When it comes to how women and men are affected by an infertility diagnosis, while there are similar threads that run through the experience for both, for many, the impact can vary tremendously.
Women are more likely to naturally embrace their emotions and allow them to run their course while they process the shock, pain, grief, and acceptance of an unexpected diagnosis and eventually, move forward to a place of healing as time allows. They find support from friends and loved ones, find a community they can relate to, seek out coping strategies, and feverishly research online.
Often, in their effort to support their partner, men may attempt and appear to be stoic and silent in their response, commonly sharing very little in regards to their own concerns.
In my experience, the calm waters above may be disguising the bubbling emotions below for many male partners.
To provide insight from the “other half,” I’d like to present some common reactions male partners have shared, and how a diagnosis affects them differently.
- They are in disbelief. While many women at some point may have considered infertility as a possibility, and have discussed this fear with others and may even know other women who have gone through treatment, many men have never once considered not being able to father a biological child. They are often in disbelief and struggle even with the notion of it. The diagnosis hits them hard.
- It alters their perception of identity. An infertility diagnosis can be the catalyst to an identity crisis. The body they have always trusted to do what it is supposed to do has failed them, and this cuts to the core. They may begin to question who they are as a man, a partner, and potential father.
- They feel blame and shame. If infertility lies with the male partner, they feel overwhelming blame for the diagnosis and shame that they feel they are a lesser man and an inadequate partner. This is even stronger for men with cultural or familial shame and stigma, depending on the importance of male lineage in the family and the passing on of male DNA. Even if there isn’t a male diagnosis, men may tend to feel that the situation is their fault. Their partner is hurting and they can’t “fix it.”
- They may not have anyone to turn to. It’s no secret that most men aren’t big talkers. It’s easier to discuss sports statistics for hours than it is to spend five minutes talking about their feelings. He may not be comfortable telling even his closest friends what is going on, let alone how he is really feeling. Ironically, some of his male friends may be experiencing or have experienced the same thing but have also not shared this - infertility impacts one in eight couples.
- They are afraid to burden you. When your male partner sees you going through the emotional devastation of a diagnosis as well as the physical challenges of treatment, he feels hopeless and that there is nothing he can do. The last thing he wants is to share his feelings and make you feel worse or to burden you with more worry. He will likely share very little or hold it all in.
- They are trying their best to hide their feelings. Men feel that they must be strong for their partners, and that means hiding any pain or challenges they are facing personally. Instead, they focus on maintaining emotional stability and composure for both themselves and their partners. This might be expressed in trying to keep themselves busy and distracted as a way to gain control over any other situation in their life.
- They have a hard time identifying what they are feeling. You may ask them how they are feeling, but the truth is that they have never felt feelings like this before, and may not know how to identify or articulate them. Feeling shame is one thing, admitting it out loud is another. And they know whatever they say may make you feel worse, so they would rather stay quiet and focus on you.
- Men suffer more in the context of their partner's distress and suffering. Research shows that although men do report feelings of anxiety and depression, similar to their partners, men suffer more in the context of their partner's distress and suffering. Men struggle with feelings of personal inadequacy in regards to either their own infertility struggles or not being able to fix the situation in some way for their partner. Studies also show that men and women both report feelings of helplessness (women more) within the context of failed treatment attempts, uncertainty related to treatment success, and treatment outcomes in general such as physical side effects, the health of a child, and the need for multiple attempts before reaching success.
An infertility diagnosis is a challenge for any couple, and it is common for couples to feel disconnected and to struggle in their relationship as they go through treatment. Seeing a professional with experience in treating couples with infertility can be a huge help. Even a few sessions can work wonders in helping partners support one another and understand the best ways to effectively communicate with each other.
Be kind to yourself on your journey, and remember that no one gets to the finish line without a team cheering them on. There are many resources available, some at no cost, so be sure to take advantage of them!
Learn more about our free Fertility Empowerment Series program, with several support groups and helpful webinars, seminars, and classes.
Author Bio: Dr. Tiffany Edwards, Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Behavioral Health Specialist at Fertility Centers of Illinois