Attention — 23 July 2006
How couples can best deal with the trauma of infertility

One of the more painful problems many couples experience is their inability to reproduce. No couple is prepared for the painful emotional, physical, interpersonal, and social ramifications of infertility.

Since procreation is a natural process for most people, infertility is a devastating emotional trauma for couples who expect to have children naturally and effortlessly. They often feel discriminated by nature in the harshest way. They tend to question the reasons for this occurrence and tend to confuse morality with biology. They wonder what they are being punished for and seek answers as to the cause of their misfortune. “Why us?”, “What have we done to deserve this pain?” are questions asked at the first stage of adjusting to their loss.

There is also a deep sadness and a sense of betrayal by their body’s inability to do what so many other pairs can do so easily. Couples feel abandoned by the body that refuses to perform normally. The sadness, grief and helplessness lead some pairs to feel depressed and isolated from their fertile friends. They may avoid sharing their suffering with others for fear of not being understood, supported or properly comforted by those who do not share the experience.

The infertile individual often experiences shame, guilt and decreased sense of self-worth. This person is concerned about disappointing the mate, losing esteem and even hindering the connection with his/her partner. Emotionally healthy couples abstain from shaming, blaming, or individualizing the problem and handle the infertility of one mate as a relationship issue to be solved together with love and support.

The process of diagnosing the causes of the infertility is often long, hard and frustrating. It may also entail painful tests, long waits and uncertain results. When a diagnosis is made, the treatments may be physically uncomfortable, embarrassing, or painful and compounded by the gamut of associated emotions. Since conception can occur once a month, testing the treatment results is slow and agonizing. It is associated with monthly fluctuations of hope and despair, sometimes for many months.

Couples who attempt to conceive are so determined to succeed that the treatments, procedures, and trying are all reduced to a scientific regimen of temperature taking, medications, injections, examinations and sex by the clock. The loving spontaneity of physical intimacy is lost as both partners may feel like experimental subjects.

The social connection with friends is often inhibited by the couple’s emotions of envy of others who are parents or pregnant. The painful comparison with others’ fortunate state is emotionally too taxing to handle, so the infertile couple withdraws from social contact.

When pairs choose to share their struggle for parenthood, they may encounter awkward or insensitive comments by well-meaning friends who are unskilled in appropriately responding to the grieving couple. Even a single inappropriate comment is sufficient to have the infertile couple withdraw to the safety of their isolation. It is too hard to bear the hurt and often too difficult to enlighten others when one is in an acute torturous emotional pain.

Fortunately, according to Resolve – The National Infertility Association report “Roughly 2/3 of couples who seek medical intervention are able to give birth”. Most of the couples who struggle and suffer are eventually successful in having biological children. Yet, no couple can predict the outcome of their situation. Even those who do not end up pregnant still have other choices about becoming parents.

Infertile couples can help each other by:

• Viewing the infertility as a couple’s issue and dealing with it as a team. As hard as this time is, many pairs become closer and more bonded through this crisis.
• Affirming for each other that it is a medical condition, not a punishment for any wrongdoings.
• Making decision and being together for as many of the treatments as possible, advocating for the treated party with medical personnel and being positive and supportive despite personal fears and doubts.
• Talking to each other about your feelings, concerns, hopes and moods as they occur. Your partner truly understands your emotions and is best suited to empathize with your feelings.
• Decide together how much and with whom you choose to socialize and how to handle insensitive questions or reactions of others. Prepare a few retorts to use in face of callous comments.
• Realize that your chances of giving birth with treatment are good and that the objective of becoming parents is always open to you in other ways.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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