Dealing with infertility can be traumatizing on its own. Unfortunately, a new study found that that very heartbreak can cause even more heartbreak: Couples who didn’t have a baby after fertility treatments were more likely to break up.
For the study, which was published in the journal Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica, Danish researchers tracked 47,515 women who were evaluated for infertility over 12 years (the women were 32 years old, on average, at the start of the study). Of those women, 57% ended up giving birth to a child after their fertility evaluation, while 43% of them did not have a baby.
After the 12-year follow-up period, it turns out that the women who didn’t have a child were up to three times more likely to have gotten divorced or ended their relationship with the person they were living with at the time of the evaluation than the women who gave birth.
The reason can be summed up in one phrase: emotional trauma. “Going through an extremely disappointing and stressful experience as a couple often pushes both people to their limits, and they end up falling apart,” explains Diana Kirschner, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York City and author of Thirty Days to Love. What often happens is that the woman gets really depressed, not only because she isn't able to conceive, but because the situation itself is almost entirely out of her control. Then, her partner, who's also depressed, gets even more upset, she says.
“See, men in general like to fix things—they measure their self-worth by their ability to perform,” Kirschner says. “So when a man can’t help his wife or partner have a baby and therefore can’t pull her out of her depression, he’s not only sad about the situation itself, but he feels like a failure, too—so it’s a double whammy of depression.”
And when both parties involved are feeling sad and helpless, it leads to double the irritability and stress, which makes it even harder to communicate in a loving and appreciative way, Kirschner says. If the couple doesn’t actively work through their issues, they can end up drifting apart. But the one silver lining here is that there are definitely steps you can take to lessen the blow. Follow these four tips from Kirschner to help repair your relationship.
Find strength in numbers
Seek outside support, like going to an infertility support group or an individual therapist. “A lot of couples don’t recognize how dangerous infertility can be to their relationship. There’s so much focus on the fertility issue and the depression and the arguments that they forget to focus on their relationship itself,” Kirschner explains. “Seeking support not only helps them recognize how important an issue it is, but it also helps them work through it.” Log on to resolve.org—which is the website for the National Infertility Association—to find support groups in your area.
Set aside at least 20 minutes a day to just talk—and listen—to each other. “It sounds obvious, but people forget to do this basic thing,” explains Kirschner. “I tell my clients to have a ‘magic listening session,’ which is when each person gets 10 minutes to just talk, and the other person listens, no interruptions. And then it's the other person's turn.”
“It’s really important to do this, because the problem in these situations is that both the woman and the man are so stressed that they forget to communicate their true feelings, which is when the turmoil occurs,” she continues. And it’s best if you have these sessions when you’re side by side, like when you’re in the car or walking, as opposed to sitting across a table face-to-face, Kirschner says. Not staring at each other directly takes some of the pressure off, so you’re more likely to have a more open and honest convo.
Focus on the now
Meditate, meditate, meditate. That includes anything from yoga to mindfulness practice to running—whatever form of meditation you like best. “When you’re having fertility problems, you spend so much time worrying about the future and how you’re going to have a child, that you aren’t living in the present moment. But it's only when you’re in the present moment that you can truly get out of your own head and process your feelings, which is crucial for moving forward,” explains Kirschner.
Make time for yourself
Be sure to practice self-care, too. Get a manicure, grab drinks with your girlfriends, go shopping, take a long bath…whatever it takes to feel a little blissed out for part of your day. All of these things sound somewhat trivial related to the subject at hand, but they work because they help you relax. "When you’re relaxed, you’re better able to take in love and to handle your stress. You’re also less likely to fight with your partner when you’re in this state of mind,” Kirschner says. And considering that you and your partner are going through something emotionally heartbreaking (#understatement), you’ll need all of the love you can get.