When it comes to finding support, information and resources concerning infertility, women have an abundant stockpile at their disposal. Online forums, websites, news articles, webinars, support groups and more are all created and targeted towards women. Women embrace their sisterhood around this topic and fervently support each other through each step of the process.
Which makes sense, right? After all, women need to take the medication, undergo the procedures, go in for monitoring and blood tests, take the pregnancy tests and if all goes well, carry the baby.
By comparison, men are often perceived as having a smaller (albeit critical) role in the process.
But men are diagnosed with infertility equally. And for a third of couples, both partners will receive a diagnosis.
It’s fair to say that the support and resources available for both partners are massively lopsided, at best. The truth is that many people don’t even know how men feel about an infertility diagnosis, let alone how best to support them. More often than not, the male partner is likely focusing on how he can best support his partner, so he may not even be aware of his own support needs either.
Here are some strategies men can use to cope with an infertility diagnosis and thrive while also supporting their partner:
- Pursue Education Together. The more informed a person is about the cause of something, the more they are able to limit feelings of self-blame and shame, which can positively impact their attitude toward treatment and planning. Research shows this may also reduce feelings of anxiety and depression.
Strategy: Perhaps couples can set aside time to discuss the process and procedures or treatment plans and go over terminology and phrases. One couple I worked with split up the task of information gathering and researching and came together to share their findings and help each other better understand the process of treatment, and also how common infertility is and what to expect on their journey. They reported that this made them both feel more involved in treatment planning and increased their feelings of working as a team and ability to better support one another.
- Start Talking. While expressing emotion can be a challenge for some, even a simple statement can provide valuable insight to your partner about where you are on this journey. Talking to your partner lets them know that you care, you are involved and invested, and that you have your own thoughts about this shared experience (if you are silent, they may assume the opposite). Even if it feels like you are saying the same thing over and over, or don’t have much to say, your partner will appreciate even the simplest thought or observation.
Strategy: Get in the habit of avoiding yes-no questions and instead use open-ended questions. For example, instead of saying “Do you have anything to say about what the doctor said,” you can alternatively say “What did you think about what the doctor said.” You can also share appreciation or discomfort statements, which in turn might encourage your partner to do the same. For example, appreciation statements can include, “I really appreciated when you asked about…” Discomfort statements can include, “Finding out about X really surprised me, how did you feel?”
- Embrace Radical Acceptance. Practicing radical acceptance means accepting life on life’s terms and not resisting what you cannot change. You simply say yes to life, just as it is, and accept everything as it comes to you. Rather than fighting reality and suffering as a result of things that cannot be changed, by accepting them we allow the healing process to focus energy elsewhere.
Strategy: Treatment comes with big ups and downs. Should you find yourself disappointed after treatment, your first response may be “Why me?” It’s easy to have this reaction and to feel this way. Move next to accepting the result, and focus your energy on how to take care of yourself and how you would like to move forward. Again, this is a practice, and small steps can grow into bigger steps.
- Celebrate Wins Together. Treatment is a process, and if you only focus on the end, it can feel like a never-ending journey. Each day is a win and each step can be celebrated together. Completing another monitoring appointment, positive follicle growth, submitting a semen sample, completing a retrieval, achieving your own fertilized embryos, and setting a date for transfer are all causes for celebration. Enjoy them!
Strategy: After you’ve finished your retrieval and are feeling back to normal, celebrate this accomplishment with a dinner out on the town and a glass of champagne. When you see your embryos under a microscope, give each other high fives and support. Live in the moment of the process and celebrate each step as it comes.
- Stop Negative Self-Talk. While we want to get you talking to your partner, we also want to avoid any tendency toward negative self-talk or the internal monologue that plagues us all at times. Everyone has their inner voice, and in times of severe stress and trauma, this voice can get more air time than it should. Negative self-talk does nothing for you - it can increase feelings of frustration, crush self-confidence and diminish our sense of hope.
Strategy: Cognitive reframing is a powerful way to address this inner monologue and feelings of frustration. One way to combat negative self-talk is by first identifying any irrational and dysfunctional beliefs you might have and then reframing or refuting those beliefs. For example, you might be thinking, “There are so many monitoring and treatment appointments, it’s all a bit too much and overwhelming.” You can reframe this thought with, “It gives my partner and I comfort and confidence knowing that our medical team is able to closely monitor our progress so thoroughly throughout this process.”
- Make a Game Plan. Be the man with a plan! Having an “approach-oriented” strategy towards coping and goal navigation is a way to create autonomy as you go through this process. This can involve addressing your marital well-being, addressing sexual concerns, managing unsolicited questioning by others, as well as your preferred approach to receipt of information.
Strategy: The options on how to tackle your game plan are endless, and it will come down to where you and your partner stand and how you’d like to address each topic. Here are some ideas to consider:
Discuss your plan for disclosure and what is off limits. If you choose to share with family or friends, create a strategy on when and what you’d like to share. If you don’t want to talk about the cost of treatment, details of your diagnosis, whether you are using donor egg or sperm, or any other facets of your experience, have a clear and agreed upon understanding that you both can stick to. Even better, have planned responses for any questions that make you uncomfortable. A simple, “we’d rather not discuss those personal details” is fine.
Talk with your partner about what, how and when you ideally would like to receive treatment and testing information and outcomes. For example, discussing if and when your partner will use an at-home pregnancy test, ensuring that you both are aware of and prepared for the outcome and are able to talk with one another about the results.
Don’t let big things go unaddressed. If you feel there is an ignored issue in your marriage, such as a lack of intimacy and or an emotional disconnect, talk to your partner about it once you are alone and are both calm. Never mention things in the heat of an argument or before you’re stepping out the door to a social engagement.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, while these strategies are designed to help men, they also involve working in tandem with a partner through the process. Couples experience infertility together, and each will be stronger with the support of the other.
If you find that enacting these strategies is proving too challenging, I encourage you to reach out for help. Tackling these strategies together in therapy can lay the foundation for building hope and happiness on your journey.
And don’t forget to learn more about our free patient education program, with several support groups and helpful webinars, seminars, and classes. See our listing at fcionline.com/events
Best wishes for your success and happiness!
Author Bio: Dr. Tiffany Edwards, Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Behavioral Health Specialist at Fertility Centers of Illinois