How to Cope with Male Infertility
Infertility is a challenging and often traumatic experience for couples. The media and society have often attributed infertility to be a woman’s issue. Although women will frequently be the ones to undergo the majority of medical interventions, male factor infertility contributes to about 40% of all fertility issues. Here’s what you need to know about male infertility:
What is male infertility?
There can be many reasons for why a couple may be having trouble conceiving. It’s worthy to note that there are also often no visible signs, especially in men. Male infertility is when both partners undergo medical testing with a GP or a fertility specialist, and reproductive concerns are found in the male partner. In Australia, 1 in 5 couples with troubles conceiving can solely attribute male infertility as the underlying reason.
Typically, the causes are either in sperm production (ex. low sperm count, genetic causes, medicines or chemicals, etc.) or sperm transport (ex. blockages, premature or trouble ejaculating, erectile dysfunction, surgical complications, etc.) However, in about 50% of cases, the direct cause of male infertility is undetermined.
How can male infertility affect my partner?
The most apparent effect of male infertility will be the ability to conceive. However, there can be many –often silent— effects on your partner. Men are less likely than women to speak openly about reproductive issues, and are not societally encouraged to.
Some men may feel at a loss, and experience feelings of failure or being unable to provide you with a baby. Often, such news could also take a hit at your man’s masculinity, as some men perceive fertility to be a direct showing of their maleness. This can bruise not just a man’s ego, but also virility and libido. Male infertility issues often translate into sexual dysfunction.
You may notice behavioural changes in your partner, whether they take form in him becoming reclusive, irritable, or absorbing himself in various tasks. Other coping mechanisms can be dangerous or risky behaviours, or even drug and alcohol abuse. Your man’s reaction to the infertility diagnosis can also vary greatly based on the options and treatments available.
However your partner is dealing, it is important to acknowledge the situation as a couple and act together accordingly.
How can I help my partner cope?
Depending on the fertility treatment options available to you and your partner, your relationship may take a strain. If the underlying cause of male infertility is treatable, it may have little effect on your bond. Unfortunately, there are seldom easy solutions to fertility issues. Nevertheless, here are ways you can help your partner get through:
1. Encourage him to get male support
The media often portrays infertility as a female-centric complication. It may seem to your partner that he is alone and the only one affected with male infertility. Encouraging him to find support in the male community may help him grieve, cope, and even thrive through this experience. Male bonding is proven to reduce stress, which is often a contributing factor to infertility. Your GP or fertility centre will likely offer a support group, or will be able to refer to one.
2. Consider his privacy
Although you are going through this journey as a couple, your partner may not want to publicize his infertility. It’s strongly recommended that you have a discussion about whom you both feel comfortable sharing the diagnosis with. Hearing that your partner’s “low sperm count” or “low sperm motility” is the cause of infertility may already be crushing to his self-esteem. Depending on his confidence (and many other factors) he may not want your girlfriends, your favourite barista, or the neighbours to hear about it too. Talk about and respect his privacy.
3. Facilitate communication
Inspiring your partner to communicate his feelings and thoughts about infertility may be easier said than done. Women and men communicate differently in stressful situations. Although emotions may run high between both of you, take the time to really listen to your partner’s feelings without adding input. Clarify, to make sure you truly understand what he may be saying beyond the words he is using. Consider seeing a counsellor or therapist specializing in infertility, if you’re having difficulties.
4. Discuss your fertility treatment options and establish boundaries
Speaking about the fertility treatment options available and how you both want to proceed, is integral to sustaining a healthy relationship. Couples will often assume what the other feels and wants to do in this type of situation. Women experiencing infertility will often have a “try-everything” approach in order to conceive. Men tend to be less likely to undergo invasive procedures and often conclude they will be living childfree quicker than their female partners.
Communicating what each of you want, don’t want, are willing to try, and for how long, is very important. Establish boundaries about surgical procedures, financial commitments, and time limitations. Treatments are often expensive, time consuming, and not guaranteed to work on the first, or even repeated attempts. Check in frequently to make sure you are still both on the same page, or if there are any new concerns.
5. Take the time to reconnect
Whether you decide to proceed with fertility treatments or not, it’s important to still reconnect with each other. You have both just received some life-altering news and it may be worthwhile to take a step back and evaluate your situation and relationship. Allow both of you time (and sometimes space) to recuperate, so that you can be strong and prepared to take on the challenges ahead.
For couples who undergo fertility assistance, sex can often become a timed and scheduled activity, losing passion and spontaneity in the process. There may also be feelings of guilt if the focus of an activity is not about the baby. Whether it’s going out to your favourite date-night restaurant, or having a romantic night in, it can be great to rekindle the reasons you’re trying to conceive in the first place.
How do I cope with my partner’s infertility?
You may feel helpless and disconnected when the diagnosis is not about you. It may be extremely difficult to deal with your feelings and emotions, when all you want to be is a mum and it’s out of your control. While it’s important to take care of and process your feelings, remember to not get caught up in assigning blame. Your partner is not any less of a man, and especially not any less of a loving partner to you. While it may be hard, try to not see him any differently— physically or emotionally.
Build yourself a support network of people whom you love and trust, and confide in them (but be mindful if your partner wants privacy). While you may want to be strong for your partner, it’s important to acknowledge and not talk down you own feelings. Take personal time if you need to. Don’t stop doing things and activities you love, just because they don’t involve making a baby.
Is having your own baby more important than your relationship?
A hard topic to discuss if your partner doesn’t want children, and an even harder one if you are unable to conceive. Parenthood is commonly an integral part of any couple’s future plans, and being denied the opportunity naturally can be heartbreaking and devastating.
When your partner does not want to undergo fertility treatment or no interventions are available to him, can be a make or break moment for your relationship. If your partner has accepted that he is not meant to be a father, you may have to reflect whether having your own baby is more important than your relationship.
You may feel that your dreams of parenthood have been taken away, but consider that his may have been as well. It may be worthwhile to discuss if adoption or fostering are alternative parenting options for you.
How your partner can become a father
It’s not just about giving you a baby. Often overlooked, it is also about how your partner will become a father. If the trouble conceiving lies in male fertility, your partner needs to feel in control of the reproductive process. Discuss the options. Depending on the diagnosis, treatment may be surgical procedures to correct structural abnormalities or reverse blockages. There are a number of treatments to restore fertility. However, not all may be available to your partner, or he may not want to undergo these procedures and that decision has to be respected.
For some men, having a baby that is biologically theirs is extremely important. In-vitro fertilization uses your man’s own sperm to fertilize the egg, if the underlying issue is not with the sperm itself. Other times, your partner may consider using a sperm donor, or even adoption and foster care instead.
Encouraging your partner to have autonomy in the fertility and conception process is likely to promote his confidence as a man and partner, as well as strengthen your relationship for the journey ahead.