Whether you’re talking to a new partner about your fertility, deciding to seek help as a couple if you’re struggling to conceive, or discussing how it impacts your mental health — conversations about infertility can be challenging and emotionally charged. It can be tough on relationships, but honest and respectful communication can help you and your partner navigate the experience as a team. Here’s your guide to talking about infertility.
Firstly, we need to talk about infertility more
We’ve made massive strides in discussing infertility, but many people still suffer in silence and feel impacted by stigma, especially men. If male infertility is responsible for a couple being unable to have children, men may feel a sense of failure, and a greater sense of loss, stigma, and low self-esteem than if a female factor is a cause. But men who don’t hide their infertility, who express their feelings and seek advice, find their relationship is stronger for it. Talking about it does yourself and your partner a favour, and helps the next bloke to speak up about male infertility and get support.
Telling a new partner you’re infertile
Many people discover fertility issues when they’re having trouble conceiving, but some people may already be aware they’re infertile. Deciding when and how to tell someone you’re infertile if you’re dating can be incredibly daunting.
“If you’re meeting a partner and you’re in your late twenties or in your thirties, considering having a family is probably front of mind for a substantial number of people,” Psychologist Narelle Dickinson says. “Allowing that conversation to come in at a relatively early stage in the relationship is probably quite important.”
This doesn’t mean discussing it on the first date. Build trust and honesty before thinking about whether the relationship has the potential to take on that challenge. You don’t have to provide all the details, but you might want to share the options available for the type of infertility you have and how you feel about it.
“See it as openness and a willingness to support each other through that, rather than something that has to be a complete barrier to having children,” Dickinson says.
Discussing when to seek help
If you’ve been actively trying to conceive for 12 months or more without success, both you and your partner should chat with a doctor. You might feel anxious, ashamed, guilty or emasculated about the prospect of infertility, but you’re not alone in this experience or these emotions. Infertility affects around one in six couples and a male factor contributes to infertility in about half of all cases.
It’s important to be proactive and engaged with investigations into infertility — instead of burying your head in the sand. It might be tempting to ignore the situation and push away your worries but it’s better to be open with your partner about the process and how it’s impacting you. If you’re starting the conversation, choose a time when you’re both relaxed and free of distractions and lead with “I statements” like, “I’m getting worried that this isn’t happening the way we expected.”
It can also be helpful for you both to plan together, before your appointments, the questions you’ll ask medical staff when you’re being assessed. Take notes during the sessions, and ask your partner open-ended questions if you can’t make their appointment. For example, instead of asking ‘how was the appointment?’ you might ask ‘what did you find out during the appointment?’. Seek out your own information and resources as well.
Getting a diagnosis and deciding on the next steps
It can be difficult to come to terms with infertility and the inability to grow your family the way you had planned. The signs you’re having a hard time might not be “typical” ones like sadness. You might be more irritable, agitated or angry. You might find yourself withdrawing from friends, family or things you used to enjoy doing.
“It’s often a cumulative thing. You might not be seemingly affected by the infertility experience but if there’s something happening in another part of your life, it might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Dickinson says.
You might feel like sharing your worries with your partner is burdening them, especially if they’re struggling as well. If this is the case, it will help to chat with mates, family, or a counsellor. There are also plenty of online forums, which give you the chance to chat anonymously, where you’ll find blokes in the same boat. However, Dickinson says many female clients often register relief when their male partner shares their worries.
“It becomes much more of a shared experience, it’s not about doubling the burden it’s about sharing the burden,” she explains. “Instead of her feeling like she’s overreacting or reacting in a way she’s not supposed to, if he allows her to understand that he’s also having a tough time, they can support each other. By talking about the fact that you’re having a difficult time, it doesn’t mean you’re failing to be there for her, or you’re doing a bad job, you’re making it much more of a shared experience.”
You might also have different opinions about the next steps and the options available. If you want to navigate these disagreements effectively and respectfully it can help to get to the underlying issue, rather than the superficial one.
“Why is this person saying or thinking this? Is he saying that he wants to stop IVF because he is uncomfortable watching his female partner go through month after month of treatment? Or does he need to talk about how it’s making him feel? Is he feeling guilty about what’s going on?” Dickinson says. “Sometimes when we get to the underlying stuff, we’re able to approach those differences with a lot more empathy and the conversation becomes a lot more productive.”
If the conversation is getting too emotional, give yourself a time-out.
“As soon as things start to escalate, if one person gets really upset or angry or you feel like you’re at a stalemate, it’s probably moving into a place where you’re not going to really do any effective problem solving,” Dickinson says.
You might also consider some professional help to discuss the issue.
1. Luk; Loke, 2015. The Impact of Infertility on the Psychological Well-Being, Marital Relationships, Sexual Relationships, and Quality of Life of Couples: A Systematic Review. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy