It had been Mary’s dream to be a mother. For her, being a woman was having the opportunity to procreate and build a family with several children. Now, married to Peter, it was time to make every woman’s innate desire come true, the desire to be a mother. The first months after the wedding passed and nothing happened. Then after six months, they increased sexual intimacy trying to have greater opportunities to conceive, but nothing happened.
Then, after a year, Mary and Peter began to wonder, what was happening? Where was the problem? They went to their family doctor, who referred them to a specialist, and after several studies, he said to that beautiful couple, you will not be able to have children through natural means.
The emotional pain that overwhelmed Mary and Peter was inexplicable. They both felt low self-esteem and were having feelings of inferiority, low self-confidence, and low self-love. They felt ashamed, they felt they were not enough, they felt incomplete to procreate. They even began to question their ability to exercise parenting and to maintain their couple relationship. It was at this point that they decided to seek professional help.
Infertility is a real thing, and it causes a lot of pain
In the United States, 15% of couples will have infertility problems (UCLA Health, 2020). The World Health Organization (WHO, 1993) presents infertility as the inability to conceive after a year of regular unprotected sexual relations. As Mary and Peter’s story reveals, when a couple experiences this reality, the fact that the inability to conceive through the natural procedure at the desired moment becomes obvious, it makes the couple feel surprised, frustrated and it has extensive psychological effects.
The surprise comes from being in a situation that they as a couple had never imagined. In addition, this surprise is the result of false beliefs we have rooted in our culture that say that “procreation is a voluntary process”, that any person can achieve it with the sole condition of having frequent coital interactions. And therefore, when this is not achieved, the couple tends to question their identity and both members of the couple feel inferior as a man and a woman.
Infertility produces frustration, partly because the couple experiences an alteration, at least temporarily, of the life plan they had outlined, and in some way, it poses a challenge to that life project. For Mary and Peter, their Life Project was parenthood at a young age in order to dedicate the best years of their own lives to their children. They saw parenthood as a culmination of their personal development. In other words, having children when reaching personal and professional maturity.
All of this produces great emotional pain because a Loss is experienced. All losses bring experiences of sadness, anguish, pain, and often trauma. These adverse circumstances force the couple to rethink their life plan and make important decisions regarding that plan: to keep trying on their own means, to decide not to have children, to try assisted reproduction, to adopt or foster a child.
When a couple that has infertility problems comes seeking marital therapy, we help them process this experience by approaching it as a grieving process. Syme described infertility as a loss from an emotional and psychological point of view. The couple experiences this loss in different phases: the first phase, when the pregnancy does not occur when it was supposed; the second one, when infertility treatment cycles begin and are unsuccessful; and finally, when an eventual pregnancy culminates in an abortion.
These stages of grief do not necessarily occur cyclically, and each person can experience them in different ways. In the Paralysis stage, the individual acts “like a zombie” or like being “in a tune”, very distant from others. There is denial, the person cannot believe that what happened is real and he/she says to himself/herself, “someone made a mistake”. There may be physical manifestations, such as periods of depression, loss of appetite, and poor concentration.
In the Yearning stage, the individual has a great need to fulfill the desire to be a parent, so, when it does not come true, it is something more fervent every day. Everything is reinforced when the person is exposed to promotional materials or items that are for newborns. Close friends and family do not help at this stage because they ask and question if the couple is doing things right, and, many times, they are do not consider the pain experienced by people with this condition.
The longest stage is Disorganization and Despair. This stage is characterized by producing a feeling of guilt in the individual. We have seen how many patients think their infertility is a punishment from God for sins committed when they were young. There is a feeling of lack of control, anxiety, feelings of loneliness, suffering from grief, hopelessness and couples withdraw from their friends because of the stigmas that arise regarding this condition.
The Reorganization stage is the one in which the individual accepts and reorganizes his/her personal life, considering a new Life Project. This period can take years, or sadly, for many people, it never happens because they give up accepting their destiny. Many people experience such deep emotional damage that they think that no one can help them and that there will not be a thing or a person that could be able to alleviate their suffering.
You may wonder, what can I do if Mary and Peter’s experience is the same one that I am going through at this moment? What can I do to help someone who has a situation like the one we have discussed? Remember, if at a given time you need professional help, do not hesitate to call 407-618-0212, or write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org