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 ‘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’.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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’.