Infertility is an inherently stressful experience, yet one of the stresses often not talked about is the conflict that can occur in a relationship during treatment. Whether in a heterosexual or gay relationship, couples often find that they feel and deal very differently from their partner regarding their emotional response to infertility. This is not surprising as you each bring your own unique personality and life experiences into the relationship that will impact how you deal with your feelings. Understanding and being respectful of these personality differences, rather than qualify them as being “better or worse” than your own, is important.
Here are some techniques I have found to be very helpful over the years of working couples to assist in diminishing conflict and increasing closeness during fertility treatment:
- “You learn more from listening then you do from talking.” This was something my father said to me as I was growing up and, as a therapist (and a wife), I have found it to be important words to live by. In the midst of a disagreement, you can believe that the more talking you do, the greater chance you will have to be able convince your partner of your point. The reality is seldom is this the case! It can be helpful to practice “active listening” techniques whereby one speaks and the other listens, and then reflects back what you hear your partner saying. Following up with a question, such as “Have I got that right?” or “Is there anything else?” can also be helpful. The point is that taking the time the truly listen to what your partner is saying may help bridge the gap and increase empathy. One of our most basic human needs is to feel truly understand and when you feel your partner “gets” you –what it is you are thinking and feeling — even though not necessarily agreeing with you, empathy is established.
- Apply the “20 Minute Rule”. This an extension of #1 and a time-honored technique for communicating during infertility, which is helpful in putting boundaries around talking about a problem or worry. The rule is that a couple agrees to talk about infertility for 20 minutes every day—but only 20 minutes! A time is set during the day to talk (and literally setting a timer can be helpful) and you each get 10 minutes to talk about what you want, while your partner listens and then you switch positions. At the end of 20 minutes, the discussion is put on a shelf, until the next day and conversation moves on to other things. Couples find this technique extremely helpful, especially if one partner feels that if they start to talk it will never stop, while the other fears they will never talk.
- When at odds in decision-making, agree to switch and take on each other’s position for a week. It is quite common for couples to find they feel differently about what to do next in treatment, even finding themselves in polar opposite positions. When I am working with a couple and we are at an impasse in regards to a decision they are trying to make about treatment or family-building alternatives, I will have them physically switch places in the room. Then I will ask them to take on the persona of their partner and state exactly what it is their partner believes and feels about the issue. The partner listens, without commenting, and then confirms or corrects whether the other has got it right. Before they leave the session, they are given an assignment to continue this role, immersing themselves in learning all they can about their partner’s position. For example, if “A” wants to pursue adoption while “B” wants to use donor gametes, A will spend the week learning more about donor and B about adoption by reading, searching the internet, speaking to others, etc. Afterwards, you talk about what you have learned and how it has felt to go through this process. This technique often helps to shift things and open up the logjam.
- “A feeling shared is a feeling diminished”….except when its not! This is something I have frequently said to my clients in encouraging them to release difficult feelings they are holding in. While therapy is a process about getting feelings out so they can be understand and dealt with, constantly talking about the same thing over and over again with no change is not moving through it. As Einstein said, “Continuing to do the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.” So if you find your interactions sounding like a broken record, something isn’t working and changes need to be made. This may a good time to seek out help from a mental health professional who is trained in fertility counseling.
While conflict is a normal part of all relationships, how you handle it and the ways you find to work it through will have a profound affect on couple stability. In fact, being able work though conflict by using some of these techniques will have a long-lasting effect on intimacy and closeness. Hence, conflict can create opportunities for closeness in a relationship rather than threatening it with emotional distance.