There’s a widely held belief that life follows a certain predetermined path: find the right mate, make a commitment to one another, start a family. But what if the last piece of that socially-sanctioned puzzle never materializes?
“Infertility can have a profound impact on a couple, signifying not only loss of [parenthood] but also loss of the control you have over your life,” says Debora Stark, a registered marriage and family therapist, and registered social worker in Brockville, Ont. “In society, we have this idea that when we’re ready and decide to start a family, we will. And it can be distressing for those who don’t have that experience.”
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Emotionally, this sense of loss can bring about feelings of depression, anxiety, frustration and anger, and it could cause one or both parties to question their self-worth. It can also impact a couple’s intimacy and sexual relationship. And considering one in six couples in Canada face infertility, the fallout of the diagnosis could have serious repercussions for many people.
A study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynaecology found that women who didn’t have a child after undergoing fertility treatments were three times more likely to divorce or end cohabitation with their partner than women who did have a child. Researchers followed 47,500 Danish women for seven years, from their first year of fertility evaluations (starting in 1990 to 2006) through 2007, and found that more than one-third of the women who were divorced or living alone after their last follow-up had not had children.
“We already knew that having fertility problems is very stressful for couples but I was surprised that the effect lasted so long,” lead author Dr. Trille Kjaer said to U.S. News.
While the study did not determine the quality of the relationships or other factors that could have contributed to their deterioration, the fact is, loss can either bring a couple closer together, or it can have the opposite effect.
“When a couple loses a child, the same principles apply: sometimes they can pull together and it strengthens their relationship, and sometimes they fall apart,” Stark says.
The key to staying together is communication — and this applies just as much to a final diagnosis of infertility as it does to the time during attempts at conception. If one partner feels the need to find a solution and the other partner just needs comforting, it’s only through communication that both parties’ needs can be met.
“The best approach is to just listen and avoid false reassurance — avoid saying things like, ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to be OK,’ or ‘It’ll happen next time,’ because no one knows that for certain,” Stark says. “One partner, and more likely both, will feel sad, and they both need to grieve. They should be actively listening to each other.”
It helps to talk through your feelings together and think about what your goals should be as a couple now that kids are no longer in the picture. This will help to process the loss and move through the experience so that you can heal as a couple.
This can also help to clarify the emotional state of each member of the couple.
“In a heterosexual couple, the impacts on a man can differ from those on a woman. The woman is going through a powerful hormonal influence [especially if she’s undergone hormonal fertility treatments], whereas the man is not. It can cause conflict in the relationship because he’s more worried about her well-being, while she’s dealing with the hormonal drive.”
It’s also important to reach out for help, whether that’s from a professional counsellor or a support group.
“Couples can feel isolated in this world and there can be a lot of insensitivity from other people asking when you’re going to have a child, all of which can lead to feelings of diminished status,” she says. “Read, learn and talk to people to educate yourself on infertility. It often isn’t one conversation; it’s a process of acceptance.”
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