The Role of Couples Counseling in Infertility Treatment
Updated: Jun 2, 2019
Helping couples process and sort out the difficulties associated with the complications of conceiving a child.
By Filippo M. Forni, LMFT – Private Practice Owner, Director of Clinical Services at New Directions for Veterans, Inc., Adjunct Professor at Pepperdine University. Helping couples dealing with infertility issues in Los Angeles.
Counseling Couples with Infertility
Infertility is a major life event that could lead to different psychological, emotional, and social challenges. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 12% of women in the United States 15 to 44 years old struggle with infertility (infertility is defined as a failure to get pregnant after one year of unprotected sex). In other words, 1 in 8 couples in the U.S. experience problems conceiving and sustaining a pregnancy.
A large majority of couples who experience infertility never seek mental health counseling. Possible reasons for this may include social stigma on infertility and perception of sexuality of infertile couples.
However, counseling couples with infertility is a very important part of infertility treatment, considering that infertile couples show signs of emotional distress and anxiety more often than other fertile couples. In addition, infertility often causes tensions between couples and leads to challenges in their marriage.
Counseling Couples with Infertility and Gender Differences in Coping
Research suggests that women experience a greater amount of infertility-related stress. They are also more likely than men to experience depression and anxiety symptoms, and appear more emotionally-affected following treatment failure. Studies show that half of the women consider infertility as life’s greatest disappointment. At the same time, only 15% of men share this attitude. Additionally, infertility often damages women’s self-image while men tend to seek distance from the awareness of infertility, seeing it as a failure of their masculinity.
The Role of Couples Counseling in Infertility Treatment
Couples therapy for infertility aims to help couples address their feelings and keep a healthy relationship while battling infertility.
In the past, the main role of couples therapy for infertility was to provide support for the crisis of infertility. While this role of mental health professionals remains very important, more recently they have also been developing and evaluating interventions adapted to specific challenges of infertility such as coping with the waiting period before the pregnancy test.
Studies show that, in regard to counseling, women have more positive attitudes towards looking for psychological counseling than men.
Counseling couples with infertility is important because it can provide appropriate interventions to alleviate stress, enhance coping strategies, and improve the couple’s relationship and overall quality of life.
Why Seek Couples Therapy for Infertility?
Anyone who has struggled with infertility will say that this experience is filled with stress. The question many couples ask themselves is “when is the right time to seek couples counseling?”
Many communities have their infertility support groups. Also, many infertility clinics provide support groups for patients undergoing fertility treatment. However, some couples feel more comfortable sharing their experiences with a couple’s therapist.
Infertility is a life experience that can affect both partners, as well as their relationship. Usually, one or both partners are hurting, feeling confused, anxious, worried, and in general, emotionally overwhelmed.
Sometimes, infertility may lead to defensiveness and emotional distancing when partners find themselves unable to discuss their most profound thoughts and feelings, and if/when they don’t know how to soothe each other in their infertility-related grief. They rarely discuss these issues with each other, which could lead to different problems in their relationship.
Moreover, infertility holds an emotional and financial burden making the simple joys of everyday life fade and deplete.
Couples counseling can provide much-needed support, and it can help couples build more coping skills; independently and together as a unit. Furthermore, it can help address anxiety, resentment, frustration, and guiltone or both partners may be feeling. In addition, couples counseling for infertility typically deals with communication deficits and couples’ issues with intimacy and sexuality.
Couples therapy for infertility can also help couples process the information regarding their experiences of infertility, boost their awareness of seeking medical help, and aid them in acclimating to infertility. Furthermore, through couples counseling process, couples can learn to accept any possible letdowns of fertility treatment, and help them build aftermath strategies focused on other family life choices.
Finally, couples therapy for infertility may help couples strengthen their bond, give them tools for coping, reinforce commitment, and achieve resilience during and after fertility treatment.
When would it be a Good Time to Seek Counseling
If one of the partners feels overwhelmed by sadness and depression, is unable to function or has suicidal thoughts, reaching for help must be immediate. After the initial contact with a psychiatrist or other mental health professional who will conduct an initial evaluation, an appointment with a couple’s therapist will promptly follow. Getting immediate services in a crisis is vital. However, after the crisis has been addressed, it is important to follow up with couples counseling for infertility.
Each individual and each couple should decide when it would be a good time to seek counseling. Fertility treatments are uncomfortable and, according to research, often require similar psycho-social interventions as those used for patients experiencing serious medical illness.
Nevertheless, if you and/or your partner feel that infertility is taking over your life and your feelings of sadness, anxiety, and worry affect your daily life, then it is important to seek professional mental health help.
If you feel that infertility is hurting your relationship in any way, couples counseling may help you better understand and support each other. Even if you are not feeling particularly stressed or depressed, you may consider getting more support, so couples counseling may be a good choice here as well.