s and has been TTC for five years (reason unknown), explains that the intimacy she shares with her partner “Is just for the sake of it, there’s no affection as before.”
Caroline*, 30, has been TTC for two years and is awaiting a referral to a fertility clinic. “It’s hard when you’re TTC not to feel as though sex is just a transaction,” Caroline explained, when talking about how fertility has rocked her sex life. When recalling this, Caroline revealed feelings of overwhelming sadness “Growing in the pit of my stomach as I ached and longed to be a mum and grieved the loss of what my husband and I used to have in the bedroom.”
Like many others, Caroline has been a victim of the constant analysis and fretting that comes with infertility, consuming the breakfast and dinner table conversations and putting pressure on her partner to perform when required. Generally speaking, “Women become very focused on getting the timing down, and men often feel pressure to perform on schedule,” Certified Sex Coach and Practitioner of Chinese Medicine Denise told Fertility Help Hub. “Then, things like performance anxiety, low sex drive, tiredness and the like take centre stage.”
Only in Caroline’s husband’s case, the “pressure is doubled, because my husband works away a lot,” narrowing the window of opportunity. One day, during another baby-making chat, Caroline’s husband confronted the situation, telling her he couldn’t cope anymore.
Little did she know at the time, but this moment of rare emotional communication from her husband was the turning point for Caroline’s relationship. Five weeks on and Caroline is attending regular Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and reveals that she now has “a different way of looking at things. Of course, it’s still hard; CBT is not a miracle cure, but it has enabled me to stand on the outside and look in,” she explains.
Caroline’s new ability to see the relationship objectively has enabled her and her partner to repair parts of their physical relationship. “Believe it or not, I’ve become more chilled out over ovulation,” Caroline explained. “If we want sex then we will have it, if we don’t, we won’t. The desire [to have sex] has returned, and now my thoughts are more often about how much I want my husband, rather than just a baby.
“As a result, my husband and I are enjoying our time together, laughing and planning things more often. I’d forgotten how much we love spending time with each other.” For those with a similar story, Caroline advises: “Consider counselling or CBT, it will help you see a brighter path. You have to remember to look after your mental health. We do so much for our bodies when TTC and leave our brain to sort itself out.”
Let’s Talk About Sex
Caroline’s sexual and general romantic relationship started to get back on track after one honest conversation, and this isn’t uncommon. Denise tells Fertility Help Hub that many of her clients have turned to IVF “because they no longer have sex, or there are sexual issues that they don’t want to talk about.” Denise’s answer? Communication.
Talking about sex can increase the desire for it and therefore positively affect fertility rates, as Denise’s example demonstrates:
“I recently had a couple in their late thirties who were having problems because the male partner needed to use Viagra when his wife was ovulating.
“It turned out that his wife would send him calendar reminders titled ‘sexy time’ when she was ovulating. He told me he hated receiving these and, together, we uncovered better ways for them to communicate around sex and fertility.
“They both agreed to put a calendar in the cupboard which he’d check to see the days his partner was ovulating.” After only two months, and a few more meetings and acupuncture sessions with Denise, they fell pregnant.
Disconnection through Disagreement
Feeling disconnected from your partner is a common side effect of infertility, and one that often occurs as a result of fertility-related disagreements. From our research, couples’ most notable discrepancies were those regarding fertility treatments and who to talk to about your fertility struggles.
Olivia*, 40, has adenomyosis and endometriosis, autoimmune hypothyroidism and immune issues, and has been TTC for four years. When explaining feelings of disconnection, Olivia told us tries to stay hopeful and positive. In contrast, Olivia’s partner maintains a more pessimistic view, and that this has caused a rift in their relationship.
“He doesn’t believe ‘minor’ lifestyle changes like cutting out sugar, coffee or alcohol will make a difference; his unwillingness upsets me as I feel he’s not as committed as I am,” Olivia explained. “I also feel jealous that he will still be able to have a genetic child even if we use donor eggs, whereas, for me, that option will be gone forever.”
These conflicting opinions are a cause of worry for Olivia, who’s already “genetically extremely sensitive to stress.” Desperate to manage her stress levels and reignite her relationship, Olivia reached out to both her partner and fertility counsellor.
Starting the Conversation
“I’ve spoken to a couple of fertility counsellors, which has been very helpful,” Olivia explained. “In addition to counselling, I’ve tried to deal with the stress that infertility has posed on my relationship by talking frankly with my partner. I always try to talk when I feel the pressure is getting too high.
