Whether it was successful of not, the people we spoke to described their infertility and fertility treatment as very challenging and emotionally draining. It was a strain and sometimes took a huge toll on them as individuals and as couples. Here we discuss what people said about how infertility and fertility treatment affected their relationship with their partner. George pointed out IVF is an extra pressure that other couples do not have to cope with. “Strain is the not word, it is like a pressure, might be more like a pressure that other couples who have children don’t have”.
Lulu found her IVF treatment as “very difficult” in terms of her anxieties and emotions. Saskia described fertility treatment as “quite obsessive, the whole trying for a baby thing”. She felt that she and her partner spent so much time discussing it and thinking about it, it was a huge strain on them mentally. Clara and her partner were able to support each other because they had a close relationship and “kept it private”. Sarah said her husband was fantastic because she had been “vile to live with”. But she found the whole experience of infertility and failed treatment a “torment”.
Carol is a marketing manager living with her husband. Ethic background' White British.
Well he has been my rock. So he is there for me through thick and thin and regardless of the outcome and everything else. We have never laid blame at each other’s door. I mean we still don’t now. It could be a combination of our genetics that aren’t working. We will just try and be there for one another and I must admit, I very often try and hide a lot of the tears because I want to spare him the pain as well. And yes, I have had a few nights crying when he is asleep, but I am sure with him, he has been trying to be the strong silent type, and I am sure he would like to punch the wall and let out his grief and emotions, but he keeps strong for me. So that is how we deal with it. And the rest of the time, we just try and have as normal a life as possible, as you can, when we are in a sort of permanent state of grieving.
Some talked about feeling guilty for being “responsible” for their infertility as a couple. This put an added strain on their relationship at an already difficult time. Brian almost wanted to push his wife away, he felt so guilty about being the cause of so much pain.
Brian is a manager in a local council and is married to Michelle (Interview 21). Ethnic background' White British.
What toll did it take on your own relationship?
I think it, we, we didn’t have a sexual relationship for a long period of time or if we did it wasn’t as it should have been. And I think, I think I was a bit of a pain. I think I used to cause a lot of arguments but I think I did that almost in a way to push her away. That sounds very selfish doesn’t it? or martyrish, I don't mean to be martyrish. I really got to the point where I thought she’s better off without me and she should be with someone. I know I said this to her in arguments. I said this to her, ‘You need to be with someone who can give you a child’.
And then she’d say, ‘I don’t want somebody to give me a child I want you.’
‘You’re not enough, I’m not enough just for you.’
‘Yes you are. I don’t need a baby.’
And it would just be the same, a row, conversation.
Yeah so I mean it put a lot of stress on our relationship. I think I threw myself into work. I think [wife] threw herself into work but all the time thinking she should have been at home as a mum. Which is great you know that’s what I want her to do now. If I had my way she’d have packed up about three months ago. She’s very strong willed is [wife].
Sometimes the strain on the relationship comes from the realisation that their priorities are different – for example having a baby may be far more important to one of the partnership than the other. Or the couple may respond very differently to a miscarriage. Clare felt that when she miscarried she fell apart but her husband didn’t. Frances said that she was aware that she was willing to go down every avenue if there was a chance of getting pregnant while her husband was probably not. Christine found that she needed to turn to her friends for empathy.
Christine is a GP, married with 2 children. She was pregnant with her third child. Ethnic background' White Caucasian.
So how did it affect your relationship?
Well it weakened it, definitely weakened it. Which is I think one of the reasons I had to have the therapy. Because I felt, whilst I felt it was my fault that it was all happening. That I was failing. I also blamed him for not being able to support me, how I thought I needed to be supported. I felt he was weak, and that he wasn’t able to make it better. Completely, all obviously completely unrealistic expectations but that is the whole problem when you are in it. I wanted him to fix it. I wanted him to make it better. And I know he wanted to make it better, but he couldn’t. And being a man he didn’t know how to handle me either when I was slightly, you know, hysterical, you know, and if I bit his head off for something, rather than giving me a hug and saying, “I know this is really hard for you at the moment.” “You know let it out, scream if you if you need to.” Which is what my girlfriends used to do. He would just wratch it up and saying, “Why are you shouting at me?” you know, as men do, bless them. And I think I needed to understand that it is not because he didn’t love me. It is just that men don’t think the same way that we do and they don’t react to the non verbal messages. I shouldn’t say all men. Because I am sure some men do brilliantly at this. But my husband, didn’t react to the non verbal messages, the same way as girls do, interestingly.
Like Sarah, many people said their relationships were strengthened as a result of going through infertility together. Catherine said, “To us it became very much like it was the two of us going through this difficult thing, and we became like a little island almost”. Maggie felt their infertility had a huge impact on her and her husband, but “We’re fairly fortunate in that the direction the journey has taken us, we’ve stayed together on that journey”. She knew plenty of others who hadn’t been so lucky. Lulu felt that their infertility had made her marriage stronger and closer, “So that was a positive aspect to it”.
Mary is married with three children. Ethnic background' White British.
We were very, very lucky that we have a very strong marriage and I think the hardest thing for us, our marriage is very much based, we used to make each other laugh and have lots and lots of laughter I think. But at that time the laughter went and that was very sad I think for both of us. That he found it… he is younger than me, so he was nearly 26 when we… it is quite young to have all that kind of going on. He is a very strong person and he is very supportive and loving. It is very, very hard sometimes. Especially come back and we have got to make love now. And then, there was one occasion, when he couldn’t rise to the occasion because of all that pressure and I was hysterical and crying and you know that was a bad thing. But generally we pulled together and he was very strong for me and I was very aware that the most important thing was always us, and I tried very hard to keep him from the worst excesses of my, you know, anxiety. So, we did try I think to protect each other a bit and he was very good throughout, but it was a big… I can see if people don’t have the strongest marriage in the world it could tear it apart, it really could.
