I was recently interviewed by a reporter and asked a question I hear often from patients who are undergoing fertility treatment –“how can you keep the romance alive in a relationship while undergoing treatment?”  This is what we discussed:

“When you take your fertility problems to an expert for consultation or treatment,” Covington said “you’re exposing what’s usually a personal and private facet of your relationship. But those of us who work every day with people going through infertility see firsthand the lasting impact on marriages. When you’re desperately trying to get pregnant, sex becomes about procreation and not recreation.”

Covington conveys a message that must be heard by fertility patients early on: When sex goes from being fun to work, it will play havoc on your relationship — but partners can take the wheel and consciously steer their marriage back on track, and maybe even lead to better intimacy than before. Talking openly with your partner on this subject can be crucial to a couple’s relationship.

Redefining “Sex” During Fertility Treatments

One of the places where Covington and her staff discuss sexuality with patients is in their support groups.  Covington explains that intimacy is not all about physical technique. In fact, one entire session is devoted to redefining what “sex” is in a relationship and how men and women think differently about this specific form of communication.

“We talk about the range of behaviors that make up what we refer to as ‘sex’. It’s not entirely new to most of us, but when you’re trying to get pregnant, it’s easy to forget that sex isn’t just intercourse,” Covington explains.

Covington refers to “Nine Areas of Sexual Relationships” as listed in the book Hot Monogamy: Essential Steps to More Passionate, Intimate Lovemaking by Patricia Love, MD and Jo Robinson (1995):

  1. Communication about Sex: the ease with which you talk about your sexual relationship
  2. Sexual Desire: how much physical desire you experience on a regular basis
  3. Intimacy: your ability to share your thoughts and feelings with your partner on an ongoing basis
  4. Technique: your skill at arousing yourself and your partner
  5. Sexual Variety: your willingness to add creativity and novelty to your lovemaking
  6. Romance: your desire to show love for your partner in concrete ways
  7. Body Image: your inner image of your outer self
  8. Sensuality: your willingness to relax and involve all your senses in your lovemaking
  9. Passion: your ability to combine intense feelings of arousal with love for your partner

“Every single one of these aspects is strongly impacted by the infertility experience,” Covington says. “Acknowledging and understanding the basics is the first step in either protecting or renewing your sexual relationship. I suggest to couples that they make a goal of coming back to what brought them together in the first place.”

New, Creative Ways To Be Intimate

Still, she says many couples feel overwhelmed by the infertility experience to the point of being “just too darned tired to even imagine what they enjoyed before.”

Here’s what Sharon Covington recommends:

Plan Playtime
“We often think sex has to be spontaneous, but the reality is different. Since sex starts with our minds, waiting for spontaneity to erupt probably won’t work like we hope. Put time and energy into planning and then doing some fun things, sexually.”

Be Creative
“Most couples, even in the best relationships, can get into habitual ruts. Sparking things up may require changing it up for playtime. Consider different types of attire and surprise your spouse, or maybe try a candlelight dinner with mood-enhancing scents. Try to think outside of your comfort zone with the intention of just giving something a try.”

Recreate Your Early Sexual Relationship
“We forget about the things that really excited us and aroused us early on in the relationship. Take some time to remember those first exciting times. Even just talking about it can help heat each other up.”

Explore Your Surroundings
“When love-making becomes baby-making, try designating one room of your house for one and another room for the other. Consider trying someplace else to have exciting interludes.”

Look to Non-Fertile Times for Making Play & Love
“Try some of the above to get your energy back, and then remember that your sexual relationship is about far more than intercourse. Take time to engage in some non-intercourse pleasuring, particularly during non-fertile times. Plan some playtime for those ‘off-times’ — decide and agree *not* to have intercourse to pleasure each other and show your love.”

The Ginger Jar Technique
“Two jars: one for you, one for your partner. In each, put 4 to 6 slips of paper with ideas jotted down — things your partner could do for you that let you know how much they care about you. These can be overtly sexual or non-sexual, because after all, our minds are what get the ball rolling. For example, surprising some women with flowers might lead to even sexier outcomes. Each of you takes an idea out — try it daily or every other day — but don’t tell your partner what you picked. Then follow through when the time is right and your partner is not expecting it. It’s like planned spontaneity that’s sure to target your lover’s erogenous zones.”

Try A Little Massage
“In one of our group sessions, I’ll bring out some hand cream, and just have the partners apply the cream to each other’s hands and give a little massage. It’s pretty incredible for demonstrating how simple yet thrilling even a mild form of physical intimacy can be.”

Even if they’re new to fertility treatment, most couples have some idea that their sex lives have taken on new meaning. Covington says sometimes it necessary to “commit to taking a few steps toward the outcome you want, and in most cases, couples will find that they can keep their relationship simmering (and maybe even hotter) through the whole journey together.”

By Sharon N. Covington, MSW, LCSW-C