When couples struggle with fertility challenges, things can feel more unhinged. We are told by our faith to “go forth and multiply” or that sex on the Sabbath is a mitzvah. The frustration and self-doubt that creeps in when couples try to honor these teachings, and are unable to create new life can be deep. Inherently, there is a sense of shame that many couples experience when they are unable to fulfill their dreams of parenthood, and often times, this struggle is kept silent.
Infertility is not something that a member of a couple ever forgets, especially during their road to parenthood. Seemingly innocuous questions like, “when are you going to have kids?” or “have you tried to just relax?” add salt to an already open wound, despite those that ask them being well-meaning in their intentions. Since reminders of fertility are all around us (in the form children playing, commercials for baby products, and pregnant women) one doesn’t have to go far to feel that twinge of jealousy and longing as well as the reminder of the uncertainty about when it is their time to be parents.
Having a medical professional enter into the sacred space of childbearing changes the dynamic between a couple. An act that was supposed to have occurred in the sacred space of a couple’s bedroom has now shifted to a medical building. Here is another place where the push and pull between having faith (that things will work out and a baby will be created) and experiencing fear (such as the doubts that can creep in) creates a tension in both individuals and between a couple. Many partners have different coping styles, and when it comes to experiencing something hard, few couples have had the history together to give them insight around what coping together looks like rather than coping separately. Managing the emotions around infertility call for couples to increase their communication, particularly around what each might need. It also indicates that couples might need to allow for some space for one or both members.
Learning about how, as individuals, we process information can be vital in then teaching our partner. An example might be a couple where the wife is an externalizer and likes to talk to others when things are hard but who is married to a man that is an internalizer, or someone who likes to keep his feelings close to the vest until he has figured out his next course of action. These are two styles that tend to be exhibited in many couples. The wife might be talking to whomever will listen about their fertility journey, while the husband keeps the information to himself. This can make his wife feel like she is alone within the couple on this journey whereas the husband might feel like his wife is broadcasting something personal to the entire world. Both are correct in their experiences, and through communication and knowing their styles of coping, they can manage their coping styles together while being respectful and responsive to the other’s differing style.
For some couples, struggling with infertility or another unforeseen challenge might turn one member towards their faith while the other member is turned away. Developing outside areas of interests can also be important in coping with the unknown, as a way of distracting and distancing people from the path they are on. Areas of interest can be faith based, sport based, or creatively based as just some arenas that couples might want to explore. Certainly, for many engaging in a variety of mindfulness practices assists with managing feelings of uncertainty. For others, finding a support group or a mental health provider is equally important in dealing with factors beyond one’s own control.
Infertility impacts one in eight couples, and can have a lasting impact on how individuals experience themselves, how a couple connects, and how a couple is able to cope. Learning strategies to manage the unknown, whether it be faith based, therapy based, or developed on your own enables individuals and couples to have more of a sense of control around an area in their lives that is not within their bounds to always directly change. Additionally, learning how to communicate as a couple about what each individual member’s needs are is a skill that will last well beyond the initial challenge of infertility.
Dr. Julie Bindeman is a member of Hasidah’s healthcare advisory board. She is a reproductive psychologist and co-director of Integrative Therapy of Greater Washington outside of the Nation’s Capital.