Trying for a baby can be stressful at the best of times. After all, it’s a major life decision.
But when you’ve been trying for a year or longer with no success, it can take a toll on you — even if you are not the person planning to carry the baby. That’s because infertility — which doctors define as the inability to get pregnant after 1 year of trying — is a journey that affects both the carrying and non-carrying partner in a variety of ways.
It can be helpful to read about these impacts ahead of time to prepare yourself and your partner for what lies ahead.
Infertility journeys are stressful — for everyone. Many choices can be complex and difficult to navigate. Plus there’s lots and lots of uncertainty, all of which can make people feel anxious and on edge
Fertility treatment is also expensive, which means that for many, it can be a big source of financial strain and additional stress. And that’s before all the emotional highs and lows that come with the journey, including high hopes and big disappointments, heartbreaks, and loss.
“Fertility treatment commonly feels so emotionally difficult because of the uncertainty that’s involved in it,” says Naomi Torres-Mackie, a clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City in the reproductive health program and head of research at the Mental Health Coalition.
“Psychologically speaking,” she continues, “when there is something we want that is complicated by a great unknown — in this case, wanting to conceive but not knowing when or if it will happen — it can be extremely emotionally and cognitively taxing.”
Dr. Anna Flores Locke, fertility expert and mental health counselor, says that non-carrying partners may find it support their partner during times of hormonal changes during fertility treatment — and might find it hard to cope themselves.
“[They might] also feel helpless and disengaged from the process, although they want to be supportive and helpful,” she continues. “The partner is also equally invested in building a family, yet is not the one undergoing the fertility treatments and tests, [so] feels left out and unable to achieve the goal of making a baby.”
Ultimately, feelings of helplessness may stem from the fact that the non-carrying partner feels like they are not an active participant in the fertility journey. Plus, they might feel like they don’t know how to help their partner with taking medications, going through testing or treatment, or going to appointments.
In fact, 10 of every 100 known pregnancies will end in early loss, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
Pregnancy loss can be a common occurrence either before or while seeking fertility treatments, such as in vitro fertilization (IVF). And there’s no doubt that these losses are painful.
Pregnancy loss can be a difficult and painful experience physically, emotionally, and psychologically. It can also put a strain on your relationship. The partner experiencing the miscarriage can feel blame and guilt, and the non-carrying partner may also have emotional pain.
Despite how common it is, “there is also a lot of stigma and silence around pregnancy loss,” says Torres-Mackie. “Folks who experience [miscarriage or loss] can feel alone, which adds to the pain of the experience.”
Over time, the emotional weight of coping with fertility challenges can morph into anxiety, sadness, or even depression. And according to Torres-Mackie, the chances of you feeling a mental health impact increase the longer you and your partner pursue fertility treatment.
“Grief and loss are not owned by one person,” says Dr. Yishai Barkhordari, a New York licensed psychologist. You and your partner both experience losses — including the loss of the vision you both shared for your future together and how you’d start your family.
This is true even if you eventually conceive a baby or decide to adopt instead.
“Many people think and imagine that those who ‘come through the other side’ of a fertility issue have automatically recovered or are now fine,” says Barkhordari — but that’s not true. “Many partners and couples often continue to experience, struggle, process, and work through the losses and challenges for months, years, and decades to come.”
Plus, he adds, “many non-experiencing partners experience their own form of secondary grief, seeing their partner in pain and struggling with identity questions, self-doubt, and grief.”
“Relationships are impacted by fertility because struggling to conceive becomes the main stressor for the couple,” explains Flores-Locke. “Fighting to have a baby impacts the relationship by overemphasizing sex for procreation instead of sex for fun, and monopolizes the couple’s time and thoughts.”
In addition, “fertility becomes all-consuming and the couple forgets to nurture their love and intimacy with one another,” she continues. “Disappointments, grief, frustration, anger, and sadness are just some of the emotions that get in the way of positive relational interactions.”
Fertility concerns can also cause some people to feel shame or responsible for the trouble conceiving, says Torres-Mackie. “Others feel completely alone in the process, and so close themselves off from their partner,” she continues. “Resentment can also build if issues are not discussed early on.”
