By: Reina Zatylny, MSW, RSW
Couples can face many challenges while trying to have a child. One especially difficult challenge that some couples face is keeping their relationship intact as fertility issues often impose emotional and psychological stress on relationships, sometimes leading to discord and separation. Couples who are able to maintain a high degree of unity in the face of those stresses are likely to stay together. Unified couples display the following relationship characteristics:
- Relationship stability
- Complementary coping strategies
- Personal and social connections
- Balanced identities
When these characteristics are absent in a relationship, couples often have difficulty coping with infertility, and their relationship might be at risk. Counselling can help to identify and reaffirm these characteristics in a unified relationship and build upon them so that couples emerge even stronger after their fertility struggles. When a relationship is at risk, counselling can identify strategies for couples to strengthen their relationship, and achieve a positive outcome despite their infertility.
Keeping the relationship stable
Relationship stability is the basis for couples addressing the challenges of fertility, including making decisions about fertility treatments, deciding how to deal with their fears, and determining how to get on with their lives while trying to have a child. Couples can maintain relationship stability by making a conscious decision to be united against a common enemy (the enemy being infertility), creating a comfortable and nurturing atmosphere with open communication, preserving normalcy by compartmentalizing their issues surrounding fertility and showing empathy by actively listening to each other.
Implementing complementary coping strategies
The ways in which partners cope with infertility do not need to be the same. They can implement complementary coping strategies that are mutually respectful, and that provide support for each partner equally. For example, couples can use a buddy system where partners spend equal amounts of time supporting each other. Couples can also rely on faith or some sense of spirituality that they might already have, and they can collaborate on solution-focused problem-solving that concentrates on the facts of the situation instead of the roller coaster emotions associated with fertility treatment.
Infertility can cause couples to turn away from family, friends, and each other, making it more difficult to cope. Couples can maintain their social connections, and feel connected with each other, by viewing themselves as an established family even though they might not have a child, turning to trusted people to share their stories and see their lives in a larger context, and keeping the relationship vital by rekindling the interest and pleasure they found in each other before their fertility issues.
Achieving a balanced identity
The most successful couples find a way to integrate their condition into their identity and do not define themselves solely as being infertile. They achieve a balanced identity by rejecting the stigma of infertility, realizing that they are multi-dimensional individuals – and not just spouses – with varied interests and qualities, and differentiating themselves from each other by not sublimating each other’s emotions and thoughts.
Authors Note: Reina is a counselor with TRIO Fertility