IVF takes its toll on your body, your emotional state and your hip pocket. Your marriage is also likely to take a battering in the process.
Within my friendship circle I know of two relationships that didn’t survive the anxiety, disappointments and mood swings that come with IVF. Even years later many of the women I spoke with were unable to discuss the effect of IVF on their relationships without anger and tears.
So large is the toll that IVF takes on relationships that writer Amy Klein recently wondered if it would be easier to ride the infertility roller-coaster without a partner. Writing in the New York Times, Klein reasoned that at least she could wallow in her sorrows without having to worry about how her emotions were affecting her husband.
“I looked at him and realised it’s not only about me. I am not alone. And even though sometimes I wish I could be like [a friend doing IVF alone] and drown in my sorrows, I am now responsible for…our marriage.”
Based on the collective experience of my IVF buddies and me, here are some tips on how to reduce the collateral damage to your relationship during your IVF journey.
1. Let go of the reasons why you need to do IVF
You can’t walk through the door of an IVF clinic without a head full of ‘What ifs’. What if you’d settled down earlier? What if you started trying for children last year instead of going on that holiday? What if you gained weight/lost weight/didn’t have that abortion/drank less/did more yoga/took fewer drugs in your youth?
None of these questions, or their answers, are helpful. In fact, they can be downright destructive – particularly if the reason you need to do IVF is because of a problem with the bloke’s swimmers or plumbing.
It’s hard for men to watch their partner vomiting, injecting herself with hormones, and having everything from pessaries to strangers’ hands shoved up her vagina. But it’s even harder for men to know that they are the reason she has to do it. As one friend said, “He was the one with the problem, but I had to be the patient.”
Looking forward rather than back can spare both of you additional guilt and resentment.
2. Don’t set unreasonable privacy constraints
When I was going through IVF I didn’t want to talk about it. I needed to. Sharing the ups and downs of my treatment with my friends, family, neighbours and the mailman was a sort of therapy I couldn’t have done without. Most women I know who’ve been through IVF have felt the same. However, many of them have been sworn to secrecy by partners who feel ashamed and embarrassed by infertility. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had that have started with, “Don’t tell my husband that I told you…”
Infertility is an emotional and sensitive topic, particularly for men because our society equates virility with masculinity. There are also a whole host of religious, cultural and professional reasons why people prefer to keep IVF a secret. But it’s unreasonable to add the burden of secrecy to the already difficult process.
If secrecy is important then compromise and work out one or two people the talker in the relationship is allowed to share the journey with.
3. Knowing when to stop
The heartbreak of IVF is that you can spend years putting yourself through hell and still not get a baby. In our very first IVF briefing session we were told that men were often more reluctant than women to start IVF, but they were also more reluctant to stop.
One of my friends did 11 unsuccessful IVF cycles over three years. She wanted to stop after two years because she was exhausted from the endless medical treatment but her husband wanted to keep going. Years later, she is still angry at her husband for the extra year of her life she put on hold because of his wishes.
Yes, it takes both of you to make a baby. But when it comes to IVF, it’s hardly equal. The bloke comes in a jar and the woman gets turned into a science experiment.
When the woman decides it’s time to stop, it’s time to stop.
4. Note to men: You’re needed, even when you’re not
In a physical sense, all that’s required for men to make an IVF baby is about 5 minutes and half-decent aim. You might think that once you’ve got your specimen in your specimen jar, your job is done.
Your partner needs you to support her emotionally every step of the way. She needs to feel like this is an equal priority for both of you and not something she has to deal with on her own.
This means you need to attend as many appointments as possible, even after several failed cycles and the novelty has worn off. If she has to go to them then you should too. If you don’t attend the blood tests then at the very least call afterwards to find out how it went and let her know that you are just as invested in the results as she is.
And when she’s tired, devastated and angry and just needs to lie on the couch and cry, don’t add to the burden by getting frustrated with her and telling her to buck up. Make her a cup of tea, give her a hug and tell her you appreciate what she is doing for you, your family and your future.
5. Note to women: If your partner isn’t going to support you emotionally then find someone who will
In an ideal world, men will read tip 4 on this list and say to themselves, “Well duh! Do you think I’m an unfeeling ogre?”. But for some reason your husband may not be willing or able to provide the emotional support you need.
Rather than spending the entire time disappointed and angry with him, it might be worth accepting his emotional repertoire and enlisting a different person, such as a friend, sister or mother, to provide what your husband cannot.
This might be why, as Amy Klein speculated, it may be easier to go through IVF without a partner. Single-mothers-by-choice choose a support person who is up for the job. If your partner isn’t giving you what you need, perhaps you should too.