You and your partner – the pressure that TTC can have on your relationship

In the last week we have had many emails from peole who are struggling with their relationships following failed rounds of ivf. So, we wanted to bring this article to your attention as it has some really good advice for those of you ready to throttle your partner!

Infertility and IVF can strain even the strongest couples and families to breaking point. What survival tactics can you use to ease the tension and keep relationships intact?

Plenty of stories go around about couples who had strong and happy relationships that fell apart after IVF, even when a baby came along. So why is this happening?

“Aren’t you too old anyway?”

We’re certainly not brought up to deal with infertility. If anything, the impression is that getting pregnant is the ‘easy’ part. What’s more, infertility is a contentious issue that society prefers to sweep under the carpet. So, the shock of realising that you or your partner (or both of you) are infertile can be shattering. Everyone, from family and friends, finds it tough to deal with. Things they say can make matters worse:

 “You want it too much. Sex should be fun, chill out and it’ll happen.”

“Why bother? Children are a nightmare. Aren’t you too old anyway?”

“Why not just adopt?”

Thanks! And this is only the start. You want to find out why you or your partner is infertile and begin a gruelling assault course – endless appointments, referrals, rescheduling work, tests, scans, more tests, fees, and so on. Every round of treatment takes its toll. Hormone injections can play havoc with emotions. When the results of a test are not good news, the effect can be physically and mentally draining.

Where did the fun go?

Tempers can flare. If there are any old wounds in the relationship, this is the time they rear their ugly head and can intensify. It can feel as if life is permanently on hold. Fun in the relationship often goes out the window; no holidays, no spontaneous adventures, plus a great financial burden to cope with. Things can become extreme – you avoid going out because a drink may affect fertility and daren’t enjoy a slap-up meal because you’re striving for the perfect weight.

Spending time with friends and family should be good for you, shouldn’t it? They are your support network, aren’t they? It’s not so easy when friends around you get pregnant and your own situation feels hopeless. You dread looking on Facebook at endless new baby photographs or getting ‘I’m pregnant’ announcements on Twitter. You can feel left out as grandparents gush over the young ones and friends start to enjoy family time together. You start to dread it when conversations turn to the children. Work may not be any easier.

When treatment goes on for too long, one partner may begin to realise that they want a child less than the other and resentment kicks in at the worst possible time.

If you do finally become pregnant, you may find it hard to enjoy it after all the trauma of getting there. You may worry over the slightest twinge or bit of cramp. When it becomes too much and you’re feeling the strain, friends and family may well retort that you wanted a baby, so why are you complaining? Guilt and feelings of isolation can set in. If you have the wonderful result of your own baby, you become a parent and that brings with it a whole new bag of worries and stress!

Men and infertility

Men can be as affected by infertility and IVF as much as women. If they discover that their sperm isn’t up to the job, they may go through all sorts of anxieties and pain, especially that feeling that they are not a ‘real man’. It’s such a taboo subject, they may be unwilling to talk about it, but the underlying pressure is there all the same.

If the focus is so much on the thought of having children, men can feel isolated and rejected because they are no longer the centre of attention (rightly or wrongly). If they are taking a ‘back seat’ while their partner undergoes IVF, it’s easy to feel at a loss. Men may find it difficult to hide the strain of dealing with the cost of treatment or their worries that IVF may not work (especially if it’s been tried before).

Infertility and sex

This is a big one. It’s no wonder that couples are put off sex (and each other) when it’s all about ovulation, timings and ‘baby making’. The pressure to perform on command can become immense and with it vanishes sexual pleasure, spontaneity and desire. Men may feel inadequate if their sperm keeps failing to work and sex just reminds them of their ‘issue’.

There’s no shortage of well-intentioned advice available from friends and on the internet, but most of it may be unhelpful, such as always having sex in the missionary position to get pregnant or keeping hips elevated after sex!

It’s not all about intercourse

One approach that can work is to scrap the agenda. Exercise can reduce stress and increase libido. Spend more time on foreplay and celebrate little sexual pleasures. It doesn’t all have to be about intercourse. Try a different room (get out of the bedroom) or go away for a weekend somewhere new.

Some people swear by Maca root to pep up their sexual desire. Vitamin E, Zinc, ginseng and horny-goat weed are other popular natural supplements (you may want to check with your clinic if they think these are suitable for you).

IVF survival guide

‘Get A Life: His & Hers Survival Guide to IVF’ is a book by Richard Mackney and his wife Rosie Bray and fertility expert Dr James Nicopoullos (Consultant Gynaecologist at the UK’s Lister Fertility Clinic). Richard’s a journalist and broadcaster, Rosie is a TV producer. They decided to write the book because “what fertility clinics don’t tell you is how hard IVF can be on you emotionally and how it can severely test the most stable relationship”.

“The slow descent into infertility isn’t pretty. I felt as if I existed under a little black cloud that followed me everywhere. Every month my unwanted period seemed to stab my soul,” Rosie said in an article in The Sun newspaper.

