How to Support a Partner Struggling With Infertility
Struggles with infertility can disrupt or delay life plans to give birth and start a family. Whether it stems from polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis or low sperm count, infertility can bring up feelings of stress, insecurity and frustration, despite the best efforts of loved ones.
Especially given how infertility can include hormonal challenges—wherein emotions and mood can be impacted—it is easy to understand why people may struggle with navigating this stressful reality even when loved ones mean well. Infertility may be related to a limited production of certain hormones that facilitate pregnancy, which can make conception challenging. Hormone treatment for fertility may include such side effects as abdominal pain, nausea, hot flashes, headaches, low moods or bloating.
The need for emotional support
"When a partner is struggling with infertility, ask what they need," suggested Sabrina Sarro, LCSW, a New York–based psychotherapist. Sarro recommends that you show up for your partner by communicating and listening to their needs. "Ask if they want support discovering alternative methods and solutions or if they might just need to be held. Do not assume."
Despite how much of a strain infertility can put on your daily mindset and relationship, research published in Fertility & Sterility in a 2016 study found that most patients and partners seeking treatment for infertility didn't receive information about mental health services from their fertility clinics, even though they reported significant and prolonged depressive and anxiety symptoms.
Heather and Derek Bennison of Powassan, Ontario, said the five years of difficulty they faced trying to get pregnant stays with them today, even though it ultimately resulted in four children. Through that time, however, the couple of 20 years learned how important it was to be a team.;
"When I might not have been my best emotional self and needed someone to hold me up, Derek was there," Heather shared. "He could navigate the scheduling and the straightforward tasks of dealing with insurance, which helped to keep me together emotionally."
While the couple didn't engage in therapy together, they admitted that, in retrospect, it might have helped. Heather did seek individual counseling and found it very beneficial, as was joining an online community for people with infertility issues, some of whom she still communicates with almost 20 years later. "Dealing with infertility can be all-encompassing, but remembering that you are more than just reproductive organs is key," Heather said.
When struggling with infertility, it may be expected that a partner provides the bulk of the emotional support. While a loved one may have every intention of doing that, it can be difficult to know exactly what is needed. Sometimes that feeling of not knowing exactly what to say or do can halt any action, which can be devastating.
Feelings of failure can be overwhelming
Some people may begin to internalize their infertility challenges. "It is a rollercoaster and a total mindfuck," Heather said. "Month after month after month, to be reminded you are defective—that you can't do the one thing that is so easy for so many other people."
These overwhelming feelings can result in withdrawal and isolation, which may make it even more difficult to cope with the heavy emotions that can come with infertility.
"The thing I remember most was how exhausting it all was, from traveling to different doctors to doing all the tests," Derek said. "When Heather was taking hormones, her emotions were up and down. I just tried to be chill about it all because she was the one dealing with it, mostly."
That's why Sarro recommends that partners should actively try to understand what their partner may need or want, rather than acting on behalf of a partner without their consent. Supporting a partner who is struggling with infertility may mean holding them, giving them space or running an errand. These are all things they can communicate to you if you ask them what they need.
Holding space for loved ones
Providing support to a partner struggling with infertility may mean someone acts in an attempt to problem-solve. While this response is understandable, it may not be what their partner needs, and can make things more difficult.
Holding space for a partner struggling with infertility means being present to their needs and wants, even if that differs from your instinctual approach or what you may have desired. To do so usually requires empathetic listening and a deep commitment to a nonjudgmental practice.
It can be difficult if a loved one is not turning to you for the emotional support you desperately want to provide, especially given how infertility tends to make a relationship challenging. Despite this tension, refrain from forcing too much unwanted attention or focus on your partner without them expressing these needs. For some, it can also be beneficial to explore ways to help you deal with stress, such as mental health therapy or meditation.
Holding and supporting one another may look different for every person, but hopefully, you can find ways to hold space for each other while navigating infertility challenges.