Fertility Treatment: Better Coping Strategies For Couples

Fertility treatment is a test of the relationship for even the closest couples. The stresses of treatment, along with the divergent coping strategies typically used by men and women undergoing treatment, can lead to independent coping that leaves each partner feeling isolated, negatively impacting the relationship.

In this article, we share insights from Dr Mandy Rodrigues, clinical psychologist and integral part of the Medfem Fertility Clinic team, about how tried-and-tested coping strategies can help partners to better support each other on this journey.

Men and women in couples seeking fertility treatment generally react differently to the stresses of infertility and fertility treatment. These different – and sometimes even opposing – approaches used by partners in an already trying situation will almost always create conflict and can result in what is called ‘independent coping’, where each partner feels isolated. This will negatively affect the relationship at a time when the partners need each other’s understanding and support more than ever.

A better way of coping with the strains of fertility treatment is for both partners to understand and support each other through the process, despite their different approaches and reactions.

This can be done by understanding and practicing the coping strategies provided by Dr Manday during a recent IFAASA webinar and detailed below.

Bringing back the intimacy

Many couples undergoing fertility treatment – and especially the male partners – say that a loss of intimacy is a significant issue.

The reality is that during physical intimacy, our bodies release oxytocin. The only other time this is released is when breastfeeding, during childbirth and when hugging. In addition, the less intimacy we have, the harder it is to build levels of this hormone up again – it almost takes practice.

So, you have to encourage and even compel yourself as a partner to engage in intimacy again, perhaps starting with other ways of expressing intimacy, such as having deep conversations, or sharing a hobby or interest or experience, and rebuilding physical intimacy by, for example, hugging, holding hands and cuddling, instead of just focussing on sex.

Make time for communicating

At Medfem Fertility Clinic, we often advise couples to aim for one date night a week, as well as to set clear boundaries in communication.

Couples should agree that during the once-a-week date night, fertility, children or anything that creates conflict in terms of parenting or family plans ahead, are not to be discussed. Date night is a time for just the two of you to focus on each other and the other non-family aspects of your life together.

Boundaries in communication are also crucial. Often, what happens is that the husband starts worrying about talking to his wife during the day or when getting home, in case she is upset after, for example, hearing a friend is pregnant, or seeing a pregnant colleague, or receiving a negative fertility result. He goes home fearing an emotional incident and, uncertain if he should say anything, tends to ignore or avoid the topic of fertility, so as to not upset his wife. This may leave her feeling that she does not get a chance to talk about what she is going through.

For many couples, making an agreement about the right time to speak about emotionally difficult fertility issues is very helpful. For example, a couple may agree that the best time to discuss fertility-related issues is between 7pm and 7:15pm. So, if there have been any news or developments during the day, both partners will wait until 7pm, and then discuss it. By putting a time aside when fertility issues are raised and discussed, with boundaries and a timeframe, both partners can relax, listen to the other and also have their say.

Find your love languages

Couples receiving treatment at Medfem Fertility Clinic also find it helpful to identify the love languages that are most important in their relationship. The idea comes from the book by Baptist minister Gary Chapman called The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate and it outlines five general ways in which romantic partners express and experience love: affirmation or compliments; quality time; gifts; acts of service; and physical touch. Understanding which of these are more important to your partner can go along way to help you express care and love in the way that means most to your partner. For example, a thoughtful gift or spending time together can make one partner feel most loved, while another may feel more loved when receiving affirmations or compliments, or when something meaningful is done for them.

Rely on each other’s strengths

While going through fertility treatment, share the load by relying on each other’s strengths. Allow each partner to contribute in a way most suited to their personality and skills. For example, men often have a strength in managing logistics, and there is a great deal of logistics involved in fertility treatment – from the co-ordinating medical visits and the medication, to managing the medical aid and all the admin.