And it sounds like it affected your sex life a bit as well?
Yes, yes, well yes. Like most people it is because it is no longer, it’s a purpose other than pleasure. So, yes. It did. It was just, in a way, I thought well what is the point of making love unless it is at the right time. You know, it is pointless and not all the time though, I do think that it was comforting at some points. But generally, certainly if there was any kind of, you know, if it was anywhere near the right time then there became a huge amount of pressure.
After they stopped IVF treatment, Fiona and her husband took a year’s break and then decided to adopt. She said that process did their relationship the world of good.
Fiona is a part-time teacher. She lives with her husband and three adopted daughters. Ethnic background' White British.
It was, well the point when we really started to feel that we were focussed again was actually when we went for adoption and that is partly because the course makes you focus on you as a couple and then you have lots of what they call home study, the social worker comes to the house and makes you look at your relationship and takes you back through everything you have been through from childhood and everything.
So it makes you start to re-evaluate what you have got and that did us a world of good. I mean even if we hadn’t gone on to adopt, I would have said that was a really useful experience. Because you had to then write about it, and me being a reader and a writer I loved doing that and it made us look at each other again really, and re kind of like say re-focus on where we were going and what we both wanted out of life, and we often, I mean with adoption what they are saying to you is once you have started on the home study it is not a clear and cut thing, but it is actually to make you look at and see whether you are suitable and whether you are right place for adopting. And often couples find that they are not when they starting go through the process which is why they put you through it.
And yes, we found that actually, that, I remember the social worker saying as a couple, he said, “The eye contact between you,” he said, “You constantly look at each other.” He said, “There is something very strong there”. Which we had probably forgotten about and he said, but so you know, so it is quite refreshing to see a couple who are so close. And we were like oh oh that is really nice, you know, and it kind of re-awakened a lot of things for us that I think also obviously, because one of our kind of like goals in life as a couple was to have a family, and we wouldn’t have felt complete if we hadn’t have managed that. So we were putting our energies into the new ways that we could have a family. Working together again.
And I think [with] adoption you are working together, with IVF you are not, it is kind of the female having all the attention and the drugs and everything and the male just doing a bit. And adopting is much more balanced. You have to look at both of you, you’re both parents you’re both coming into it, much, much more level and so again you are given plenty of time to come to terms with things, to look at things. They make you go through your loss. They make you go through your experiences. They did have concerns about me because I was not the healthiest at the time. But also then they said, you know, you are working through it, you have got the support. We will support you as well. Which I am eternally grateful to them for, because they could have turned round and said, “We don’t think you are fit at the minute,” and you know. So that for me I was lucky really that they were willing to support us so well.
So I think that is what brought us back together.
Not everyone we spoke to came through their infertility feeling their relationship was stronger. Christine said that there was a moment when her relationship went into a “meltdown” although things have got better since.
Frances had twins with donor sperm, and her marriage broke down when her children were still very young. She is not sure whether it was the “enormous strain” of treatment or parenting twins that caused the trouble but, “The marriage did not survive the experience.”
Although Liz’s husband was supportive through their ICSI treatment (intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection), he left her shortly afterwards. She now realised that her relationship was breaking down during the treatment and finds it hard that her child now sees his father in another family.
One central aspect of a couple’s relationships that can be profoundly affected by infertility is their sex lives. As one woman said, infertility is, “Terrible for your sex life”.
For couples trying to conceive naturally while tracking ovulation, the “demand” to have sex at a specific time could cause considerable strain. Lulu explained sex became, “A purpose not a pleasure”. Anne said that her husband felt he was being treated as if he was on demand and supply; he ended up telling her to “back off”. George said he was put off sex, because he felt like a “performing monkey”.
Maggie and her husband felt the pressure to have sex at the right time of the month, or to feel that, “You’ve ruined it now for the month.” One of the positives of deciding to stop treatment was that they could “reclaim” their sex life so that, “It’s about our relationship and it’s about an expression of our love for each other”, which she felt they had lost sight of for a while.
Fiona is a part-time teacher. She lives with her husband and three adopted daughters. Ethnic background' White British.
I mean the one thing [bangs table] IVF does is completely ruin your sex life and I would say even now, we have never recovered that the way it was. Not even, through all the settled kind of life that we have got now. It really does some serious damage to you. It does to your self esteem, and especially to [husband] and then to the fact that, you know, it all gets taken away from you anyway and it is a very difficult thing to recover from, and of course then the frantic trying to conceive in the first place, takes away from the kind spontaneity of all of that, so we didn’t, if I am honest, we didn’t have sex for a long, long time, after the IVF because it just felt all wrong.
The whole purpose of it had change and the whole thing was wrong and I felt like I had been completely interfered with and didn’t want anybody touching me and all of that, and [husband], didn’t like what I was doing to my body anyway, so he didn’t like touching me, and it got very, again quite complex without anybody actually talking about it, so that parallel kind of lives. We were very lucky I think because we have managed to resolve it, but I can see how people could go off and not resolve it, and end up, you know, splitting up and going off and going their separate ways.
Saskia talked about having IUI (intrauterine insemination) in the context of her longstanding lesbian relationship. The need to be available at the right time meant that it was sometimes hard to make weekend arrangements with friends. But she was aware that, unlike some heterosexual couples, this aspect of their relationship was less affected since their sex life had never had anything to do with “making babies”.