Infertility delivers a massive dose of stress in many marriages. If infertility has strengthened your marriage and moved you to a higher level of marital understanding and loving relationship with your spouse, you can skip reading this. You don’t need it. Praise God! But if trials and tribulations of infertility are threatening to put distance between yourself and the one you love read on.
Infertility: The Blame Game
When a marriage experiences infertility, there’s a tendency, subtly or not, to focus on “who’s to blame.” As a result, one partner may feel superior and the other inferior. One may feel disappointment over the other’s “inadequacies.” The other feels guilt for the same. One partner may be relieved that he or she is not “the problem.” The other spouse becomes depressed because she or he is. But fertility is a couple’s problem. It’s one of the few known medical conditions that involve two people! The trouble isn’t an infertile wife or an infertile husband, but an infertile couple. Until you understand that fact, you may experience a great deal of solitary and unnecessary pain.
God said, “A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24) Becoming “one flesh” refers to much more than the sex act. It means that a husband and wife work at being one. They share their hopes, dreams, and joys. They also share the burdens, sad times, and challenges.
Communication between husband and wife is crucial if the stresses that accompany infertility are to be dealt with effectively. But there’s no question about it —most men and women handle communication differently. Yet in the case of the infertile couples, is it only a matter of style? Or is it substance?
In other words, do husbands and wives simply have different ways of expressing their feelings about infertility? Or do they have different reactions to infertility itself? Do wives, for example, tend to feel a greater sense of pain and loss over their inability to be mothers than husbands do over their failure to be fathers?
This is a controversial question. Each time we speak to infertility groups on this issue, it raises a flood of disagreements. Still, the majority response is usually something like, “Of course most husbands hurt as much as their wives do. They just show it differently.”
It’s Not That Simple
We’re convinced, however, that it’s not so simple. In talking to countless infertile couples, we’ve found significant differences in the ways husbands and wives view infertility and pregnancy loss.
In our own case, not recognizing those differences caused serious misunderstanding and anger. Sylvia describes how she was feeling:
“In the beginning I assumed that John felt the same as I did about the fact that we could not have a baby. I was sure that he must be hurting inside as much as I was. I thought that it bothered him when our friends had a new baby. Also, I thought that he deeply sympathized with me in my weary pregnancy testing and visits to the doctor. I believed that he understood when I burst into tears for no apparent reason.
In time, however, it became obvious that my assumptions were wrong. John wanted children badly and was disappointed I did not become pregnant. But I realized that he was not hurting at the depth or with the same intensity that I was. With that realization came anger. Why didn’t he put his arms around me the first time I started crying? Instead he stood there with open mouth, wondering what on earth was wrong with me. Why did he show only lukewarm interest whenever I brought up the subject of our infertility for discussion?
The net result was increased isolation. I not only felt isolated from the people of the fertile world around me, but also increasing detachment from my own husband.”
Those feelings of frustration, guilt, anger, and isolation are not unusual. When couples struggle with infertility, it’s usually the woman who feels the greater emotional involvement. She tends to suffer more. The woman is typically the one who seeks treatment first. She initiates conversations about “our problem.” It’s the woman who sees the pregnant lady on every street corner. It’s the woman who tends to read the books and magazine articles on infertility. Also women, for the most part, writes them.
There are several possible reasons for this. For many women motherhood may remain the number one vocational goal, regardless of a career or job. Many women see motherhood as an essential part of their identity. A man on the other hand may identity in being a father. But he is more apt to find it elsewhere as well. He usually finds it in a career or avid pursuit of a hobby.
Men DO Feel the Impact
…We don’t mean to suggest that husbands can’t be devastated by infertility. Countless husbands are. One physician, for example, sent us a letter in which he shared the profound impact infertility had made on his life.
“For me it was grief and loss reaction as severe as any other. It had a very psychological effect on my whole life. I will always be a member of the group for whom one of life’s greatest joys and deepest emotions is but an empty void, a far-off hope.”
Another man expressed his great sorrow that he, as an only son, would not be able to pass on his family name. He felt he was failing his parents.
Men Experience Infertility in Different Ways
Some infertile husbands suffer ridicule from friends or coworkers. One man, a high school teacher on a weekend retreat with his colleagues, disclosed the purpose of the medicine he was taking. He thought his fellow teachers would react maturely. But for the rest of the weekend he was the butt of jokes. One colleague laughingly accused him of “shooting blanks.” And others made remarks that were less printable. He wrote, “I had no choice but to grin and bear it. But it brought pain.”
