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What about the boys?

Men coping with infertility

For many couples, infertility and its treatment is a distressing and overwhelming experience. When friends and family learn that a loved one is having trouble conceiving, remarks commonly include, oh the poor girl, she so wants to have a baby or she must be feeling terrible having to go through all the treatment. So she does, and so she must. But how might he be feeling?

Most fertility treatment necessarily focuses on the woman, but men also feel the effects. Unfortunately, men generally talk less about how infertility is affecting them, and so the perception develops that he is not terribly bothered about the events going on around him.

It is generally acknowledged that women go through a range of emotional responses when they have trouble starting their family – feelings of isolation, loss and grief, anger, fear and a loss of control. What surprises many people is that male partners usually have exactly the same emotions – they just express them differently, or hide them altogether. Sometimes the emotions are the same, but the couple is not “in sync” each is experiencing the same feelings but at different times. Men are often very distressed by the infertility experience, but feel that they don’t want to further burden their already emotional partner. For many men, they feel that it is not appropriate to talk about their infertility too openly, and even when they do want to discuss their feelings, they don’t know whom they can talk to.

Particular problems emerge when the fertility problem lies with the male partner. Even when he is infertile, it is still the female partner who undertakes the majority of physical treatments. This can leave him feeling guilty and inadequate. Men often feel the obligation to protect their female spouse. He feels that his job is to provide what she wants and needs; including offspring. When he fails the potential is there for feelings of low self-esteem, stolen masculinity and lost virility. Men often joke that women contribute nine months to a pregnancy and men contribute five minutes, at best. For men whose partners are going through IVF, they may feel they’re not even doing that much. Most men find producing a sperm sample embarrassing and after that task is completed they may feel they have little else to contribute to making their baby.

Infertility can also impact on couples in other ways, including the sexual relationship. For some couples it could be a long time since they had sex for fun. Instead there is un-spontaneous timed intercourse and the reason for having sex fells like it has changed. Sometimes other problems emerge: some women experience pain or discomfort as a result of the treatment or their changing hormones, and this also impacts on the sexual relationship. For other couples, there is so much fear about what might happen in their future that all intimacy is lost.

Sometimes even more complex reasons emerge for couples not coping with infertility. This is particularly true if one member of the couple is more invested in the idea of having a baby than the other – we have to be very careful that unspoken conflicts do not arise, when one member of the couple wishes to focus their emotional, physical and financial energy into making a baby and the other is not so concerned about whether or not a baby happens. Not surprisingly, this is the type of relationship issue that deserves special care and would probably benefit from the attention of relationship counselling.

For relationships that are already a little bit “fragile”, infertility can add to the tension. Great care is needed to ensure couples keep on communicating with each other. It is essential that both men and women are able to talk about how they are feeling, and it is most important that they are talking to each other. Burying yourself in work, sport or other distractions that isolate from your partner is not a useful strategy to cope with something that you are going through together. It is important to keep in mind, that while you can’t completely control the outcome of your treatment, it is within your control to keep a close and successful relationship with your partner.

Narelle Dickinson
Health psychologist

Suite 9A, Administration Building
Greenslopes Private Hospital
Newdegate Street Greenslopes QLD 4120