IVF can be a stressful time in a relationship; it can put a strain on even the strongest relationships and although success rates are rising, IVF still fails more than it succeeds.
For couples who have been trying for anything from six to 18 months, a lot of emotional and relationship factors start to come into play. Some couples find that this shared aim brings them closer together, but often couples can start to feel demoralized and pretty hopeless.
In my first session with each couple I always ask a crucial question: How far are you prepared to go to have a baby?
Couples just starting out do not realize how important this question is. When you first start trying, you’re probably only looking ahead six months or so, and are still very optimistic.
The hard this is that as time goes there are many things you may have to negotiate: IVF, egg donation, adoption, for example. And these won’t be easy conversations. Where you are on the road now, and the effort, time and money you’ve already spent getting here, will make a difference to the outcome and how far you are prepared to go. Couples are usually unaware that there will be obstacles to encounter and overcome with every success and failure.
I find that this initial important question makes couples think realistically for the first time, about what the quest for a baby might really mean. Sometimes there is a difference of opinion, which can come as a surprise and is important to discuss. Without agreement on how far a couple want to go to achieve a pregnancy, issues arising from any difference of opinion between partners can lead to tension later on.
Couples often become anxious and anti-social, social gatherings can become a nightmare when their friends and family constantly ask questions such as. ‘When are you starting a family?’ Comments like this may be well meaning, but can result in anger, envy and jealousy, which can in turn lead to feelings of self-hatred. And the stress of it can all lead to quite severe anxiety and depression. It’s hard on both partners, but women in particular can become obsessed with their monthly cycle, focusing on every aspect of their lives on getting pregnant.
Sometimes couples become so involved in each other’s biological details that all the mystique goes out of the relationship. A couple’s sex life is very important, whatever the circumstances. It is one of the best forms of physical and sensual communication, and can be enormously restorative to a relationship under strain.
What can often happen if a couple are beginning to feel rather desperate about getting pregnant is that all the joy and romance of their lovemaking can go out of the window. At my clinic I often hear stories from couples who say their sex has become mechanical; the woman is only interesting in sex when she is ovulating which causes resentment in her partner, or that they’ve started arguing and are failing to have sex at all.
It is essential for couples to keep communicating during the IVF process. I look for opportunities to encourage couples to share their feelings, ideas and even their resentments. I also recommend couples counselling for those for whom the situation has become too difficult to deal with. It is far too easy to become estranged through the process of trying to get pregnant. In some cases, I have found that men seem to accept the situation more readily than women. The man may be more relaxed about getting on with life, while his partner may interpret this as a lack of commitment, especially is she is researching on the internet, and wanting to focus on getting pregnant almost to the exclusion of anyone or anything else. Understandably, many men get fed up, and this can exacerbate the situation still further.
For those women obsessing about ovulation and insisting on sex there and then, I tell them to stop taking their temperature, throw away their charts, take a break and put some energy into the relationship, for their own sake. Get romantic be seductive and take time out together for a walk, a nice meal, a massage, anything shared that can lead to sex within the context of a loving relationship – the same relationship into which you want to bring a baby. The other good thing about having a good, regular sex life is that it creates a natural high, releasing mood enhancing endorphins.
Very often, a few sessions of skilled couples-counselling is all that is needed to bridge the gap, allowing partners to express their feelings and their views, relieve tension, reduce blame and establish a united platform from which to proceed.