‘Trying to survive’: When infertility enters a relationship – Sydney Morning Herald

We feel like theres a dark cloud hovering over us constantly, Celeste says. Were dealing with the loss not just of our babies but of the life we envisioned for ourselves.

One in six couples in Australia are estimated to experience infertility and the number of people using assisted reproductive technology, such as IVF, is rising. Almost 75,000 cycles were recorded by Australian clinics in 2017 up from about 52,000 in 2007. One in 21 women who gave birth in 2017 used some form of treatment.

Amid the mental and physical anguish that comes with an infertility diagnosis, invasive medical treatments, exorbitant bills and a potential string of failures, there is also a toll on the relationship.

Tim says a contrast in coping mechanisms led to a communication breakdown earlier on. Celestes preference was to research comprehensively and to frequently discuss their situation, while Tim, a self-described optimist, preferred less talking and having faith.

It led to things getting a bit heated, he says. The struggle was really going back and forth within the house. Theres a certain level I can take. I need to function, I need to work ... If I dwell too much Ill shut down.

Tim says the subject remained touchy until about the third year, when he began to accept the reality of what they were facing. I realised I needed to pay more attention and take it more seriously It was a learning curve for me to be more present for what she was saying.

'Were dealing with the loss not just of our babies but of the life we envisioned for ourselves.'

Celeste says their biggest relationship test came last year, when their fourth round of IVF delivered no fertilised eggs a crushing result after months of painstaking preparation. The couple disagreed on whether it was time to call it a day.

We had the worst result possible, really, and when deciding whether we do another cycle, Tim was feeling like hed reached his threshold of how much his heart can take but I wasnt ready to stop trying, she says.

We talked about it and sat and talked and cried. It was hard for me to hear some of the things he was saying.

Tim, however, says he was upset and very angry after years of the same devastating result.It was playing on my mind: When do we stop? When does this obsession become unhealthy?

After days of talking and listening, they agreed to keep trying. They later also saw a counsellor.We're lucky that it has brought us closer together.

They say their experience has made them stronger and taught them to appreciate that while they have each other, support from others is also invaluable and helps reduce the load on their marriage.

Celeste found solace in her online community after creating a YouTube channel, taking some of the pressure off Tim.

Tim, meanwhile, has two close friends he confides in to decompress and help him avoid directing frustrations towards Celeste.I might say I want to give up in some moment of weakness, but I would never say that to Celeste ... it's not what I really want.

Infertility researchers say patients often report feelings of depression, anxiety, isolation and loss of control, as well as shame, guilt and low self-esteem. Couples may then experience distress due to differences in perspectives, coping strategies and communication.

A 2014 Danish study of 47,515 infertile women found that 12 years after their first fertility evaluation, 27 per cent were no longer with their partner. And a study in China reported that infertile couples were twice as likely as fertile couples to divorce.

But for other couples, the joint hardship brings them closer. In one study, 37 per cent of women reported that IVF had a positive impact on their marriage.

Based on research and personal observations, there are two categories of people. For some couples, it glues them together Then theres another group where the opposite happens, says Dr Karin Hammarberg, a senior researcher at the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority and Monash University.

Hammarberg says there is generally low understanding of how hard infertility can be on couples. Dont underestimate the difficulty for couples ... Infertility is more than just the treatments, its really the whole journey. Its sometimes many years of frustrating and unsuccessful attempts to do something that people never think will be a problem.

Common issues for infertile couples include feeling guilt or resentment, disagreeing on when to start or end treatment and disagreeing on when to get support from others. Sex life, financial stress, isolation and poor communication can also cause strain.

Fertility psychologist Dianna-Lee Daniels, a member of the Fertility Society of Australia, says relationship trouble during infertility is absolutely normal and usually occurs because people are uncertain of how to think, feel or behave.

They dont know how to help each other, Daniels says. In the past if they had a problem they would turn to their partner and work it out, but with infertility they cant do that ... Not knowing what is happening to your body, yourself and your relationship is extremely frightening.

Daniels says that while infertility often negatively affects couples, most manage to work through their grief and are able to reconnect even stronger.

Cara and Adam Steggles with eight-month-old daughter Evie who was born after three rounds of IVF. Credit:Edwina Pickles

That was the experience for Sydney couple Cara and Adam Steggles, founders of Fertility Support Australia.Over five gruelling years, Cara had three surgeries for endometriosis and the couple endured three IVF rounds, seven embryo transfer procedures and two miscarriages before finally having baby Evie in April 2019.

Adam, 37, likens infertility to having a debilitating illness that no one knows about.

Cara, 33, recalls battling immense guilt, feeling she had let Adam down. If someone you love wants kids, you want them to have kids. At one of my lowest points I told him its OKif you want to leave me because I cant give you children. That was really tough, she says.

'Its one of the toughest things you can go through together.'

Adam says his biggest challenges were feeling helpless and realising he had to change for Cara because he partly had his head in the sand.

I left a lot of decisions to her, which probably added to her stress and anxiety Subconsciously I was a bit scared of it all and more withdrawn about it, he says. In our relationship Cara is the more assertive one, driving where were going. Its not my natural thing to step up and be in charge of things, and in this process thats what Cara needed from me sometimes.

He says Cara helped him deal with it by explaining she needed him to make certain decisions. So he did. And it made a difference, he says, because it wasnt all on her.

Cara says infertility tests every single facet of your relationship emotionally, financially, sexually but she is proud of how she and Adam overcame it.

Youre talking about the most intimate of things You have to really work together, agreeing on where the money goes, where you draw the line, she says. Its really, really hard as a couple. Its one of the toughest things you can go through together.

But when I look at what it gave us, it gave us more time as a married couple and more time together to be on the same page.

Hammarberg says couples going through infertility should negotiate how to manage it together and try not to let it contaminate every other part of their life.

It can go on for years and years. Find pleasure in other things together, actively do things together to maintain what was there from the beginning, dont focus all your energy on this, there has to be balance, she says.

For all couples, its a learning curve Kindness and understanding go a really long way. If you have that for each other, then a lot of strain can be reduced.

Psychologist Dianne-Lee Daniels suggests these strategies:

Daniels encourages couples to talk openly with each other, ask for help, learn compassion for both themselves and their partner and accept its OK to express anger or sadness as long as it's not directed at the other person. She encourages people anyone who is struggling to seek professional support.

Tim and Celeste are hoping surrogacy brings the miracle they have been longing for, and urge other couples to stay connected.

It will test your relationship, but it wont break you if you communicate, Tim says.

Celeste, who has written a book titled Little Dream, says while the couple's finances remain under stress, they ensure they still do things together they enjoy such as brunch, movies, gardening instead of being consumed by infertility.

Tim and Celeste want other couples struggling with infertility to know they are not alone.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

Celeste says taking a small break to focus on just your partner and what is important to you both can be hugely helpful.I know a lot of couples dont survive it, because it is a lot, Celeste says. Weve just been really conscious of that and made sure we communicate and are always there for each other.

She encourages anyone who is struggling to seek some of the many others going through the same thing, online or offline: You really arent alone.

Sophie is a homepage editor, digital journalist and producer for The Age.

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'Trying to survive': When infertility enters a relationship - Sydney Morning Herald

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