If male factor infertility has affected your ability to conceive, you’re not alone. And if infertility has taken a toll on your relationship, you’re not alone there either. For some heterosexual couples, sperm donation is the best answer to infertility issues, but it can bring up some complicated emotions.
Infertility often comes as a shock. You were blithely going about your babymaking for months, assuming you could conceive naturally. But then months turned into years, turned into doctors appointments and diagnosis: male factor infertility.
It takes time to sink in.
Infertility can feel like a punch in the gut, rounded out with a sense of shame and a loss of self-esteem. When faced with male factor infertility, men often feel emasculated and guilty for not being able to provide their wife with children.
Adding to this pain of grappling with identity and disappointment is the pain of secrecy. In general, infertility struggles are not something shared freely with friends or even family. Especially when it’s male factor infertility.
In fact, there’s a history of secrecy around male factor infertility, which has also led to secrecy around sperm donation. Cultural and religious stigmas prevent men from talking to one another or sharing with friends and family about being infertile. So much so that healthcare providers have historically encouraged clients not to share details around how they were able to conceive, going as far as matching the traits of the sperm donation to the characteristics of the father-to-be.
In this secretive and stigmatized environment, it’s not surprising that men have difficulty talking about infertility—even with their partners.
And when one partner is closing off from the other, the relationship will start to suffer.
When Communication Falters – it can happen before or after sperm donation
Intense emotions can overpower you and make it difficult to function. And the experience of infertility, from undergoing tests, to diagnosis, to procedures, and finally the much-anticipated and tenuous-feeling pregnancy, is wrought with intense emotions.
For both partners, the infertility experience affects all aspects of your lives: dreams, finances, physical health, and how you interact with each other. What does it mean to your sense of yourself and to the relationship to use a sperm donation? What will it mean to your child?
A hallmark of intense emotions is the inability to communicate clearly (Bugatti, 2018).
When emotions are high, it affects our cognition. It’s hard to clearly express what we think or feel. What comes out instead are unclear signals like blaming and frustration.
In this state, you feel preoccupied with your own thoughts and feelings and you’re spending a lot of energy trying to calm yourself down. In this state, it’s hard to hear your partner—how can you hear his or her pain when you’re dealing with your own pain?
Of course, the communication between you and your partner feels mismatched and stilted. Communication is impacted by emotional distress. And you’re feeling disconnected from each other as a result.
This is how couples get stuck.
Unproductive Interactions Between Partners
Now in a cycle of self-preservation and coping with intense emotions, the male partner often withdraws. He may push the female partner away.
As he withdraws, she feels exposed, vulnerable, and alone. Often, she will try to pursue him, which only pushes him further into whatever distraction he’s using to cope.
Distancing and conflict in the relationship are common, especially since men and women are affected differently and tend to process strong emotions differently. There is still a societal expectation that a man is raised to be strong and be a problem solver. He may not be so good at vocabulary to describe his emotional experiences. His usual strategy of fixing problems doesn’t work now. And accepting a sperm donation undermines his sense of being strong and virile.
Since he can’t solve this problem, he withdraws or shuts down. On the flip side, his partner feels shut out or even abandoned. She can’t reach him.
As a result of this pile-up of stress and the cycle of miscommunication and emotional unavailability, couples experiencing infertility report a decrease in their relationship (and sexual) satisfaction (Koser, 2020).
Couples may even blame each other for the infertility although the biological situation is not anyone’s fault (Koser, 2020).
If We Need Sperm Donation, Am I Enough?
Infertility is a painful and overwhelming experience, and underneath everything there are deeper, unspoken fears.
The male partner may feel wounded or betrayed by his body. There’s this almost unconscious self-talk of, “I’m not enough as a husband. I failed her. She can’t have children because of me.”
And now the idea of accepting a sperm donation to fulfill a biological spot he wanted badly to fill himself is tearing at him.
Deep down is often the fear, “What if she leaves me because I’m not good enough?” or, “She should leave and find someone who can give her children.”
It feels risky to open up and share these deep, vulnerable feelings with your partner. What if you share your fears and they reject you? Instead of coming together for emotional support, you deal with grief of not having a genetic child by shutting down.
What you each need to know is that you are enough even with your flaws and your infertility. That she wants to be with you, and you want a child together no matter how you go about making one.
