When Rose (not her real name) and her husband Ken decided to start trying for a baby seven years ago, sex was great and spontaneous. She conceived in the second year of their marriage and later miscarried. The couple continued to make love just as frequently over the next couple of years, but her inability to conceive disconnected from her from her husband overtime. Rose started complaining of insufficient lubrication during intercourse as this often resulted in painful intercourse and an eventual loss of libido.
Her husband Ken on the other hand had given up on sex and even trying to achieve a pregnancy due to the constant arguments between them preceding sex. There was no longer spontaneity in sex, with Rose only interested in having sex on the right days and constantly monitoring her basal body temperature and using ovulation predictor kits. Sex was now more of a resemblance of a clinical procedure for them. Ultimately he felt rejected that Rose wanted babies more than she wanted him and Rose accused him of not wanting a child.
A couple’s sexual relationship is one major area of their life that is most negatively affected by infertility or involuntary childlessness. Infertility is defined as the inability to become pregnant after one year of regular intercourse if a woman is younger than 35 and six months if she is older. For most couples trying to conceive naturally, the “demand” to have sex at a specific time could cause considerable strain when trying to track ovulation.
The emotional pain that accompanies infertility or involuntary childlessness can be detrimental to one’s marital and sexual relationship. Infertility can be considered as a major life crisis and a prolonged ordeal for many couples spanning months and years with no end in sight for some. Infertility affects the feelings about one’s masculinity and femininity, sexuality, and self-worth. Couples dealing with the inability to bear biological children often lose themselves in the process and feel a sense of emptiness and defectiveness.
Most women in the process of trying to conceive get consumed with the desire for children and not for their husband. The tension in their relationship can be exacerbated by this. Lovemaking which was once a warm and intimate pleasurable experience becomes a dreaded chore and invokes a strong sense of failure. After trying to conceive unsuccessfully for years, sex now holds a new meaning ranging from fear, failure, and anxiety to depression. Sex comes to mean failure to conceive and this sense of failure is extended to their career and other aspects of their lives. Sex may feel like a chore, an unfulfilled goal and a source of frustration. Especially when the woman keeps calling her husband at work saying “Honey I’m ovulating. Come home now”.
Loss of libido has been proven to be one of the clinical manifestations of depression. Couples who are depressed do not feel sexual towards each other, even when there is a reason to be hopeful about achieving a pregnancy. Anger, unresolved conflict, resentment, stress and arguments add to sexual problems such as premature ejaculation, lack of sexual desire and impotence. Couples trying to conceive most often and unconsciously have their worst fights around the middle of their menstrual cycle. That way they can avoid sex when they are both angry with each other. Somehow not having sex during a wife’s ovulation period helps couples deal with failure when conception does not occur. Sex becomes a reminder of what isn’t working the way it should.
Infertility like several other factors deals a severe blow to both men’s and women’s identities. These negative distortions become magnified as infertility progresses and affects their very essence and self-worth. “The ability to enjoy sex presupposes the ability to take pleasure in one’s body, which, in turn, is dependent upon having a positive self-image as a man or as a woman”. When self-images are damaged by infertility and depression saps libido, the convergence of these factors can lead to a couple’s poor sexual relationship.
The pressure to produce a child and stress levels involved often leads to the constant fight, arguments and resentment which occur when trying to conceive or due to involuntary childlessness .Infertility can cause men who have never been impotent to have difficulty maintaining an erection or reaching orgasm. Men get annoyed if they feel their spouse is merely lying there like a “pack of potatoes on a couch” or “cannot wait to get it over and done with”. This is usually very hurting to a man’s ego. Women on the other hand can be understandably frustrated when a man feels this way, thereby increasing the tension.
Built up anger and resentment when unresolved overtime makes couples withdraw emotional and sexually. Having walked through the path myself, I encourage couples who are going this phase of their fertile journey and path to parenthood to talk to each other often about their fears, anger, sadness, worries and any other negative emotion they may both be passing through. Being honest about the source of their feelings is critical.
Men naturally find it difficult to express their feelings of inadequacy or defeat. It is intolerable to see their wives cry, or go through pain and not be able to assuage it, while women on the other hand feel increasingly disappointed in their husband’s lack of concern. They feel their husbands are not particularly interested in having children and angry for not getting the needed support they crave, often leading to thoughts of divorce. This can lead to both partners feeling pains of loneliness and isolation in addition to the pain of infertility.