“We don’t talk about it very often as these discussions tend to be quite emotionally exhausting, but when we do, it helps us both a lot.
“Even though we don’t think the same way about lots of things, it helps to speak, be listened to, and to hear what the other has to say, to know where we both stand.” Once they’ve spoken, Olivia often finds that “we’re on the same page about most, even if not all, the important issues.”
Alongside talking things through, Olivia has tried yoga and meditation, which have proven to increase fertility rates. These methods have all been useful when actively relieving her negative thoughts about infertility and her relationship. “I would definitely recommend all of these measures for anyone faced with infertility,” Olivia advised.
Addressing differences, especially when it comes to fertility, is easier said than done. Denise uses a talking stick to help. “Sometimes we don’t really hear our partner,” Denise explains, “this native American tool allows the person holding the stick to do the talking while their partner just listens.”
“The listener has to tell the talker what they heard, and then the roles switch. Everyone likes to feel heard and understood, and with such a heated topic as infertility, this sometimes doesn’t happen.”
Compromise through Communication
Without compromise, fertility disagreements can lead to resentment and relationship tension. Olivia and her partner also have conflicting viewpoints when it comes to who they should talk to about their fertility struggle. Again, this is a typical side effect of infertility, as one party might experience shame or embarrassment and avoid talking about it, the other is often subjected to isolation and, as a result, seeks social support. But, through communication, you can reach a healthy compromise. Olivia explains feelings of discomfort when in the company of her partner’s family and their mutual friends:
“I feel like a fake and a liar not telling our mutual friends, and I need to concentrate quite hard not to accidentally mention it,” Olivia explains. “It makes interacting with my partner’s family quite tricky too, like when we’ve visited them, and I’ve not been able to tell them why I’ve had to rush to the bedroom mid-film when taking my injections.”
Olivia explains that being unable to talk about this all-consuming part of her life has manifested in feelings of disconnection from these groups. Despite feeling this way, Olivia notes that “I have to respect the fact that my partner doesn’t feel comfortable sharing our story with anyone,” and finds solace in telling others instead.
Infertility dominates more than our sex, thoughts and decisions, but our wallets too. The cost of medical and holistic treatment, travel to and from fertility clinics, missed work, medication, dieting, counselling and supplements quickly add up, and, just as fertility isn’t part of the master plan, nor are these expenses. So, with financial struggles, comes stress and disagreements.
One 32-year-old Fertility Help Hub reader – who has been TTC for over four years and diagnosed with endometriosis and PCOS – wrote in to explain that her husband “Hates that we’ve spent so much money, but we desperately want another baby. When my husband talks about money, I find myself feeling guilty and suggesting giving up.”
Sally*, 36, has PCOS and her husband has low mobility; they’ve been TTC for six and a half years. Sally told us about those all-too-familiar sacrifices she and her husband have made when prioritising fertility, and the resultant relationship stresses.
“What started with ‘well, if we buy those supplements, we won’t buy such and such’ soon progressed to giving up holidays to pay for fertility massages, which puts a strain on our relationship,” Sally explained.
Along with holidays, date nights have taken a backseat in Sally’s relationship, but she and her husband appreciate the importance of spending time together and have set a date once a month where they enjoy each other’s company, with minimal spending.
Let’s Talk About Money: Creating a Plan
Research shows that putting together a plan of action could help improve marital satisfaction. No matter where you are in your fertility journey, talking money and coming to an agreement together can relieve stress.
Even though fertility is uncertain, and you never know what treatment you’ll be recommended next, or if you’ll need anything at all, creating a savings plan is always a smart idea. You might not need the money for fertility after all, and then you can beckon back the date night and book that much-deserved holiday.
Most of the relationship struggles our readers reported were a result of misunderstandings or differing opinions, and, it transpires, that the majority of them can be eased with communication. If you can, talk to your partner, find common ground and be willing to compromise. Denise’s book, Conceiving with Love, is a great tool that details means of communicating about these complicated and emotional topics.
Counselling has also proven instrumental to women like Sally, who explains that “There have been times along this journey where I wouldn’t have got through if I hadn’t been seeing a counsellor.”
“Couples’ therapy can help the couple move from feeling at odds with each other to managing their treatment as a team,” says relationship expert Lisa. “While no therapist can erase the infertility, he or she can help the couple return to a place where they feel they are on the same page; and from there they can address all issues as a couple.”
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*Interviewees’ names have been changed
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