What Helps Couples Considering Sperm Donation
Regardless of the ultimate solution to your infertility struggles, you need each other’s emotional support.
You need to feel seen and heard. The more you’re able to be vulnerable about what you’re experiencing, the more your partner can demonstrate their loving acceptance of you. This comes in part with your partner allowing space for your pain and you allowing space for theirs.
Then you need the time to consider and decide together about whether to use a sperm donation.
Psychologist and researcher Dr. Sue Johnson explains three key elements of couples’ connection with the acronym A.R.E. (Johnson, 2008):
A – Accessible
Being accessible to your partner means giving them your attention and support—being truly present with them.
R – Responsive
Being responsive is the idea of reaching back to your partner when they reach out to you. When they’re upset, you soothe them. When they’re excited, you share in their excitement.
E – Engaged
Engaging with your partner is even more than being just accessible and responsive. It means showing empathy, asking questions, and sharing your own feelings with them.
With these three elements in place, you will have a sense that your partner is there for you when you need them. That when you share tender and vulnerable places, your partner will respond with compassion and support.
For couples experiencing infertility, one of the most important conversations boils down to reassurance that, “I want to be with you no matter what. I only want to raise a family with you. You are important to me regardless of your fertility.”
It can also be the acknowledgment of, “I see your pain. Your pain hurts me. And I am staying with you.”
You can Deal with the Trauma of Infertility Together and Make the Decision About Sperm Donation
Your partner is your biggest source of strength, physically and emotionally (Coan et al., 2006). As Dr. Johnson writes, proximity to a loved one is the antidote to life’s anxieties (Johnson, 2004, as cited in (Koser, 2020).
In a lot of ways, infertility is a trauma to your relationship, and sometimes to your physical selves. In this experience, you are your partner’s life raft and they are yours. Together, you can make sense of the questions and uncertainties. You can reassure one another and provide comfort.
Sometimes, couples therapy is a good way to support both of you through rough waters. It can buoy you as a couple when each of you feels too weak individually.
How Couples Therapy Can Help – Meet Dr. Irena
When dealing with infertility and deciding whether to use a sperm donation, each partner’s emotional experience needs to be acknowledged, understood, and worked through. In therapy, I can help you tune into your emotional needs and show them to your partner so that your partner can respond in a positive way.
You can support each other as you are going through infertility, and counseling can help create a dedicated time and space to do that.
Ultimately, counseling can help you feel safe to take the risk of revealing yourself. You’ll be able to allow yourself to be seen and heard this most vulnerable of places.
Because you deserve to be seen and loved in your darkest places of vulnerability.
The couples therapy developed by Dr. Johnson, Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), has been proven to help couples going through infertility (Najafi et al., 2015). Particularly, it can help increase relationship satisfaction and reduce anxiety and depression (Najafi et al., 2015; Soltani et al., 2014).
As a licensed psychologist and certified Emotionally Focused therapist with over 20 years of experience, Dr. Irena has helped many couples support each other throughout the infertility experience. She offers online therapy for women and couples in Houston, the Woodlands, and New York City.
If you are considering sperm donation would like to schedule a session, email Dr. Irena for a free 10-minute video consultation: firstname.lastname@example.org or call (281)-267-1742.
Bugatti, A. (2018). We Heart Therapy In EP 3: EFT Talk: How to Explain EFT Emotionally Focused to Clients featuring EFT Trainer Kathryn Rheem, PhD.
Coan, J. A., Schaefer, H. S., & Davidson, R. J. (2006). Lending a hand: social regulation of the neural response to threat. Psychological Science, 17(12), 1032-1039. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01832.x
Johnson, S. (2008). Hold Me Tight. Little, Brown Spark.
Koser, K. (2020). Fertility Counseling With Couples: A Theoretical Approach. The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families, 28(I).
Najafi, M., Soleimani, A. A., Ahmadi, K., Javidi, N., & Kamkar, E. H. (2015). The Effectiveness of Emotionally Focused Therapy on Enhancing Marital Adjustment and Quality of Life among Infertile Couples with Marital Conflicts. International Journal of Fertility and Sterility, 9(2), 238-246. https://doi.org/10.22074/ijfs.2015.4245
Soltani, M., Shairi, M. R., Roshan, R., & Rahimi, C. R. (2014). The impact of emotionally focused therapy on emotional distress in infertile couples. International Journal of Fertility and Sterility, 7(4), 337-344.