Life on hold – helping partners support each other through fertility treatment

“Partners are often not aware of the physiological effects of the hormones used during treatment and how it makes the woman feel,” says Jackie Stewart, one of the independent counsellors at Bourn Hall. In this guest post she describes how infertility and fertility treatment impacts relationships, intimacy and finances and how this can translate into feelings that life has been put on hold. To help partners communicate their concerns, the Fertility Support Group is talking about how partners can support each other at the meeting on 9th February 2022.

Jackie Stewart, independent counsellor

As an Independent Counsellor specialising in fertility, and having spoken to hundreds of couples over the years, I have observed that men and women seem to cope differently with the challenge of infertility and fertility treatment. I am going to generalise so forgive me, and of course there are exceptions to this but bear with me.

Many men cope by focusing on the present

A coping mechanism adopted by many men is to be positive, logical minded and pragmatic, focusing their energies very much in the present moment and on what they can solve.

They prefer not to talk about treatment because they feel helpless, powerless and don’t like to see their partner suffer when the topic comes up. They care every bit as much of course and may help with injections, but generally speaking they place the matter in the hands of science to ‘fix it’ whilst encouraging their partner to be positive and optimistic.

Women like to know the next step

Women, on the other hand, cope by talking about their feelings and treatment with their partners. They often resort to researching, Googling and trying to be in control of every aspect of their treatment and their lifestyle in order to reassure themselves that the final outcome will be positive. This usually includes a plan b, c, d, and e in case it isn’t. Women like to have a safety net and need to know what the next step in going to be to help them cope with the current plan.

Difference in coping strategy impacts relationships

As you can see, each coping mechanism is different and neither is wrong, but it can help partners to understand each other’s way of coping in order to bridge the gap and to find a compatible way forward through treatment. What helps one person to feel safe isn’t the same for another and so finding a way to compromise to meet each other’s needs, is a good conversation to have, to help both feel more peaceful.

Treatment journeys are different

Unfortunately, the treatment is far more onerous for women and the adjustment each partner has to make to their work pattern and lifestyle is generally heavily weighted in favour of men.

In my experience, men feel obsolete going through treatment, with the exception of providing a sample, and can suffer some guilt for having to stand by while their partners undergo and endure the full treatment plan of having hormone injections, side effects and invasive medical procedures needed for assisted conception.

Men are most definitely affected, and increasingly so, by the impact and effects of treatment on their partners.

Underestimate the impact of hormone treatment

Often men are not aware of the physiological effects of the hormones used during treatment. These could be causing their partner to feel unwell or in discomfort, sleep deprived, bruised and bloated. Men may misunderstand this and feel pushed away, whilst at the same time not want to see their loved one suffer.

Hormone injections are not compatible with a general sense of well-being and may result in tiredness, tearfulness, wanting to isolate more, not wanting to socialise, insecurity, a reduced capacity to work and thereby a lack in confidence.

It can be likened to having someone living with you who is feeling unwell and fragile but there is nothing you can do. Men can feel helpless and unhappy because they do not have the power to make it better, increasing their own stress levels.

Walking on egg shells

support for couples
It can seem like a woman becomes increasingly obsessed with fertility treatment, to the point where all she can do is to talk about it.

I think it’s a slow burn. An awareness of stepping on egg shells creeps up on men, although the signs of the growing and changing impact of infertility begins pre-treatment.

Men start to notice and experience a change in their partner’s mood and behaviour. Men are quite aware of a sensitivity but may not yet understand the full complexity of what’s going on under the surface. It could be that they start to feel that they have said or done something wrong. They may try to second guess if something has happened to upset their partner. They may take the shift in their partner’s attitude personally, which can result in problems.

Through a male filter, it can seem to a man like a woman becomes increasingly obsessed with fertility treatment, to the point where all she can do is to talk about it.

Starts with the schedule 

In the beginning this may simply take the form of the schedule arriving, followed by the drugs and the palpable anticipation/anxiety of getting started. This could be heightened if there have already been long delays for referrals, tests and investigations leading up to fertility treatment; let alone more recently any Covid related restrictions imposed, with self-isolation prior to even starting treatment.

Men may also be witnessing a complete and utter overhaul of their partner’s diet, nutrition and lifestyle as the need for the optimal mindset and body health takes complete priority as the start date for fertility treatment approaches. This could also include trying one of any number of different holistic therapies to complement fertility treatment. In short, it can appear that their partners are becoming preoccupied and a little overwhelmed. Men may also feel they need to join in with the lifestyle changes to show support.

It’s accepted that if a couple were trying to conceive naturally of course they would be encouraged to eat healthily and to restrict or stop altogether life’s little luxuries like drinking, smoking, intake of caffeine etc to aid conception. They may also need to adjust any adverse or over-zealous exercise routines and choose to take extra vitamins.

Raising the psychological stakes

With fertility treatment, the need for treatment to work raises the stakes, as it is based on a potential number of attempts to succeed.

The psychological and emotional impact on women’s psyche deepens to a level that takes over. Everything depends on the ability and limited time frame and funding to ensure it works.

The need to try to conceive naturally in between fertility treatments escalates to a point that causes additional and unexpected pressure for couples to conceive at the fertile time of the monthly calendar.

Infertility as grief

Underlying all of this can be a type of grieving process causing sadness and anxiety, which couples are unaware of and is a parallel process to the fertility treatment. It can mean partners may not want to socialise as much or be confronted with others who have recently conceived. Men may feel this too to some extent, however, the impact on their partner’s feelings becomes increasingly evident.

Men don’t usually know how to cope with the slow transformation of their partner’s personality, who may appear to be lost in a haze of fertility related bibles, research and information overload. This often results in men becoming confused, somewhat resentful, potentially angry, with possible arguments resulting for the unexplained changes in behaviour.

So, how can men cope better?

Understanding – The honest answer is to understand the process, each other’s coping mechanisms and how to best help their partner. To find a balance between talking about it and not talking about it to meet each other’s needs.

Practical support – Men feel less helpless and powerless by feeling that they are doing something to help their partners and their partners then feel more supported. To not assume you have done something wrong if your partner is feeling flat, distracted or getting triggered easily by any number of things including social media.

In it together – Men often try to be the rock for a partner, but it is better to just accept you are in this together and you don’t know what the outcome will be. This way you can work out what you need individually and what you need together to help you feel more peaceful through treatment. This takes away any expectation or assumption that your partner should be feeling or coping the same way.

It is important for men to express their fears including that of possible unending rounds of fertility treatment. Understanding each other’s feelings and communicating how best to support each other can make all the difference.

More information

To read more posts about coping with infertility. 

Find out more about the male perspective in our Men Talk section.

Jackie Stewart runs the monthly Fertility Support Group, which is open to anyone experiencing infertility. Meetings are free to attend, are held virtually using Zoom and last around an hour and a half. The group offers the opportunity to meet other people going through the same experience, listen to speakers on a range of topics and get access to helpful information and support. Find out more about the fertility support group.

Related articles