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Researchers are Stunned that Infertility is Stressful

US News and World Report covered a study last week that found that women who don’t have a child after fertility treatments (adoption wasn’t mentioned, and I don’t think it was specifically tracked within the context of this study*) are three times more likely to divorce than women who do.  27% of the women overall were not living with their partner anymore, though a larger chunk of that 27% were women without children than women with children.  I didn’t read the whole study to see if the researchers noted that people with children were less likely overall to get divorced in the first place:

For couples without children, the divorce rate in 1948 was 15.3 per 1,000. Where one child was present, the estimate rate was 11.6 per 1,000. The figure thus continues to decrease, and in families with four or more children, it was 4.6. Altogether, the rate for couples with children was 8.8 per 1,000. In other words, the rate for ‘childless’ couples was almost double the rate for families with children.

So the fact that childless couples after infertility divorce at a higher rate than parenting couples after infertility reflects the overall divorce discrepancy between childless and parenting couples without infertility, though I’m not sure if anyone has studied the role children play in the reasoning (or logistics) of couples remaining intact.

Anyway, despite the fact that this is the way statistics go, with or without infertility, the researchers in Denmark were still shocked:

“We already knew that having fertility problems is very stressful for couples but I was surprised that the effect lasted so long.”

Uh… yeah.  The rest of us, the ones living with infertility, sort of already knew that.

Infertility is enormously stressful since there is no way to live your life and avoid triggers that remind you of your situation, such as the numerous children you encounter on any given day.  It puts a huge emotional strain on a person, a huge financial strain, a physical strain.  Infertility is a giant suckhole that takes over every aspect of your life and calendar if you don’t hold it at bay.  And really, how many of us are any good at holding that monster at bay?  I certainly wasn’t.  Take into account, also, that infertility is tied to sex, and sex is tied to relationships, and the whole thing becomes a jumble of conflicted emotions around timed intercourse and having your sex life dictated (or restricted) by a doctor.  There is nothing romantic about making a baby with a half dozen other people in the room.

And yes, that stress follows you beyond the immediate period of family building.  That is because — as we’ve said all along, children resolve childlessness, but they don’t resolve infertility.  Infertility needs to be resolved on its own, and it can be resolved with or without children.

My larger question is what are we going to do with the results of this study?

We now have this information in black and white, but knowing things just for knowing’s sake seems like a waste of funding dollars.  Will counseling be offered as part of fertility clinic services; will it be covered by insurance to ensure that people are given coping mechanisms?  The religious right is keen on keeping couples together: will they do everything in their power to ensure that couples are given the necessary support so they can come through a crisis like infertility intact?  Will people finally understand why asking, “when will you ever be over it?” isn’t helpful?  Perhaps, as is clear from this study, some of us will never be “over it.”  Life will continue, and it will be lived — and it may even be lived very well.  But that doesn’t mean that infertility doesn’t continue to affect a person emotionally (or memories of the time period) long after it is resolved.  Resolution — like many things — is a process rather than a single moment in time.

Infertility is stressful.  I hope studies like these pave the way for emotional support becoming a given along with treating the physical side of infertility.

* In other words, because they were solely looking at people who were getting services at a fertility clinics, and then who had children years later, there was not (as far as I can tell) a specific breakdown of those who conceived via treatments, those who are parenting after adoption, or what role not utilizing treatments at all and going straight to adoption played in the end results.


1 a { 02.04.14 at 8:53 am }

Did US News get some good feedback on that? Because the article was taken down rather quickly…

2 Karen (formerly Serenity) { 02.04.14 at 8:55 am }

I think the effect on marriages goes beyond timed sex and reminders of what people don’t have.

For me, (remember, we got really super lucky and won the lottery and were able to HAVE a kid!) not being able to bear the children I want without significant intervention has affected me as a woman.

It’s like my broken uterus makes me feel as if I am less of a woman. Which therefore affects my ability to be intimate with my husband and therefore directly affects the happiness of our marriage.

It also makes me question whether we were a good match to begin with. His low sperm count, my broken uterus. If he was with a woman who was fertile, he might have a chance of having his two kids. If I was with a man with a higher sperm count, I could at least keep getting pregnant (never mind that I’d lose them – at least I’d still have a chance of GETTING pregnant).

It’s all garbage thinking, but it’s hard to shake. And we’re emotionally tired from the marathon of fertility treatments. Often I wonder if the only reason we actually put in the work to make our relationship better is because of our son.

So I can see how couples who don’t end up bringing home a child divorce more for certain.

But then again, I’m living life with infertility. Which is kind of your point. 🙂

3 Heather { 02.04.14 at 9:04 am }

What about couples who are not on the same page after fertility treatments? I.e. one person wants to pursue adoption or donor sperm/eggs the other wants to live child-free. I would think that could be a catalyst for divorce. There really is no compromise when it comes to having children. Infertility, the gift that keeps on giving.

4 gwinne { 02.04.14 at 9:53 am }

I needed this today.

