Dealing with infertility is a situation no couple longing to become parents wants to face. Most of the conversations that take place regarding the topic of infertility are centred around women, but what happens when it is the male in the relationship who is diagnosed with infertility?
How does this impact men and relationships?
Significantly, in fact. The diagnosis of Male Factor Infertility can fundamentally impact a man’s sense of self, meaning and purpose, all of which can have a significant knock-on effect on his romantic relationship.
While many may think that grief involves the loss of a person, the loss of a dream involves a very similar grieving process. When moving through the grieving process, an array of feelings are likely to be experienced, including denial, sadness and anger, amongst other emotions.
When partners experience and process their grief differently, this can put major strain on the relationship. For example, the male may grieve internally and avoid talking about their infertility issues, while the women may have a desperate desire to verbally process the loss the couple are facing. In this case, neither partners’ emotional needs are being met which is bound to lead to unhappiness on both parts.
Stigma surrounding male infertility
Unfortunately, much stigma surrounds infertility in general, and particularly, male infertility. This is exacerbated in hegemonic cultures where not being able to “produce heirs” or “carry on the family line” is met with deep shame.
Due to the topic of infertility being taboo in these cultures, men are unlikely to share their personal struggles with infertility with family members, friends or colleagues. They may also withdraw from social and family gatherings where pregnant couples, babies and young children are involved because it is just too painful for them to witness.
This results in the couple being the only source of support for one another. Carrying this burden alone can be very heavy as well as isolating for the couple.
Further to this, situations may arise where the one partner might be comfortable discussing their infertility with others and the other partner vehemently wants to keep the matter private. Disagreements about who to tell and when are likely to produce strain.
Infertility can impact libido
Infertility in males may well have a negative impact on a one’s libido, sexual performance and physical intimacy with a partner.
The pressure to try and conceive can put immense strain to perform physically which often has the opposite of the desired effect and may result in him not being able to perform in the bedroom as he would under less stressful circumstances.
Sex can become very mechanical when the goal is conception and as a result, sex loses its sense of spontaneity and intimacy, all of which have a negative impact on the couple relationship. Furthermore, sexual intimacy is a way for couples to connect and feel closer to one another so when it is lacking, general strain and tension may be experienced by both partners.
Communication is key
It is well documented how important good communication is for the success of romantic relationships. When the male partner is struggling with infertility, he may have significant difficulty communicating his emotional experience and needs this with his partner.
Some of the reasons for this may include; shame, guilt, a sense of responsibility, and feelings of having let one’s partner down. He may avoid all discussions on the topic and in so, internalise his experience. This, in turn, may lead to his feelings coming out as anger, frustration, withdrawal or aggression, all of which are going to have a negative impact on their relationship.
The impact of male infertility on mental health
Self-blame is not uncommon with those diagnosed with infertility and feeling that one has let their partner down by not being fertile. This thinking can also spiral into fears of “she is going to leave me for someone who can give her children.” This insecurity may can become a major source of distress for the male partner.
Facing a major stressor in one’s life, such as infertility, can be a contributing factor towards the triggering of mental health challenges, such as depression or anxiety. Having one’s partner struggle with depression can also take a major toll on a romantic relationship in a variety of ways.
In this case, the depressed male may socially withdraw and isolate himself from his partner (and friends), his sex drive may be negatively impacted by depression, irritability may increase (resulting in additional conflicts), and the man’s general low mood and outlook are likely to be difficult for his partner to experience.
What is not uncommon in men struggling with mental health challenges is self-medicating by means of substance use and abuse.
Because much stigma still surrounds mental health and more specifically, men struggling in this regard, men are less inclined to seek professional help but rather ease their distress through unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drinking excessively or using other substances to numb their symptoms.
Does not mean the relationship is destined to fail
While the possible impact of male infertility on the couple relationship is undeniable, it does not mean that a relationship put through this hurdle is destined to fail.
What is required to help these relationships survive and growth amidst the adversity is both informal and formal social support. That said, this requires disclosing one’s infertility and the stigma on the topic makes this difficult.
Some people find it easier to disclose their struggles to professionals, rather than friends and family and there is a place for support from both professionals, such as psychologist, and one’s personal social circle.
On a more macrolevel, conversations on the topic of male infertility need to start happening so that those suffering know they are not alone, and that help is available.
Sam Pretorius is a registered Counselling Psychologist based in Cape Town. She is a founding partner of Perspective Psychology Group. The Perspectives Psychology Group consists of psychologists with a primary focus on health psychology. This area of psychology is centred on the interplay between physical and mental health.
The Group offers both in-patient and out-patient services at Life Kingsbury Hospital, in Claremont.