Most couples keep their struggles with infertility private, opening up to only a few trusted family members and friends, as well as their medical team. If a friend or family member opens up to you about dealing with infertility, it’s natural to want to jump and offer something to reassure them.
Typically, our first instinct in sensitive situations is often to minimize—to make the problem of infertility seem less troubling than it appears.
That’s a mistake.
Unless you’ve directly struggled with infertility yourself, it’s easy to downplay the emotions that come from being unable to start the family you desperately want. Grief, sadness, guilt, low self-esteem, anger, and depression often results from fertility issues. Here, we cover five well-meaning but heartbreaking phrases couples struggling through infertility hear far too often.
1. “Just relax”, “It’s all in your head”
The belief that infertility can be stress-related is common. You may assume that a couple is just being impatient, or that the root of their infertility is the stress that comes from worrying about it.
The truth is, infertility isn’t just in people’s heads, and it can’t be beaten with just an attitude shift.
Infertility is a real medical issue. The Centers for Disease Control defines infertility as the inability to conceive after one year of unprotected sex (6 months for women over 35). The CDC estimates that nearly one in eight couples of childbearing age suffers from infertility.
Moreover, there is no proven correlation between stress and infertility. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine makes it clear: “It is not known whether high levels of stress can prevent pregnancy or affect a woman’s chance of conceiving.”
Diminishing the inability to conceive down to stress can make it feel like you’re casting blame. A sense of being blamed is stressful for the couple, at a time when they likely are already feeling intense guilt and insecurity.
2. “It’ll happen naturally”
Similarly, it’s easy to assume pregnancy will happen in its own time. Many couples do in fact need a few attempts to conceive, and it sounds reassuring to tell a couple pregnancy will happen naturally. That’s what’s meant to happen, right?
But there is a major difference between a few months of trying and medically-defined infertility.
Unexpected pregnancies can and do surprise couples, but infertile couples typically aren’t so lucky—that’s why they seek help to start a family. Far from being reassuring, advising a couple that “it will happen eventually” suggests that you don’t really understand what that couple is really going through.
3. “Maybe it’s just not meant to happen”
Another approach often heard is saying that if it doesn’t happen, it’s not meant to happen.
If the couple is still seeking fertility treatment, they haven’t given up on starting a family. Fertility treatments require a massive effort and amount of time, as well as a deep emotional commitment. Couples determined to pursue fertility treatments will not want to hear such fatalisms about their chances.
There may come a time when the thought that ‘what will be, will be,’ is comforting to a couple struggling with infertility, but it’s unlikely to be in the midst of the stresses of treatment.
4. “But you have so much to be thankful for!”
Most people have a great deal to be thankful for, no matter what they’re going through. While this advice may be true, it’s not actually helpful.
As RESOLVE: the National Infertility Association explains, couples trying and failing to conceive a child aren’t just experiencing disappointment – they are simultaneously experiencing intense feelings of both grief and loss, as well as suffering a shattering of self-esteem:
As repeated attempts to get pregnant come to naught, there is a realization that this intensely strived-for goal has not been, and may never be, attained. As this failure becomes more and more evident, one’s self-image is assaulted. It is easy to move from procedures that have failed to the feeling that “I am a failure.”
People living with infertility issues are not just indulging feelings of disappointment and sadness. They are working through intense grief, guilt, and anger. Asking them to put those difficult feelings in perspective simple won’t make them disappear – they must be worked through.
5. “Kids can be a nightmare”
You may complain about pregnancy and raising children, thinking that a friend or loved one will take some comfort in recognizing the downsides of starting a family, and be thankful for what he or she has.
Untrue. For many couples dealing with infertility, even the mention of children can be painful. Many couples find that simple attending events where there will be children is too difficult to handle. The holiday season in particular is especially hard—RESOLVE even advises couples to avoid holiday gatherings if they worry they might not be able to cope.
Be aware that children can be a sensitive subject—never assume that hearing about the downsides of having kids will make infertility easier to bear. A couple struggling with infertility wants to experience all aspects of parenthood, from the frustrations to the joys.
If you need further advice and resources on coping with infertility, RESOLVE’s website offers a trove of stories, facts, and support for people at all stages of the fertility journey. The Aspire Fertility Patients and Family page also explains many of the experiences that couples with fertility issues go through.