Maintaining Your Relationship Through Infertility
By: Lisa Aldworth, MSW, RSW, Psychotherapist
“When you decide to have a child, the wish to be a parent becomes almost primal. You decide to stop using contraception, start lovemaking, and imagine that conception will take place in a mystical, romantic sort of way. What you don’t wish for – or even imagine – is that this won’t happen. That instead of making love you might be having timed sex on a doctor’s orders, giving yourself injections, providing sperm samples. What’s supposed to be natural has now become a high tech pursuit. Even if you knew or vaguely worried that you might have fertility problems, you never imagined that this would be what it took to try and make a baby”
Beautifully summarized in their book Unsung Lullubies: Understanding and Coping with Infertility, Jaffe, Ourieff & Diamond (2005) encapsulate the experience of infertility for many couples. In short, the cost of infertility is high. Not only are you struggling to navigate the physiological barriers to conception, the emotional battle wreaks havoc on both self and the relationship. In my practice I have seen the fallout of this pursuit for many couples which often includes emotional exhaustion, shutting down, internal struggles, lack of communication. While some couples are able to navigate the infertility journey as a team, resulting in an increased intimacy and newfound love and respect for the other, many other couples struggle to support their partner when their own feelings are so deeply affected.
According to relationship expert John Gottman (1999), there are 4 key signs to look for in relationship breakdown.
Signs of Communication Breakdown
- Criticism: Separate the difference between a complaint about a specific behaviour vs criticism which attacks the character of the person. Instead of criticizing your partner talk about your feelings using “I” statements and then express a positive need. What do you feel? What do you need?
- Defensiveness: Defensiveness is a form of self-protection. Many people become defensive when they are being criticized, but this does not help solve the problem. It always important to accept responsibility, even if only for part of the conflict.
- Contempt: Suggests a superiority over your partner. Examples include when a person uses sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eyerolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. According to Gottman, contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce and requires both partners to work harder at appreciation and respect.
- Stonewalling: When one partner disengages or gives the ‘cold shoulder’ during or after an argument. The first step is to stop the conversation in order to avoid explosion or implosion (stonewalling). It’s important to let your partner know that you’re feeling flooded and need to take a break. That break should last at least twenty minutes, since it will be that long before your body physiologically calms down.
Ways to Address Communication Breakdown
- Find an alternate source as an outlet for your pain (friend, therapist, etc)
- Request the gift of listening & validation
- Create time to sit down and discuss but set a time limit (eg: 20 minutes so neither partner feels ‘trapped’ in the conversation or guilty for ending the discussion)
- Define whether the conversation is to vent or to discuss
- Don’t “slime” your partner – ie: don’t dump/vent about fertility issues at random; ask when a good time would be to discuss things
- Daily affirmations – I appreciated when you ______ this week…/Partner: “Is there more?”
- Recognize misplaced blame and resentment
- Avoid “you always” or “you never” statements
Remember, “the experience of infertility represents a threat to our physical integrity, our sense of being healthy and whole” (Jaffe, Ourieff & Diamond, 2005) which in turn greatly impacts our ability to communicate in truly loving and supportive ways. Infertility has also been labelled as ‘reproductive trauma’ for good reason. At the core “it attacks both the physical and emotional sense of self, it presents us with multiple, complicated losses, it affects our most important relationships, and it shifts our sense of belonging in the world. The trauma of infertility is such that what you had taken for granted and expected is lost.” Be kind to yourself and your partner in this journey. What you are feeling is real and valid.
When communication has truly broken down many couples find it helpful to access couples counselling as a means of exploring their feelings and learning how to support one another. In therapy the first step is to share the story of “how it was supposed to be” and to process any grief, resentment or anger. For many people the thought of having children has long been part of their life expectations narrative. Therapy can be helpful in revealing and processing the vision of how they thought their story would unfold and in turn can create opportunities for increased understanding, validation and healing.
Lisa Aldworth, MSW, RSW is a psychotherapist practicing out of Kitchener, ON where she provides therapy to both individuals and couples. Her specialties include infertility, grief, miscarriage and late term loss, postpartum mood disorders and birth trauma. For more information go to www.lisaaldworthcounselling.com or contact Lisa at
Unsung Lullabies: Understanding and Coping with Infertility (2005), Janet Jaffe, Martha Ourieff, David Diamond. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (1999), John Gottman & Nan Silver. New York: Harmony Books.