We don’t wish to minimize that. Nevertheless, many wives feel infertility’s pain and loss more intensely than their husbands do. Speaking from his many years of treating infertility patients, Dr. Joe McIlhaney states:
“The intense pain many infertile women feel about their inability to conceive has led me to conclude that for them having children is as basic a function as eating, breathing, and sleeping. Bearing a child seems to fulfill an essential need of a woman’s body. It relieves an inner craving. It has helped me as a man, and as a physician, to be aware of the vicious torment infertility inflicts on a woman…”
When husbands and wives refuse to recognize that there may be significant differences in the way they view infertility, they’re setting themselves up for marital strife. Wives shouldn’t assume that their husbands understand the depth of their pain. Husbands need to remember that their wives may view motherhood as essential to their fulfillment.
A Marriage Survival Kit
Many couples who experience infertility discover that their marriage is on a survival mission. And it’s not just a training exercise! How can you and your spouse preserve your relationship —and even improve it —during this difficult time?
We recommend marriage survival kit. Make sure it contains the following items:
1. A Band-Aid
Why? Because it will remind you of an important characteristic of husbands: They like to make things feel better.
Husbands hate to see anything broken —especially their wives. They hate to see wiveswho are hurt by the dashed hopes and crushed dreams that mark infertility. As one husband put it, “The most difficult part is knowing that Linda (my wife) is in so much pain.”
In our case, John hated it when Sylvia grieved over our infertility. He hated it so much that he was quick with “Band-aid” words and a quick kiss to make it better.
It will happen,” he reassured. “Don’t worry, we’re still young. We can always try again next month. Why don’t you and I go out for dinner this evening? This way you can get your mind off infertility. Talking about it all the time only makes you depressed. You need to start looking on the bright side of things. After all, you’ve got me. And we’re happy together! Be thankful for what you’ve got.”
Want to Make Wife Feel Better
Behold: Mr. Fix-it to the rescue! Like John, most husbands think it’s their God-given duty to make their wives feel better.
Unfortunately, these husbands tend to downplay the pain. Their motives may be great, but their strategy isn’t. Women suffering from infertility don’t need someone to minimize the pain. They need someone who understands it.
Husbands need to learn that they don’t have to fix the pain. They can’t! More helpful than “fixing” is simply going to your wife, putting your arms around her, and saying, “You’re really hurting today, aren’t you? I can’t make it better. But I want you to know that I love you. And when you hurt, I hurt too.”
2. A Stopwatch
Wives like to talk more than their husbands do. Marriage and family therapist Philip Nienhuis says,
“Studies have indicated that in a typical day a woman will use significantly more words than her husband will use. He will be very matter of fact in stating the experiences of the day, or relating interactions with people he has met. She, on the other hand, will tend to go into much greater detail in reporting experiences or describing relationships…
Many women find it therapeutic to talk. It is a way of relieving stress. Men, on the other hand, often find that talking about an issue produces stress.”
Picture this: A husband comes home. He is exhausted after a challenging day. The only thing he wants to do is hibernate in front of the Monday night football game. The last thing he wants is to talk about infertility —again!
Meanwhile, his wife had a difficult day too. A woman at the office has announced an unexpected, unwanted pregnancy. Devastated by the unfairness of it all, the wife comes home. She wants to talk with her husband about how this makes her feel.
What’s going to happen when these two come together for the evening? Tension, not tenderness!
Don’t Let It Dominate
Here’s where the stopwatch comes in. It can remind a couple of what has often been called the “Twenty-Minute Rule.”
As far as we can determine, Merle Bombardieri first came up with the idea in the National RESOLVE Newsletter. It’s a simple technique designed to let couples talk about infertility without allowing it to dominate the relationship. Having discussed their infertility often and in depth in the past, the couple agrees that if one of them brings up the topic, they’ll discuss it for 20 minutes and no longer. After 20 minutes they’ll move to another subject.
This is a good rule! When it’s practiced, several things happen. The wife knows she has to focus her comments clearly or she’ll miss her chance. The husband, instead of listening with one ear while the other is trying to catch the football score, concentrates on what his wife is saying because he knows it’s not going to be an all-night conversation. Best of all, they have the rest of the evening to talk about and do other things.
