Infertility is one of the most difficult problems a couple can go through, and many people find discussing the issue with friends and family only makes things worse. A new study found that there are differences in the way men and women share information about their fertility problems with those around them, and there are ways to approach the topic that can make things somewhat easier for the couple.
Researchers from the University of Iowa and Penn State University talked with 50 heterosexual married couples who've been struggling with infertility for eight months to five years, according to EurekAlert. They found that couples often adjust how much information they share with their loved ones based on whether the man or the woman feels more stigmatized by their reproductive problems. When the woman is more concerned about how people will react to her infertility, both partners share more with friends and family. However, when the man is more concerned about how he'll be perceived, both partners keep their problems quiet.
Study author Keli Ryan Steuber, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa, says this may have to do with the strong bias in our society against people who choose to not to have children. Steuber explains:
"It aligns with the idea that couples do more work to maintain the husband's public persona ... For women, it may be a response to our pronatalist culture. There's an expectation that women want children, and sometimes those who are voluntarily childless are labeled as selfish or too career-driven. We wonder if that stigma overrides the stigma of infertility, to the point that women and their husbands feel compelled to clarify: 'We're not choosing to not have children. We can't have children.'"
Though couples often disagreed with how much information they wanted to share with various people in their social group, the researchers were surprised to find that this didn't lead to much relationship tension, as long as the spouses explicitly discussed the topic. They found it was important for couples to talk about not only how much they wanted to share with friends and family members, but their motivations for keeping information private from certain people. "It could be, 'It's fine if you tell your mom, but please ask her not to tell your sister.' Or, 'I understand that you need to talk to your mom about it, but respect that I don't want to talk to her about it," said Steuber.
Resisting the urge to talk things over with their sister or mom may be easier for men. The study confirmed previous research that shows most men rely on their wives as their main source of emotional support. Women, on the other hand, usually turn to other women — which often brings up confusing questions for their friends about how to support someone who's having difficulty conceiving or just suffered a miscarriage. Steuber gives this advice:
"Let your friend know that you're there for her, to talk about it as much or as little as she wants. Find out whether she wants you to ask how her IVF treatments went, or if you should wait for her to bring it up. See if she is OK with hearing about your children — maybe she knows they're an important part of your life and wants to hear about them, but maybe it's too hard and she'd rather focus on other topics. By asking, it shows that you care enough to be sensitive to her feelings."
It's natural to feel awkward about bringing up a painful topic, but the study confirms that for both partners trying to conceive and those around them, discussing the issue is key — even if they're just communicating that they're not ready to talk about it.
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