What Men Should Know About Emotions and Infertility
Men: you can express yourself during infertility without becoming an emotional burden.
Many men are often socialized into believing they need to be the “emotional rock.” We can often feel we’re failing if our fears and vulnerabilities are poking at our insides. It can make us worried that we’re not living up to be the men we’re supposed to be.
It’s during these difficult times that we have the opportunity to turn to the people whom we trust and who care about us to share these insecurities. But often, especially regarding fertility, men are reluctant to express their anger and worries to their partner. They rightly know that their female partner has a different role to play in pregnancy (obvious, right?) and often don’t want to look like they’re competing for who has it harder.
Still, remaining the “rock” doesn’t do anyone any favors—and can backfire. Finding a way to be compassionate with yourself and your partner may be the key to coping.
Telling Someone How You Feel is Not an Invitation for Them to Change You
There’s a stereotype that men expect you to fix their problems while women just want you to listen to their problems. It’s a stereotype that certainly does not hold up with all men and women, yet men are socialized to “fix.” In fact, our worth as a man sometimes feels like it comes from our ability to fix.
This may be as concrete as something around the house, but it’s also about fixing other people’s negative feelings (negative feelings can include sadness, fear, worry, anxiety—basically anything that’s vulnerable.)
Given this belief, it’s understandable why we don’t want to express our vulnerabilities that often—if we do, someone will try to fix them. And that’s a burden on them. And if the situation we’re talking about is a heterosexual couple struggling to become parents and you are the guy, well, the last thing you want to do is burden your wife or girlfriend with, not only the physical and emotional struggle she’s going through but with your struggle as well.
In fact, you’re attempting to do your job as the male partner by being strong and shielding her from having to manage your vulnerabilities and insecurities because she’s got enough of her own.
You sharing your fear that you won’t have a child, your anger that this isn’t easier, your guilt that you may have waited too long, your shame that your sperm could have something to do with all of this, is not an invitation for your partner to take that pain away at her expense. It may just be what it is: your sharing of your experience so you don’t have to hold it in and deal with it alone.
And it may help her feel less alone as well.
Your “Rock” May Be Interpreted as a Stone Wall
There are many reasons why holding all these emotions is bad for you, but a major one is how it can backfire.
Time and again I’ve had men in my office tell me how they’re holding in all their worries and anger so she’s not burdened by it, but then they’re accused of not caring about having a baby, or of not really wanting to be a father—or are even accused of not caring about their partner.
They’re often pretty shocked by this because he’s unaware that his “staying strong” is being interpreted as “being apathetic.”
Unfortunately, what it ends up doing is reinforcing her loneliness and feeling that she’s the one doing all the work to get this done—even if he’s showing up to doctor’s appointments and following all the scheduled tasks and timetables.
And the vicious circle continues because he doesn’t want to push back because he loves her and he’s going to continue to “take care” of her by letting her have her feelings and getting angry at him. But he does this by continuing to show up as a wall.
And the couple becomes more and more distant and alone.
Sharing the Struggle Can Bring You Closer
This isn’t how it has to be.
This is where the topic of compassion comes in.
I like this word because it literally means “to suffer together” and when we are able to share our suffering, not compete for who is suffering the most or to hide my suffering from you, it’s very powerful and connecting.
This is why groups have always been so important and effective. Not just professional support groups, but it’s why during times of crises we all show up at the hospital even though we may not be doctors or nurses or why funerals and wakes are so important—people come together over a shared reason to grieve or fear. And not be alone.
Not much about infertility can be made easy, and those negative feelings aren’t taken away by expressing them to each other, but the loneliness, which is often the real killer for couples, can be soothed.
The sense that fertility struggles are wholly your fault, your doing, or your responsibility, are not necessary and they’re incredibly unhelpful.
Compassion makes the pain and suffering more bearable.
Coping With Infertility and Beyond
Times of crisis encourage us to reach deeper than our normal coping strategies. If you are able to find support and strength in each other during a scary, unpredictable, and exhausting time in your relationship, do so. For many men, I’m asking you to do something that you’re not comfortable doing in the best of circumstances and that you may have had minimal practice.
Still, if you are able to be aware of the fears and discomfort that are arising in you and able to share your experience with your partner, you will be doing both of you a favor. Your ability to move through this together with honesty and trust will also lay the groundwork for what is hopefully your next great adventure: modeling all of this for your child.
Written by Justin Lioi, LCSW | Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) focused on Counselling for Men
Justin Lioi, is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) focused on men’s mental health and relationship expert. He is a New York-based psychotherapist with a teletherapy practice throughout New York State and internationally. He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and is a requested presenter on topics such as fatherhood, assertiveness, anger, and self-compassion. His writing can be found on The Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, and Good Therapy.