I’m having one of those infertility “suckhole” days despite having resolved my “childlessness.” Got the kid. Still infertile. Still got those embryos in the freezer and papers to sign…

5 deathstar { 02.04.14 at 11:37 am }

Oh, man did infertility shatter me. Caused another episode of depression, self loathing, marriage breakdown….really I try not to think of those dark days when it just seemed to permeate every thought in my head. I was with my husband 5 years before we got married. And then I spent 5 years trying to get pregnant. And almost 2 years waiting to adopt. Fun times. It was a load of laughs trying to figure out to either buy a home or have a kid. Honestly, we could only afford to do ONE. Of course, half of marriages end in divorce anyway. But I’m pretty sure that if we didn’t have a kid now, we’d be one of those on the bad side of statistics.

6 Melissa N. { 02.04.14 at 12:49 pm }

Oh goodness, can I relate. Together for 7 years before we got married, been married for 8 years this year, trying for a baby for going on 5. We have (to date) spent approximately $15, 000 on infertility treatments. But while the financial loss has been significant, it is nothing compared to the emotional. Infertility has robbed me/us of so much over the years and it’s taken a long time to regain some of what I’d lost: self-esteem, self-respect, self-confidence, a positive sense of self. I lost who I was and on top of it all, my marriage suffered. I was angry at myself, at my body, and felt like less than what I felt my husband deserved. I shut down and shut him out. Because I was hurting, I neglected to see his pain. We have taken a break from it all for a bit over a year to rediscover each other and reconnect and it has been the best decision- thankful for healing and second chances.

I know that our family will be built one way or another. It is a matter of when and how. But I know that my heart and mind will always bear the scars of what we’ve endured. I wish it were different, but it’s not. Frankly, I find it insulting that researchers were surprised and I find it insulting that a study had to be conducted to arrive at the conclusion that infertility is stressful…but I know that we are a numbers society.

Best of luck to all still embarking on their path to parenthood and lots of love to those who have achieved their dream but still struggle with the aftermath of, as Heather put it, the gift that keeps on giving. You are not alone, no matter where you fall on this spectrum!

7 Alexicographer { 02.04.14 at 1:39 pm }

I’ve just skimmed the whole article, and I don’t see a reference to the relative risk of divorce between parents and non-parents, so (though I might have missed it), I don’t think they control for that. I would guess that the stats for that difference in contemporary Denmark are quite different from those for 1950s US, though.

As far as I could tell from the authors’ language, they looked only at children added to the family by being born into it, and not to children welcomed into the family through adoption.

I did think it was interesting that mothers who already had a child before seeking infertility treatment were more, not less, likely to get divorced (or end cohabitation) after not bearing another child, than were women who did not have any child at all (none born before, and none after, treatment). As the study doesn’t provide information about the children’s fathers, it’s impossible to know how frequently such women (those who were already mothers) were seeking to have a child with a new partner, versus having another child with the father of their existing child(ren), though I can imagine that might have contributed to the relatively larger likelihood of women who were already moms divorcing.

I also thought it was interesting that the relative likelihood of divorce was highest in the first year after the consult and declined each year after that. To me, that suggests that it’s not the experience of infertility per se, but something about the ability to agree (or not) on a course of action moving forward. But it’s impossible to know from this study what explains that pattern, so … further research is needed!

8 Ren { 02.04.14 at 1:45 pm }

As an almost divorced woman – I do believe that infertility played a part in our relationship breakdown. We never reached the fertility treatment phase because he kept losing his jobs and so we were financially not in a place to spend money on doctors, let alone a child.

Everything started to go downhill when we were only one of two childless couples in our group of friends – and the other couple were focused on their band, and were not sure they ever wanted children.

His not being able to ejaculate definitely effected our sex life, which could have played a part in his cheating. I still don’t really know as the bigger issue we had was a complete breakdown in communication.

Part of me is glad we don’t have kids to complicate the divorce – but if we had kids, would we be getting divorced? It just makes my head run in circles.

9 Heather { 02.04.14 at 1:50 pm }

I’ve been sitting with this all morning.
Infertility is like any other medical issue that couples face. It’s a big stressor on the marriage in so many ways: emotional, financial, societal. However, it is still seen as a lifestyle problem. Which is quite ridiculous. I hope, like you, that this study opens up the doors to more support for infertility after treatments ends, no matter what the result.

10 Sharon { 02.04.14 at 1:58 pm }

Honestly, the results of this study make me want to say “well, duh!” Any experience as stressful as infertility will put strain on a marriage.

However, while I *do* think that infertility is, in some ways, a unique stressor on a marriage, for the reasons you’ve talked about, there are certainly other stressors I can think about that might also lead to divorce. . . serious illness or injury to one of the spouses, death of a child, and job loss are just a few that come to mind.

Sadly, oftentimes we find that when our marriages (indeed, all relationships) are tested by stress, they break instead of strengthen. We learn that our partner doesn’t support us in the way we had hoped or doesn’t want the same things, maybe because they never did, or because this stressful experience has changed them in some way.