3. Bubble Bath and Candles
For many couples undergoing infertility treatment, romance is an early casualty. Though some report that the experience draws them closer, many find it takes a toll on intimacy and spontaneity.
How can you keep your romance alive? Try little things —a love note in lipstick on the bathroom mirror. Put a love poem tucked into a briefcase. Or plan a night at a cozy bed-and-breakfast, or a long evening walk together. Sometimes all it takes is a bit of creativity. We like the way Colleen Botsios describes a romantic evening with her husband (originally written in the book, When Empty Arms Become a Heavy Burden):
“Two years ago on Valentine’s Day, I was feeling about as low as I’d ever been. All the basic infertility workup had been completed. And nothing stood out as an obvious impediment to pregnancy. But then, as always, I regrouped. It was Valentine’s Day. This is a time to be festive and romantic.
My husband arrived home from work about 6 P.M. And I met him in a sexy nightgown, explaining that I had a romantic evening planned. I showed him to the bathroom, which was dark except for the votive candles scattered around. The whirlpool was gurgling away in the corner. It came complete with coconut bubble bath and really hot water…
Somewhere in the special aura of the evening, infertility, though still close, was somehow far away from us and not so overwhelming. There was temporarily some room to cuddle and smile and laugh heartily.”
4. A Cell Phone
Sometimes even the closest of couples run out of patience, hope, or energy. When the challenges of infertility tax your resources to the limit, help can be just a phone call away. Don’t hesitate to consult a counselor or pastor, even if it’s just a few sessions to get your relationship back on track.
Peaches and Plums
Thankfully, many of us have spouses who understand and care. In such marriages there’s a wonderful sense of making the journey of infertility together. Partners hurt together. They pray together, and support one another as they face the challenges of infertility or miscarriage.
In these marriages, husbands accompany their wives to doctors’ appointments. And they are present for every procedure. They bring their wives a bouquet or arrange for dinner out on those dark days when gloom is running high and hope is running low. Husbands like that are “peaches.”
And in these marriages, wives understand their responsibility to support their husbands. This is especially true when the husband appears to have the main medical problem. These wives know that being told by a physician, “You’re not in the major leagues in terms of sperm production or motility,” or, “I’m afraid you’re sterile,” is difficult for any man to take.
Needs of Wives and Husbands
These wives know the last thing their husbands need are comments like, “I told you a long time ago you should be checked.” They don’t need, “You knew you should have been wearing boxer shorts, but you’re too stubborn.”
A husband needs a wife who, using her God-given charm and grace helps him to know that he’s still sexy, strong, and valued. Such a wife is a “plum!”
Whether your spouse has told you or not, he or she is counting on you. Your marriage can thrive —if you renew your commitment to be the wife or husband your partner needs.
This article comes from the book, When the Cradle is Empty: Coping with Infertility (Focus on the Family Presents) written by John and Sylvia Van Regenmorter, and published by Focus on the Family.
— ALSO —
We came upon the following advice that you may find helpful:
What advice would you give couples facing infertility?
(from Mark Gersmehl, a husband who has walked this journey with his wife Brynn): “I learned how fragile your life and emotions and your mate’s life and emotions are. You’re so vulnerable at that time. And it’s easy to indict, blame, or question your spouse. But that’s the time to learn to listen. Ask God for bigger ears than you’ve ever had. Ask him for a durability of your heart because your spouse may say things out of frustration that she doesn’t mean.” (From a 2002 Marriage Partnership Magazine interview)
Additional articles you may find insightful to read can be found by clicking onto the links below. We believe you will find them to be helpful to your marriage relationship. They can help you to better understand and to relate to each other in healthier ways. Please glean from them. And then use what will help you through this difficult time in your marriage:
• From Crosswalk.com:
LONGING FOR CHILDREN: Facing Infertility in Marriage
• From Focus on the Family (Read this and the additional articles they post):
• From Yahoo.com (not a Christian web site, but a good article):
HOW INFERTILITY AFFECTS A MARRIAGE
• Here’s another helpful article:
PRESERVING YOUR MARRIAGE WHEN DEALING WITH INFERTILITY
• From FamilyLife.com:
CONSIDERING ADOPTION IN THE FACE OF INFERTILITY
If you have additional tips you can share to help others, please “Join the Discussion” by adding your comments below.
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