Couples and Infertility Series Post 1: Relationship Roles
It’s February, and love is in the air! However if you are struggling with infertility, the air is also full of sadness, frustration, confusion and possibly resentment. So, this month’s blog series is dedicated to the couple. We will focus on communication styles, connection/intimacy, grief, and the benefits of couple’s counseling. Yes, stress can add to or create conflict in the relationship, but dealing with this awful obstacle as partners can also strengthen the relationship. So, lets begin!
What “Role” Do You Play in Your Relationship?
We all find ourselves playing a role in our relationship, and over time we can become more entrenched in that role. How you communicate with your partner and how they communicate with you is extremely important to understand as the stress of infertility can intensify those roles that are ineffective at times. As you move from a place of grieving infertility to a place of taking action to build your family, let's look at common relationship roles that can impact infertility decision making:
The planner falls into full research mode. They can tell you every scientific reason for their infertility (though if they fall into the 25% that have unexplained infertility the unknowing will be particularly hard for them). Information is power and control, so the planner learns everything they can.
Benefit- This is also the person who gets s*%$ done. Without a person planning and leading, how would decisions ever get made?!
Obstacle- The planner has a tendency to bulldoze their partner at times. They are so focused on the logical side of things that they don’t always allow room for their partner to share how they are feeling or present the facts that stand out to them.
Recommendation- Learning and planning are essential for you. Just don’t forget to check in with your partner and avoid the “my facts outweigh your emotions/fears/worries” mentality. Remember, you are not arguing a case in court, you are making really important decisions about how to build your family with your partner!
The Sprinter keeps their eye on the prize and wants to warp speed ahead to the next step.
Benefit- Can’t keep a sprinter down! If there are setbacks or obstacles, the sprinter will process, regroup and then want to know the next step. The sprinter is optimistic and action-oriented.
Obstacle- The sprinter may struggle to balance what else is going on in life as they are so focused on having a baby and the steps they need to take to get there that other things can go by the wayside. They also may have a tendency to rush their partner to get on the same page as them as quickly as possible. (Guilty as charged. My husband and I agreed to wait a month while contemplating what our next step in our fertility journey would be. Precisely three days later I told him what I was ready to do, and the wait for him to make that same decision was excruciating. Self-imposed stress!)
Recommendation- Try to slow down! It’s hard, infertility instills in us a sense of panic of not having enough time. But, you do have enough time to do what is best for both of you. Try to balance what else is important to you in life and family planning, and be patient with your partner.
2-4-6-8, who do we appreciate?! The cheerleader is upbeat and optimistic, and just knows that everything is going to work out for the best.
Benefit- This can be very comforting for you and your partner. You like to focus on the good, are mindful and don’t waste time on “maybes”.
Obstacle- You can possibly isolate your partner if they feel like when they try to share their worries and fears they are invalidated with the “that won’t happen” or “why spend time focusing on it not working out?”
Recommendation- Hear your partner. Validate them by saying “I know you are worried about that although I still have a good feeling” or “if it doesn’t work out we will figure it out together”. You can keep that sunny optimism and acknowledge your partners fears at the same time.
The Go with the Flow-er:
This person is along for the ride and is okay with whatever plans are being made. “It’s your decision, I just want you to be happy”.
Benefit- The go with the flow-er is pretty chill and can accommodate bumps in the road.
Obstacle- Just want your partner to be happy? That’s nice, but what they probably really want is for you to have an actual opinion! What is supposed to come off as supportive and flexible can actually increase your partner’s stress level because they are now the sole decision maker.
Recommendation- Take a risk. By not involving yourself in the decision making you are not fully invested in the process. Be a partner.
The Cruise Director:
The Cruise Director is very focused on how everyone else is experiencing the journey. They may spend a lot of time and energy on getting other’s opinions and hearing other’s feelings.
Benefit: Everyone else is probably happy! (Although maybe not because some people you just can’t please). You feel good and capable when you can help others feel heard and included. You are intuitive and compassionate.
Obstacle- The Cruise Director has a tendency to have porous boundaries and struggles putting themselves first. This can also create friction with your partner who can feel that you are putting others needs ahead of their needs. You dread conflict and often avoid it. Plus you may notice some resentment creeping in on you in the form of “I take care of everyone else, how come no one takes care of me!”
Recommendation- Take care of your needs. Have a very open conversation with your partner about what stays private and what both people are okay sharing. Some people will disagree with how much you share, what you share or what your plan is. That is not your problem, that is their problem! Lean into the discomfort, it can create growth.
The Problem Solver:
Pretty self explanatory! The Problem Solver likes to solve problems.
Benefit- The problem solver is great at listening (for the most part). They genuinely want to help and don't want to see their partner in pain. They are excited by the ideas they think of, and many of the solutions are really great.
Obstacle- Your partner is a strong, smart, independent person who doesn’t always need you to solve their problems. You may have a tendency to stop listening halfway through what your partner is saying because you are focusing on the solution you are creating. Also, there is a lot of infertility that can’t be solved and just requires sitting in the hard emotions. For example, you can’t solve a miscarriage. You can be depressed and disappointed and eventually move on with life and family planning, but handling the situation like its a puzzle to solve may isolate your partner and bury your own emotions.
Recommendation- Just ask your partner what they need from you. “Do you want ideas or do you want me to listen?” Validate what their needs are. Many logical, practical problems can be solved (How will we find the right professional to work with? How will we pay for this? etc.) but the problems that are emotional in origin don’t have a solution. The only way out is through.
When the going gets tough, the Avoider heads for the door. Probably metaphorically, though possibly literally. They become distant. They start spending time on other things and never want to talk about infertility, feelings that go with infertility, or what they want to do moving forward. They are not very interested in follow-up appointments and are overall disengaged.
Benefit- Self protection.
Obstacle- Your partner feels isolated and lonely. Avoiding creates a lot of stress on the relationship and pressure on the partner who feels like they have to treat the Avoider with “kid gloves” which can lead to some pretty strong resentment over time.
Recommendation: The Avoider isn’t consciously trying to be a jerk, but is probably really overwhelmed with their own emotions and wasn’t taught how to verbalize them. Do some self work in order to fully be there for your partner and for yourself (if you are avoiding “bad” emotions, you are unintentionally cutting yourself off from “good” ones as well).
Consider individual therapy to better learn emotion identification, distress tolerance, and communication strategies. If that isn’t for you, write down every thought you are having about infertility. Now write down every EMOTION you are having about infertility. Repeat at a later date if you weren’t able to come up with much. When your lists are authentic and somewhat vulnerable, share them with your partner. This is a big deal. Do the work to get in the game.
Now, none of us play just one role. We have probably played them all at some point or another. But noticing which ones you play most frequently in the context of fertility planning and noticing which ones your partner tends to play can hopefully increase patience, understanding, and effective communication.
If you are in need of additional mental health support through this process please seek it out. You can contact me through the Contact section on my website for a phone consultation, or you can google “Infertility Therapists Near Me”. Be compassionate to yourself AND your partner, this is hard on everyone.
Wishing you deep conversations, authentic connection and patience!