It is important to nurture your relationship on your journey to parenthood. Even the strongest of relationships need a conscious commitment to make it thrive. Relationships similarly like children, blossom when there is a lot of care, support, love and attention for each other. Couples trying to conceive need to re-enact the same behaviors that made them feel sexual in the early stage of their marriage. Be sure to listen to each other in a non-judgmental way when making decisions for treatment options.
It is also worthy to note that infertility does not determine one’s self-worth or sexuality. Being a real man or woman does not have anything to do with the quality of your sperm or eggs. A woman’s essence is not hinged on her ability to bear children.
1. To regain your sex life back with your spouse, talk about how you feel about sex. Set aside time to talk together and stay emotionally connected. By regularly sharing your feelings and fertility treatment preferences, your marriage will be strengthened. When anger builds up without being expressed, couples either withdraw from each other emotionally and sexually, neither of which is conducive to the well-being of a relationship.
2. Strive for mindful love-making where you focus on your spouses’ touch and smell, rather than the purpose of the act. Try having sex at least two to three times a week, regardless of your ovulation days.
3. Use fertility friendly lubricants. The stress and anxiety that arises from trying to conceive may result to not feeling “wet” or not having arousal fluids during sex.
4. Plan a special retreat, share a romantic dinner, and go for a dance from time to time. It is also important to rest, engage in recreational activities, exercises, getting enough sleep and eating properly.
5. Sex should not be viewed solely as a means to an end. Couples do not need to have intercourse to enjoy sexual feelings. Petting, touching, caressing and even oral sex are ways that couples can give and receive sexual pleasure without having to engage in intercourse on non-fertile days.
6. When orgasm is not reached, couples can take a few hours off and try again. Getting angry at a man who is temporarily impotent only worsens the matter.
7. When your monthly period shows up, the poor semen analysis or after a failed IVF cycle is a time to acknowledge the disappointment you both feel together as a couple. You can share what is going through your mind. Don’t see your spouse feedback as an attack on you, if your spouse tells you that sex has become a chore or a burden, hear what they are saying.
8. Couples trying to build a family whether true natural conception or Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART) like IVF or artificial insemination should express their feelings tenderly and lovingly. Partners need to be less critical and be understanding of the pressures each of them is feeling about performance.
9. Talking to your spouse about your reluctance to have sex helps. Sex has different meanings for men and women. Also initiating sex on days you have the desire can also send a loving message to your husband. Men feel better when they know that their wives disinterest in lovemaking is not a sign of rejection. Men tend to need sex in order to feel loved and they feel rejected when sex is infrequent or missing. Women on the other hand may desire sex when they are feeling particularly close to their husbands.
10. Find ways to be intimate with one another. The struggle over infertility also fosters a deeper commitment and connection between couples.
11. Communicate with your spouse regularly. Do not make the erroneous assumption that if your spouse loves you, he will know what you are feeling at every point in time. Let him know the reason why you are currently sad and withdrawn is because you saw your menstrual period. When feelings are not expressed, couples can habour resentments and may end up fighting over trivial matters while ignoring the underlying issues.
12. A healthy disagreement is therapeutic. Do not let negative feelings build up for so long that it ends up in an explosion. Deal with each incident as they occur, making “I” statements rather than accusations about your spouse, and being specific about bothersome behaviors. Tell your spouse what effect his or her behavior has on you. For example a good way of telling him you would like him to accompany you for the doctor’s appointment is “I really wish you could come with me to see the doctor this time. I have been quite angry and hurt lately each time you don’t come with me to the doctor’s appointment”.
13. Reinforce your spouse’s loving behavior. Let your partner know when you truly appreciate something that was said or done. Share everything that he/she does that makes you feel special and loved. Let your partner know what you do that is an expression of your love.
14. Avoid blaming one another. Talk about your frustration and anger openly. Feeling guilty for being responsible for infertility only puts an added strain in the relationship with your spouse. Remember that both of you need to be healthy couples, before you can be healthy parents.
Having a family vision as a couple can be really helpful. Where do you see yourselves and your family five years from now? What values do you hold dear as family? Many relationships between couples have been strengthened as a result of going through the fertile journey together, making them stronger and closer.
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