Written by Janet Jaffe, Ph.D./ Center for Reproductive Psychology / www.ReproductivePsych.org / www.UnsungLullabies.com
Adapted from: Unsung Lullabies: Understanding and Coping with Infertility
(St. Martin’s Press, 2005)
Infertility is not just an individual trauma. The stress on your relationship
can leave you feeling that you’re alone in this, not facing this crisis together as
partners, as a team. The very person you want to feel closest too may be pulling
away or doesn’t feel as if s/he is on your side as you both struggle through this.
Not only do you each have to deal with the trauma individually, you also must
cope with how your partner is coping. If you do not understand how each of you
copes, you may easily misinterpret your partner’s behavior, leading to hurt
feelings, criticism and defensiveness. In your confusion, you may take your
differences in coping and reactions personally, feeling that “if my partner really
loved me, s/he wouldn’t act this way.”
“I was four days late this month,” said Roseanne. “My breasts were very
swollen and sore and I felt exhausted. I really thought this might be it.”
Roseanne and her husband, Glenn, were in the midst of an infertility workup and
still trying ‘on their own.’ When her period started, Roseanne turned to Glenn for
support. He, understanding of how sad she was – once again – let her cry, gave
her a big hug, then started talking about the lunch meeting he had with his boss
that day. That’s when she lost it. “He just switched gears on me,” she cried.
“Sometimes I think he doesn’t care!”
Glenn does care; he just doesn’t feel his grief the same way Roseanne
does. For Roseanne, the experience is physical – she feels the hormonal shifts
and mood changes, feels the changes in her body, feels the cramps of a
menstrual cycle. Glenn’s experience is much less immediate; he is physically
removed from it. Roseanne wanted to talk and be reassured, which Glenn
attempted, but from her perspective it wasn’t enough. Yet for Glenn to cope, he
needed to move on, because dwelling on it made him feel worse. Roseanne and
Glenn, each still hurting inside, hurt each other with their different coping styles.
How Do You Cope?
When you are overwhelmed emotionally, what do you do? Are you a
talker or do you process your feelings privately? Do you lash out or internalize
anger? Do you work more when you’re stressed? Or less? Does exercise help,
or would you rather relax in front of the TV? What happens when you feel out of
control? Do you become more controlling or do you relinquish control? Do you
become more active or do you retreat into passivity? These are questions you
and your partner can ask yourselves and each other to help you identify your
personal coping styles.
When you find yourself overwhelmed by infertility, take the first step of
recognizing your own coping mechanism, then your partner’s. Second, you must
accept that both of your approaches are reasonable. Learn ways of
communicating your needs, and at the same time, listen to your partner’s – not
just the verbal conversations, but the non-verbal cues as well. Recognizing how
and when to talk with each other, and when to give each other space, is essential
in dealing with the ongoing crisis of infertility.
How to Talk and be Heard
Communicating about infertility can be problematic since very often you
don’t know exactly what you are feeling, so it’s hard to figure out what you would
communicate if you could. Your feelings may be so intense that it is hard to put
them into words. What helps is to pause in your most emotional moments and
think about what you feel, rather than just feel. Words are one of your strongest
tools in your effort to maintain intimacy and avoid alienation.
If you are in the midst of an argument, try, as a couple, to take a quick
“time- out” (sufficiently brief that no one withdraws completely) to give each of
you time to re-group. Reflecting gives you the choice of whether to express your
anger directly to your partner, write it down, or talk to someone other than your
partner. Putting an argument on “pause” gives you time to consider whether it
should be pursued.
Loss of Control
So much of infertility feels out of control. It’s natural, then, to want to take
control wherever else you can. Sometimes the need for control is an attempt to
get your needs met by your partner, even at the sacrifice of his or her own needs.
That’s when the “power struggle” so many couples describe during infertility
occurs – you and your partner both desperately want your own needs met at the
same time. During infertility, couples who previously saw themselves as
teammates begin to view each other as obstacles, when that person may simply
be trying to keep from drowning in his/her own feelings.
Finances and sex, two topics couples contend with under the best of
circumstances, become major issues of control during infertility. Paying for
medical interventions often precludes other major purchases, like buying a home,
and making these decisions may create enormous tension. And because sex
becomes goal-directed, the medical timetables and routines can dampen the
very spark needed to create a baby. Having sex “on demand” is an invasion of
sexual intimacy and can create a domino effect of loneliness and isolation by
damaging each partner’s self-esteem and their connection to one another.
Sometimes couples don’t struggle over the big infertility issues but instead
wrangle over smaller stuff, like where to go for dinner or what kitchen chairs to
buy. Underlying these conflicts is the strain caused by infertility.
How Can We Possibly Get Through This?
When loss of control is so powerful, as it is with infertility, you may resist
finding a middle ground, but learning to negotiate and compromise is essential.
Remember that this process is a lengthy one – not everything is going to get
sorted out right away. If ever there was a time to give each other the benefit of
the doubt, now is the time. If you can translate your partner’s behavior into
feelings, and words, you will almost certainly find not a ‘mean, cold, uncaring,
overly emotional, demanding, critical spouse,’ but someone who, like you, is in
pain and needs help.
Finally, it is important to remember that you can get through this. Right
now you are in the middle of a crisis. Yes, the stresses of infertility challenge the
most solid bonds. Yes, your relationship is undergoing a severe test; so are both
of you individually. But recognizing and acknowledging this gives you room to
gain greater insight into how your infertility trauma is affecting both you and your
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