It may be surprising to some that men, like women, experience increased levels of anxiety and depression when going through fertility treatment. There have been numerous articles written and a number of research studies conducted on the woman’s emotional experience through fertility treatment, but the experience of the man is not discussed nearly as much. Men typically feel as though it is their job to support their wives going through fertility treatment, to be the strong one who can bear the brunt of bad news and disappointments. While this should not come as a surprise, men have overwhelming feelings of isolation and emotional distress over the subject of infertility. The key to a successful outcome is to recognize the emotional toll fertility treatment can take on men, and understand how to support them and their partners throughout treatment.
Vulnerability is a sign of strength
Men are socialized to believe that showing vulnerability or emotion is a sign of weakness. It can be challenging for a man going through fertility treatment to process his feelings about the treatment—the loss of control, the potential discontinuation of genetic lines, the guilt over his partner having to go through invasive procedures. Finding the right person to speak with, whether that be his partner, a friend or a mental health professional is an important part of the process, and can be very challenging for men. A man who believes it is his job to be the “rock” in the relationship may feel guilt for burdening his partner with the difficulties he experiences during their treatment. However, the impulse to hold back negative feelings, as well-intentioned as it may be, will lead to a lack of communication and can cause a rift in the relationship. Men need to be able to speak about their concerns, their fears, and their grief in order to feel connected, understood and heard. While women will likely feel more comfortable opening up on the subject of infertility, men will be challenged to do so but it is important that the two are unified in the process. A joint discussion makes a couple feel as though they are “in it together” and that they have a deeper understanding of what the other person is experiencing and dealing with. Figuring out ways of coping together, instead of alone, can also make the relationship stronger. Understanding that it is not only women who feel vulnerable during this time, but that this experience can be equally as stressful for men, will hopefully encourage men and women to talk about their experiences more openly and honestly.
Starting the conversation
Oftentimes the hardest part to discussing emotionally difficult topics is breaking the ice. If the conversation is starting with the two partners, simply endeavoring to have the discussion is the first step. It may be worth asking if your partner would prefer to have this conversation at home, or in a public setting like a coffee shop, restaurant, park, or anywhere that may facilitate the connection between you. Set the ground rules for the conversation—if you don’t know where to start, come up with open-ended questions for your partner. For example, what is the hardest part of treatment for you? What are your greatest fears going through this process? Each partner should answer the same question—and be allowed to talk openly and honestly for a given amount of time. After the person is done talking, the other partner can repeat back what he/she heard and what they’ve understood their partner to have said. If there’s something they’re missing or misunderstood, correct them. Don’t move on until you feel satisfied that your partner accurately described what you’ve said and has described how you’re feeling. This exercise can be enormously powerful—to really sit and listen to each other without distractions allows for a greater depth of understanding and empathy. Allow yourself to open up, to be vulnerable, and to connect. Having this level of intimacy with your partner will not only help you get through this stressful moment in your lives but will also help you get through hurdles you face together in the future.
Be open and seek help when needed
Seeking support from professionals can be enormously helpful. There are fertility centers that offer support groups specifically for men. Also, contact your health plan to see what benefits you have. Some health plans offer behavioral health services that support men and help work through the emotions associated with fertility treatment. If you think it would be helpful to talk with a mental health professional as a couple, these services may be offered as well. You can also check the RESOLVE website to see if there are mental health professionals in your area who specialize in fertility. Working with a professional to explore the coping mechanisms that will work best for you and your partner can ease the stress and challenges that you will experience in your fertility journey. The strategies you engage in will also have lasting benefits, far beyond this one challenging time.
This article was written by Alyssa Baron.