While infertility impacts men and women in different ways, most couples experience the struggle in much the same way. This is due to the fact that men and women have been traditionally trained to feel, think, and act in different ways.
Women are typically thought of as the emotional caretakers of the relationship. Many women often feel responsible, not only for their own and their partner’s feelings, but also for anything bad that happens within the relationship. In some situations, women try to repress feelings; when this happens, their emotions can become so strong that they feel as though they are spiraling out of control.
Many women in a relationship affected by infertility shelter their husbands from their own feelings of despair and failure by taking much of the responsibility for the treatments upon themselves. Doctors and specialists often suggest that men attend appointments with their wives. Many couples, however, express concerns about issues such as income loss, childcare, use of time, etc., so often women will attend the actual appointments alone. While these concerns are significant, they may also serve to protect potential fathers from their own responsibility in the conception process. They also may protect men from their own feelings, which may become more intense with each step in the medical process.
Men are typically not as comfortable as women in expressing their emotions. It is important to keep this in mind, realizing that men are trained to take control, to make decisions, and to think without being sidetracked by emotions. Men often feel anxious or amazed by the intensity of their partner’s emotions as well as an inability to work with and understand their own feelings. Feelings of failure are often difficult to deal with or accept. Most men will focus their energy back into their work, a place where they feel they can have more success.
As a result of taking responsibility for the emotional impact of the infertility, a woman often experiences intense feelings, such as pain, anger, fear, etc. Women often receive verbal messages or non-verbal cues that her way of dealing with things is in some way dysfunctional or “crazy.” This messaging often breeds a feeling of anxiety and deep depression. These feelings can be wild and uncontrollable at times. As feelings spill out, a woman may not know how to ask for what she needs, especially from the husband she is struggling so hard to protect. Many women feel like there is a pendulum swinging from one side to another. The pendulum goes from a sense of yearning for an emotional connection/interaction at one moment to withdrawing emotionally from her husband, especially if she thinks she has disappointed him.
Men find themselves in a situation where, no matter how well they’ve been trained to solve the puzzle or fix a problem, they are unable to make the circumstances better for their partner. As a result, men may give off messages that their partner is “too” emotional or sensitive, hoping that this will calm her down. Of course, the wife usually hears this as criticism of her coping and caretaking skills rather than as a communication of her husband’s fears.
This may be a time when many couples hold on to each other for dear life. Both partners feel that they’ve failed in the most basic of all roles and responsibilities, reproduction. Couples are hesitant to admit problems in their marriage, thinking that if coping with infertility is difficult, then maybe their marriage might well be a failure.
Thankfully, it is possible for couples to help each other balance what they are thinking and feeling as they move through their struggles together on their path toward parenthood. During this intense journey together, many questions may arise: How do I get what I need from my partner? How can I provide support for my partner during this difficult time?
Here are some suggestions to help both partners during the infertility process:
- Understand and remember the psychological and emotional differences between women and men.
- Appreciate the fact that there is no right or wrong way to feel. Becoming in touch with your feelings will help you know what you need. Once you can identify your needs and feelings, telling your partner, clearly and specifically, how to help you will bring you closer together.
- Be sure to find out from your partner what he/she needs rather than just deciding that you can/cannot give it.
- Communicate openly with each other.
Share more in the process of treatment. Share the stress and the joy, as well as your unique perspectives/experiences of infertility. It will certainly give you the support needed to help balance the intensity of the process and it will hopefully bring you closer together as you develop a deeper respect for each other…