Many couples come to me for therapy to help them cope with the stress of infertility. When struggling with this issue, society tends to focus on the woman’s feelings, while the man is often forgotten. This is likely because men usually share their feelings less than women do, and so it is assumed they are nott suffering as much. This is not true. Men suffer differently depending on whether the problem is with them or with their wives, but they suffer just as acutely.
How men experience infertility
When it is not male factor infertility, the husband also suffers while watching his wife go through treatments. There is also the internal struggle and sense of loss for men when realizing they may not be able to have a biological child. Traditionally, a man may feel like it is his job to take care of his family. Seeing a wife so sad may make a man feel helpless and like a failure. And because men generally try to “fix things,” he is likely to experience a rollercoaster of emotions around his sense of powerlessness. With each new treatment he may think, “This time it will work. This will fix it.” He has confidence in the science, and then the science fails him. Not only does he once again have his hopes of paternity dashed, he has to watch his wife go through her sorrow again.
When the husband is the one with the fertility problem, many more emotions come into play. The male self-identity is closely connected with a sense of virility. To have to admit that he cannot have biological children is a terrible blow to the male ego. And besides watching his wife suffer and not being able to help her, he now feels the terrible burden of guilt for being the cause of her pain. He also feels the cultural burden of “passing on the family genes” or “the family name” which he will now not be able to pass on to a biological child.
Men are generally less likely to talk about their emotions, but this tendency is heightened when dealing with infertility. A man usually feels like he has to “stay strong” so that he doesn’t add to the burden of pain his wife is enduring. And if he is the cause, he has the added perception that he’s not “man enough.”
How to help
Men need to address their emotions as much as women do, for their own mental health and for the health of their relationships. In counseling, I help couples find ways to draw closer together during this difficult time. But men need other outlets, as well. If you have a friend dealing with infertility, here’s what you can do:
- Ask how he is doing. He may not tell you, but let him know you’re available. Eventually he might open up. Don’t offer advice, just listen.
- Get him out exercising. It provides a healthy outlet for pent-up frustration and relieves stress. Excess stress can lead to depression, so getting out there and exercising might actually enable a man to cope better with his situation.
- Help him stay involved in activities he enjoys and in which he feels some measure of control. This may help combat his feelings of helplessness.
Men suffer from infertility differently than women, but just as acutely. I’m here to help them with counseling, but as a culture, we need to become more aware of this fact and be ready to lend our emotional support.