Identify your fertility triggers

At Medfem Fertility Clinic, many couples also benefit from playing a game designed to help them to recognise their own and their partner’s ‘fertility triggers’. These are fertility related events or experiences – like a baby shower or getting a pregnancy notification on your social media – that trigger an emotional response.

Most men are often not aware of the triggers their partners react to – just like many women might not be aware of how their partner reacts to certain triggers. So, it’s helpful to identify each partner’s fertility triggers. The game involves partners each putting down a fertility trigger card, to see if they agree that the event or experience depicted is a trigger. If they don’t agree, they can explore it further. So, for example, if the wife feels jealous that her sister-in-law is pregnant, she has a chance to realise it and talk about it. This will also help her partner understand, for example, why she has been avoidant.

Plan ahead

Minimise the uncertainty of the fertility journey by planning for significant dates – for fertility related appointments and medications, for social and holiday dates, and for mutual enjoyable distractions.

Circle the date for things like a first visit to a fertility clinic, for tests and scans, for procedures like transfers and aspirations. It is also wise to reduce your work hours or work remotely during those times that may be very busy or stressful.

It is also advisable to lower your expectations as a couple in terms of social engagements. Many couples receiving fertility treatment find it very difficult to go to birthday parties, kiddies parties, baby showers and even just family gatherings with many children – and it’s okay to avoid that.

Rather pencil in time for mutual distractions or activities you can both enjoy together and that does not involve children or fertility issues, such as watching a series on Netflix, visiting an interesting place, trying a new massage, or taking up a hobby.

Talk about the next step

It is also important to open the discussion about the next step in your fertility journey. It doesn’t mean you both have to agree what the next step is or whether you are taking it, but just have a look at what that next possible step could be. Introduce it to one another and allow each other to just think about it.

Without a possible next step going forward, getting a negative result or a setback is bound to cause depression and an anti-climax, creating a sense of a hopelessness for the future. Familiarity with what the next possible step may be provides hope and peace of mind.

Balancing hope and despair = reality

One of the blessings of being in a couple during fertility treatment is sharing the hope and despair.

Male partners tend to be more hopeful and optimistic, while women tend to be more pessimistic about their fertility treatment cycles. However, this can and tends to swap as couples go further through treatment.

It is also important to remember that fertility treatment often entails the female partner taking medication that can intensify a natural feminine tendency to reason more emotionally through the process. Hormone fluctuations tend to create havoc with people’s reactions, especially during stressful experiences such as the fertility journey with its never-ending ‘hurry up and wait’, constant ups and downs and looming possibility of a negative result. The effect can be even more pronounced once the medication is stopped suddenly after a negative result, for example a failed aspiration or an abandoned IVF cycle, leaving female patients spiralling down from significantly heightened hormones to huge disappointment.

Working together, a couple can balance these emotions in the relationship. If it were a formula, it would read: hope + despair = reality. In a healthy marriage, you’ll see that as the one partner is struggling with despair, the other partner is balancing it by staying hopeful, so together the couple has a more realistic outlook than each partner’s outlook in isolation.

Reach out for assistance

It’s so important to have a fertility counsellor or someone you can speak to in terms of what the two of you are going through as a couple. A qualified counsellor can help you both to understand your own and your partner’s reactions and to learn how to better cope with the strain on each of you, as well as on the relationship. These coping skills can make all the difference now, and into future.

Medfem Fertility Clinic’s team are committed and understanding team of medical professionals, who have the experience, knowledge and desire to provide you with the best chance of a successful outcome at the end of your treatment.

Since the 1980’s, Medfem Fertility Clinic’s team has assisted couples struggling with infertility to experience the joy of parenthood, helping to bring more than 18,000 babies into the world.

If you would like to meet one of our fertility specialists, simply click here to book an initial consultation or contact us telephonically on +27 (11) 463 2244.

Our Fertility Specialists can also meet with You During a Virtual Consultation Via Zoom or Skype. Click here to book a virtual consultation now.

We look forward to meeting you!

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