In particular, pregnancy loss during your journey can leave a big mark on your relationship.
“A loss of a pregnancy can be considered an ‘ambiguous loss’ because even though the lost child never existed (outside of the womb), the fantasized child assumes an emotional reality for the couple and remains psychologically present,” explains Locke. “This loss can create a chasm in the relationship fraught with shame, guilt, and immense sadness that can damage it.”
There are lots of ways you can support your partner during your fertility journey together. Here are some ideas:
1. Get involved
“If your partner is in fertility treatment, the best way to fight feeling powerless is to take action,” says Torres-Mackie, “and a great way to be active is by offering your partner support.”
For example, you could help research information for your partner about fertility treatments so that you’re both more informed. Or, to lower their stress, you can help or take on managing all the paperwork, medical bills, and insurance for treatment.
Not only will this help you feel more involved, but it will also help your partner. You’ll be helping them stay informed — a great way to lessen at least some uncertainty — and take some stressors off their to-do list while they undergo the treatment.
2. Make time to talk about what you’re both going through
“Be open about how you’re feeling about [your fertility journey],” recommends Torres-Mackie. “The more you can talk about fertility difficulties with your partner, the more likely your relationship wont be negatively impacted. If you can take the fertility journey as a difficult experience that you can support each other through, there is potential for it to strengthen your relationship.”
“For both someone who experienced the pregnancy loss and their partner, the best way to heal is to fully experience your reactions in the moment,” she adds.
3. Be an active listener for your partner
Just remember to listen — without judgment — to your partner’s feelings, too. This should be a two-way conversation where you try to be empathetic and compassionate about what they’re going through.
“If your partner is not doing well, that is expected and perfectly OK,” says Torres-Mackie. “What will almost certainly make things worse is if you try to problem solve, fix their emotional reactions, or sweep anything under the rug.”
This is especially true if or when you experience a loss. “Hold space for the tears, sadness, and anger of the parent that experienced the loss,” says Locke, and resist the urge to “fix” them.
“This is the time for silence and comfort, not problem-solving or avoidance,” Locke continues. “The best support is a reassuring hug that communicates ‘I am here with you.’”
4. Try not to take out your frustrations on each other
“Remember you are a team fighting to have a baby, and infertility is the adversary getting in the way of that,” says Locke. “Infertility does not define you — it is a medical condition warranting a medical solution as a couple.”
5. Try to make time for fun and intimacy
When you’re trying to have a baby while undergoing fertility treatment, sex can become clinical, which can only worsen the distance between you two.
“Dedicate ‘sex for fun’ and ‘bed and chocolate’ time to cultivate the love and intimacy in the relationship,” recommends Locke.
To be the best support to your partner, you need to also take care of yourself.
“Make sure you address your own needs in a holistic way — not only your basic needs but your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs,” says Torres-Mackie.
Locke agrees. “Commit to self-care and relational care to manage the stress that comes with infertility,” she says. “Give yourself permission to feel your valid emotions and to engage in healing strategies that bring you comfort.”
If you start to experience symptoms of depression or anxiety, or if your grief after a loss becomes too much for you to manage on your own, it’s a good idea to seek support from a therapist or mental health professional.
“There’s no shame in addressing these things, and the sooner you get help, the better,” says Torres-Mackie.
Consider seeking care from a therapist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional.
Some people also benefit from support groups with other couples going through fertility challenges, too. There are groups for you alone or groups that you can attend with your partner.
Self-care is an important part of helping yourself. Options for self-care include things like:
- spending time outside
- talking with friends
- reading books you enjoy
Infertility is a difficult medical condition that can take a toll on your physical and mental health, as well as your relationship.
“Be patient, kind, and compassionate with yourself and your partner,” recommends Locke. “Infertility is temporary and will pass, stay focused on the end goal, and your life together as a couple post-infertility.”
Most importantly, remember that there is no shame in seeking support for yourself or as a couple along the way. Mental health experts can help support you through stress, anxiety, grief, and depression if and when they arise.