The man’s role in assisted reproduction treatment: how to go from being a mere spectator to an active participant
Article by Dr. Petra Thorn, social and family therapist specializing in counselling couples wishing to have a child
For a man, undergoing assisted reproduction treatment can often show itself to be a very particular challenge: he has to observe and “cope” with the fact that his partner is undergoing an invasive medical treatment without being able to contribute anything. This challenge is more difficult when it is the man who has been diagnosed with a fertility problem. “It’s my fault that my partner has to go through this,” “I can’t do anything to make it more bearable for her” … This is a recurring thought, which many men who find themselves in that situation lose sleep over.
During treatment, the desire to act to help in some way corresponds to the typically male strategy of wanting to solve a problem by taking the initiative. Women, however, feel more of a need to talk and discuss. Besides being two very different strategies, they are not always compatible and sometimes it means that the words and actions of the two members that make up a couple are not in agreement.
How the man can help to overcome this situation
When there has already been a lack of communication, the positive part is that it can be restarted in a productive way for both parties and from many different points of view. These are some of them:
- Tend and nurture your relationship while you are trying for a child: more than what you normally do. Try to suggest specific activities that you both like and that enable you not to think about how tiring the treatment may have become.
- Keep in mind that it is your partner who is physically receiving the assisted reproduction treatment. She will appreciate it if you show your support by some nice gesture, such as a bouquet of flowers, a foot massage or a spontaneous breakfast in bed together.
- If your partner feels overwhelmed by the treatment, try to ease the pressure by taking charge of the administrative aspects (arrange visits to the doctor, clarify administrative issues with the clinic team, etc.). It is also possible to make use of the psychological support offered by a professional.
- Learn to recognize and appreciate the differences. Although both of you have the same desire to have a child, each of you will interpret the situation in your own way, and will rarely feel exactly the same. These differences don’t always have to be a barrier to your relationship, they can also enhance it: the stronger of the two can provide comfort and offer encouragement to the other … Who knows, maybe these roles will be reversed later on.
- It’s normal that the couple’s sex life is affected during assisted reproduction treatment. Knowing that having intercourse does not lead to the conception of a child or having to follow some medical guidelines and keep to timetables might put you off wanting to have sex with your partner. Try to split your sex life into two parts: “functional” intercourse, which is for the sole purpose of conceiving a child, and sex for the “sheer pleasure of it”: this is the romantic and passionate side.
If at any given time neither of you feels like having intercourse, just hug each other and enjoy being close to one another.
- Talk about your emotions, your experiences and your expectations. Only if you know how your partner feels and she knows how you feel, can you respect one another and keep each other in mind. In my experience, couples who know how to talk about their emotional experiences, with the benefit of hindsight, say the crisis related to the difficulties in having a child has helped to unite them. On the other hand, couples who don’t discuss things much often report that they have become emotionally distant from one another, regardless of whether their desire to have a child has been fulfilled or not.
- There are situations in which dialogue is impossible. Sometimes, having already undergone several treatments that haven’t yet led to a pregnancy, words don’t count for anything. In this case: hug your partner and show her you’re there for whatever she might need. In that situation, it is much more appreciated than giving advice, which may be perceived more like a slap in the face.
- If you feel left out of the medical treatment, mention it to the doctor. You should be involved in all the important conversations and stages in the process, even in the less important ones (for instance, an ultrasound): while not strictly necessary, sharing a moment like this can be beneficial for both of you.
And finally: Take care of yourself. Enjoy the enriching and enjoyable parts of your life that are unconnected to the desire to have a child, nurture your friendships and make plans with your partner that have nothing to do with family planning.
I hope you go on being happy– with or without children.
I am a social worker and social and family therapist. I have had my own practice for over 20 years and I specialize in counselling couples who want to have a child. For many years, I have also offered training for professionals in the psychological and medical sector, and I take part in scientific and interdisciplinary exchange programmes. In addition, I have published several books .