“I went mad if Richard’s shorts were too tight”

“By the end of our first year ‘trying’, it was exactly that. Richard and I had lost our spark. After the third year, we were arguing about everything. I went mad if Richard went on a long bike ride, if his shorts were too tight or if he drank beer– all factors that could perhaps damage sperm.”

“Shared stories of infertility and treatment would have helped us cope enormously, but there was nothing like that available.”

Rosie offers this advice:

“Tell a few close friends what you’re going through – I promise it will help. And politely ask those who are ‘trying’ to send you a quick private message to let you know their happy news before they announce it publicly at dinner/at a party/on Facebook. Just so you can brace yourself and put on your obligatory fixed smile.”

When dealing with parents, Rosie said: “Talk to them. Even if it’s awkward and uncomfortable. And keep talking about it – confidently and comfortably. It’s how people get educated and how taboos get trashed. Think of how far we’ve come talking about same sex marriage or mental health. They’re part of everyday life, just how IVF should be.”

So how did they manage to keep their relationship together?

“Remember: you’re in this together,” says Rosie. “So talk about how you feel and what you’re going through. Most importantly discuss openly right from the beginning what you will do if it doesn’t work? This isn’t a pleasant conversation to have but it’s better to do it before it all starts than when it’s just failed and you’re feeling irrational and desperate.”

“I felt like a sperm dispenser”

“I didn’t want to admit that my wife Rosie and I needed help to get pregnant,” says Richard. “It felt like confessing I couldn’t have sex properly. And in a way, maybe I couldn’t. Sex doesn’t feel the same when you’re trying for a baby. Spontaneous and sensuous lovemaking turns into desperate humping. To avoid it, excuses I never thought possible came out of my mouth… Each month, a little bit of hope died and the tentacles of panic intensified their grip.”

Richard wasn’t prepared for the fact that men are often ignored during IVF. “At most of the clinics we went to all the attention was on Rosie. I was dismissed as having “the easy job”. Not so, in fact, as I found out.”

“I took five hours (to produce sperm) and failed”

When it came time for Richard to perform and give sperm, he took five hours and failed: “In a windowless baby-making factory, I could hear a grunting, rustling choir of other men bringing themselves off in booths nearby. I tried to focus and relax, but I’m never good under pressure. As time went on, I knew elsewhere in the clinic my wife’s precious eggs were dying and I could almost hear their last breaths.”

Here are some things he learned:

  • “Don’t wait too long to get help. You won’t want to admit there’s a problem, but you’ll know there is when sex becomes a chore, timed by charts and gauges to coincide with your other half’s peak fertility. I started making excuses to avoid it – too tired, busy, a headache… As hard as it is, you have to talk about it and make that appointment with the doctor. It can save months of arguing, denial and blame.”
  • “It may not be the ‘fault’ of either of you. I was convinced it was me – all that sitting on office chairs, all that booze. But my first sperm test was average and Rosie was fine, too. There was no traceable medical reason why she wasn’t getting pregnant, which is true of nearly a third of people with fertility problems.”
  • “At the IVF stage, the man can experience the ultimate performance anxiety. After a month of the woman taking drugs to increase egg production, her eggs are removed under sedation. The man then has to produce a sperm sample in a booth, under a strict time limit. It sounded easy, but I couldn’t do it – our first go at IVF failed as a consequence, which is a lot to deal with. I later discovered that I could have frozen a sample in advance, just in case.”

Buy Richard and Rosie’s book

‘IVF: An Emotional Guide’ – Real life stories of 20 women who have worked their way through fertility and conception problems, by Brigid Moss.

Here are some other survival tactics:

Dodge the blame game

There’s endless waiting with infertility tests and IVF and pressure builds while you wait for results. If the treatment doesn’t work, avoid blaming your partner or yourself. It’s a shared problem and the best way to avoid arguments is not to ignore your life beyond IVF and keep talking.

Remember your life outside of IVF

You had a life before IVF, remember? Break the pattern of IVF treatment and do something you used to enjoy together and separately. And keep doing it.

Get the right support

Your partner is your best ally to get through it all, but don’t overburden each other. If there’s a best friend you can rely on (who isn’t judgemental), ask them if they are happy for you to share your anxieties. You don’t necessarily need answers, just someone who understands you (if they’ve had IVF, even better).

Join a support group – that’s exactly what IVF babble can give you! Share your fears and worries with people who have gone through IVF or are going through it at the same time as you. Our community includes top experts and people from every walk of life who are going through their own IVF journey.

Our TTC Buddy network could also be just what you need. Start by finding a TTC buddy near you to begin your conversation. They’ll know your first name or username, that’s all. If you get on well, you can meet for coffee or talk on the phone; it’s up to you. You are in control at all times. You never know, it could make all the difference.

Some people find it helpful to speak to an infertility counsellor through BICA (British Infertility Counselling Association) before, during and after treatment.

Are you going head to head with your partner at the moment or have you managed to get back on track? If you have come through the other side still holding hands, will you share any tips on how you helped your relationship survive during this emotional stage in your life? Email your words of wisdom to sara@ivfbabble.com

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