It had been Mary’s dream to be a mother. For her, being a woman was about 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. But months after the wedding, nothing had happened. Then after six months, they increased sexual intimacy, trying to have greater opportunities to conceive, but still, 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. After several tests, he the beautiful couple, “You will not be able to have children through natural means.”
The emotional pain that overwhelmed Mary and Peter was indescribable. They both felt low self-esteem and had feelings of inferiority, low self-confidence, and low self-love. They felt ashamed, they felt they were not enough, they felt incomplete. They even began to question their ability to parent and to maintain their 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 percent of couples will have fertility 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, they are shocked, they feel frustrated, and there are extensive psychological effects.
The shock comes from being in a situation the couple had never imagined. In addition, this shock is the result of false beliefs rooted in our culture that say that “procreation is a voluntary process,” that any person can achieve it just by having frequent coital interactions. So, when this fails, 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 has to change the life plan they had outlined. For Mary and Peter, their life project was parenthood at a young age so they could dedicate the best years of their own lives to their children. They saw parenthood as a culmination of their personal development, having children when reaching personal and professional maturity.
All of this produces great emotional pain as a loss is experienced. All losses bring 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 with their own means, to decide not to have children, to try assisted reproduction, or to adopt or foster a child.
When a couple with 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 to, the second one when infertility treatment cycles begin and are unsuccessful, and finally, when an eventual pregnancy culminates in a miscarriage.
These stages of grief do not necessarily occur in order and each person might experience them in different ways. In the Paralysis stage, the individual acts “like a zombie” or like being “in a trance,” very distant from others. There is denial, the person cannot believe 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 happen, it becomes more fervent every day. Everything is reinforced when the person is exposed to promotional materials or items for newborns. Close friends and family do not help at this stage because they tend to ask the couple if they are doing things right. They tend to not consider the pain experienced by those with infertility.
The longest stage is Disorganization and Despair. This stage is characterized by feeling guilty. We have seen how many patients think their infertility is a punishment from God for sins committed when they were young. They feel a lack of control, anxiety, loneliness, grief, hopelessness, and couples withdraw from their friends because of the stigmas surrounding infertility.
The Reorganization stage is the one in which the individual accepts and reorganizes his/her personal life and considers a new Life Project. This period can take years, or sadly, for many people, it never happens because they give up accepting their fate. Many people experience such deep emotional damage that they think no one can help them and that there is nothing anyone can do to alleviate their suffering.
You may wonder, what can I do if I’m going through the same thing as Mary and Peter? What can I do to help someone in a situation like the one we discussed? Remember, if at a given time you need professional help, do not hesitate to call 407-618-0212, or write to us at email@example.com