I don’t know that we can conclude, though, that the mere fact that these marriages did not last the test of this stressor means that the divorces were universally a bad outcome. In some cases, yes, but maybe not in all. Sometimes divorce is the right choice and people are happier for having made it.

11 loribeth { 02.04.14 at 3:39 pm }

As Sharon already said, “Well, duhhhhhh.” :p It would be nice, as you said, if this helps the fertility industry pay more attention to the emotional aspects of infertility, because heaven knows, we need all the support we can get…!

I sometimes tell people that infertility & loss helped bring dh & me closer together, and that I knew we could have a good childless/free life together — because we already did, before we ever began ttc. That’s mostly true — but I certainly can’t deny there weren’t some bumps & strains along the way. It’s definitely not the way we pictured our life together unfolding — but then we did promise “for better or for worse.” We just got our share of “worse” a bit earlier than some people. Hopefully, we’ll get a break elsewhere, right??

I do think infertility has a way of exacerbating any problems & strains that may have already been there. It certainly doesn’t help!

12 Maria { 02.04.14 at 5:28 pm }

I really want to say “duh” right now. Ha! I’m not sure how the researchers were so stunned. Recently, I’ve come across many RE’s offices offering/promoting/suggesting/making mandatory pre- and post-treatment counseling for those dealing with IF. I’m hopeful this practice will continue to spread due to studies like this one that confirm (yet again) that infertility is a gigantic life crisis not to be taken lightly.

13 Brid { 02.04.14 at 7:32 pm }

It is all encompassing changing… life changing, personality changing even… for me anyhow. I think when we were in the first few years of secondary infertility, it brought us closer, we were more careful, gentle with each other. Now, eight years later, he wants to give up, but I don’t think I can, even though the ticking clock is getting very loud. Our one son is nearly 10. This difference is getting pretty tough, but I am quite certain it would not lead to divorce. Perhaps if we didn’t have one already… I feel like it’s almost counter productive to study such things if you aren’t going to factor in the immeasurable variables… I suppose it needs a vast number of studies, then have them lit reviewed to make it make sense. Not going to change things much for people in the middle of it, my guess.

14 A. { 02.05.14 at 7:00 am }

“Infertility is a giant suckhole that takes over every aspect of your life and calendar if you don’t hold it at bay.” Yes! And they’re surprised by the research because you have to be “in it” to understand the degree to which the above statement is true. How many other health problems have such a dramatic impact on what the rest of your daily life will look like? Terminal cancer? Paralysis? It’s one thing when treatment works and another entirely when you learn, after all that you’ve endured and sacrificed, that you’re powerless to achieve a “cure” and you just have to live with your new normal. Yeah…why can’t we just get over it?

15 fifi { 02.05.14 at 3:41 pm }

It’s easy to say “duh” when you’ve been through it, but it’s not so obvious for people who haven’t. Even when I was in the middle of things, I convinced myself that I was coping, I was fine. So i had long spells of crying and sleepless nights and pondered aloud what was the point of my life…. It was only when my husband dragged me to the doctor, who said I was demonstrating several signs of clinical depression, “which is not surprising.” Not surprising to my doctor, but certainly I had a hard time admitting I’d been affected so badly.
Our fertility clinic offered the names of counsellors, but otherwise I feel that our mental health was never considered. If my husband hadn’t recognised that my behavior was not normal, I might never have got the help I needed and our marriage might have been in serious trouble.

16 Lori Lavender Luz { 02.06.14 at 12:00 pm }

What Heather said (the first Heather, above): “There really is no compromise when it comes to having children.” It’s all yes or no. There is no in between in any of these: “shall we continue this path?” “shall we try something else?” “shall we stop altogether?” Can be very difficult to stake out common ground.

17 Jamie { 02.07.14 at 12:49 am }

Thank you for posting this article. While it seems to be stating obvious concerns about the negative impact of infertility on marriage, it is still important to have it acknowledged and the heartbreaking difficulties validated. I don’t know of many who want to talk about divorce and infertility. It seems like a taboo subject within infertility. Who really wants to talk about divorce as a possible outcome when facing infertility? It can feel very lonely being in the group of divorce after infertility. It is hurt on top of more hurt. Not only do you not have the child you longed for in your arms, but you no longer have the person who you thought would stand with you through it all. I didn’t want my marriage to end. I tried everything that I could do to save it. Infertility was definitely a factor in the demise of the relationship. He was in denial about his diagnosis and it hurt me so to see him struggle with it. He blamed me and made poor choices. It wasn’t a lack in agreement in plan. We both did not want to pursue donor sperm or donor embryo. It was his idea to pursue adoption, which I wanted. But I felt we needed something more, that we were missing something or skipping a step. It was emotional healing that I wanted and needed for me and for us. But sadly we live in a society that says to get over it, like it is no big deal. You cannot ignore emotional pain without consequences. But it takes two to want to keep the relationship together. I can only own my part. Even when things end with divorce, it is not necessarily a lack of trying. However, I will say that I have a greater respect and value of relationship over baby. For me, I want a partner first and a baby would be an added blessing.

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