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Staying in Sync: Changing Couple Conflict to Closeness During Fertility Treatment

Written by: Sharon N. Covington, MSW, LCSW-C, BCD
Director, Psychological Support Services

Director, Psychological Support ServicesInfertility is an inherently stressful experience, yet one of the stresses often not talked about in regard to infertility and your relationship is the conflict that can occur in a relationship during fertility treatment. Whether in a heterosexual or same sex relationship, couples often find that they feel and deal very differently from their partner regarding their emotional response to fertility treatment. This is not surprising as you each bring your own unique personality and life experiences into the relationship that will impact how you deal with your feelings. Understanding and being respectful of these personality differences, rather than qualify them as being “better or worse” than your own, is important.

Tips for Diminishing Conflict: Infertility and Your Relationship

Here are some techniques I have found to be very helpful over the years of working with couples in fertility treatment to assist in diminishing conflict and increasing closeness during fertility treatment:

  1. “You learn more from listening then you do from talking.”  This was something my father said to me as I was growing up and, as a therapist (and a wife), I have found it to be important words to live by. In the midst of a disagreement, you can believe that the more talking you do, the greater chance you will have to be able convince your partner of your point. The reality is seldom the case! It can be helpful to practice “active listening” techniques whereby one speaks and the other listens, and then reflects back what you hear your partner saying. Following up with a question, such as “Have I got that right?” or “Is there anything else?” can also be helpful.The point is that taking the time to truly listen to what your partner is saying may help bridge the gap and increase empathy. One of our most basic human needs is to feel truly understood and when you feel your partner “gets” you—what it is you are thinking and feeling—even though not necessarily agreeing with you, empathy is established.
  2. Apply the “20 Minute Rule.” An extension of #1 and a time-honored technique for communicating during infertility, it can be helpful to put boundaries around talking about a problem or worry. The rule is that a couple agrees to talk about infertility for 20 minutes every day—but only 20 minutes! A time is set during the day to talk (and literally setting a timer can be helpful) and you each get 10 minutes to talk about what you want while your partner listens, and then you switch positions. At the end of 20 minutes, the discussion is put on a shelf until the next day and the conversation moves on to other things. Couples find this technique extremely helpful, especially if one partner feels that if they start to talk it will never stop, while the other fears they will never talk.
  3. When at odds in decision-making, agree to switch and take on each other’s position for a week. It is quite common for couples to find they feel differently about what to do next in treatment, even finding themselves in polar opposite positions. When I am working with a couple and we are at an impasse in regards to a decision they are trying to make about treatment or family-building alternatives, I will have them physically switch places in the room. Then I will ask them to take on the persona of their partner and state exactly what it is their partner believes and feels about the issue. The partner listens, without commenting, and then confirms or corrects whether the other has got it right.Before they leave the session, the couples is given an assignment to continue this role, immersing themselves in learning all they can about their partner’s position. For example, if “A” wants to pursue adoption while “B” wants to use donor gametes, A will spend the week learning more about donor and B about adoption by reading, searching the internet, speaking to others, etc. Afterwards, you talk about what you have learned and how it has felt to go through this process. This technique often helps to shift things and open up the logjam.
  4. “A feeling shared is a feeling diminished”….except when its not! This is something I have frequently said to my clients in encouraging them to release difficult feelings they are holding in. While therapy is a process about getting feelings out so they can be understood and dealt with, constantly talking about the same thing over and over again with no change is not moving through it. As Einstein said, “Continuing to do the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.” So if you find your interactions sounding like a broken record, something isn’t working and changes need to be made. This may be a good time to seek out help from a mental health professional who is trained in fertility counseling to help you cope with infertility and your relationship.While conflict is a normal part of all relationships, how you handle it and the ways you find to work it through will have a profound effect on couple stability. In fact, being able to work though conflict by using some of these techniques will have a long-lasting effect on intimacy and closeness. Hence, conflict can create opportunities for closeness in a relationship rather than threatening it with emotional distance.

Sharon Covington, MSW, LCSW-C – Director:

Director of Psychological Support Services, Mrs. Covington is a licensed clinical social worker in Maryland and a Board Certified Diplomate in Clinical Social Work with over 40 years of experience as a psychotherapist. An internationally recognized leader on the psychological aspects of reproductive health, Mrs. Covington is an Assistant Clinical Professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Associate Investigator in the Intramural Research Program on Reproductive and Adult Endocrinology at the National Institutes of Health. She recently edited and authored Fertility Counseling: Clinical guide and Case Studies, and is the co-author and editor of the classic text Infertility Counseling: A Comprehensive handbook of Clinicians.

If you would like to find more support for coping with infertility and your relationship or would like to learn more about our individual or couple’s psychological support services offered through Shady Grove Fertility, call 301-279-9030 or sign up for a support group.

To schedule a new patient consultation at Shady Grove Fertility, please call 877-971-7755 or schedule an appointment online.

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