Fatherly Advice – How Infertility Counseling Can Help Men
Whether we’re men or women, most of us expect that we’ll be able to have children if and when we decide we’re ready. It’s an assumption that typically goes unchallenged … that is, at least until we’re ready and find we can’t.
Unfortunately, as many as one in ten couples experience some type of infertility, and it’s not uncommon for an infertility diagnosis to lead to some type of life crisis.
An infertility diagnosis represents countless unknowns … What types of treatment are available? Will any of them work? How long will infertility last? What will the outcome be? What will life be a like as a childless couple? … The questions can seem both all-consuming and endless.
And if you think only women suffer emotionally from all of these concerns, think again.
The emotional pain, grief, anxiety, depression, and loss that often accompany an infertility diagnosis, the financial strain of infertility testing and treatment, and the headache of making sense of all of the treatment options and choosing which one or ones make the most sense for your partner and you, affect men just as much as women.
Given all of this, it should come as little surprise that infertility can have a significant negative impact on both partners in a couple as well as their marital and sexual relationship.
Infertility is a multilayered and complex experience that spans the physical, emotional, social, relational, financial and psychological domains of both the individuals and couples going through it.
Unfortunately, while it’s not uncommon for individual women and couples to seek infertility counseling to help make sense of and cope with some or all of these issues, it is relatively uncommon for men to seek infertility counseling on their own.
Overcoming the Stigma of Male Infertility
Infertility has long been considered a “couples problem” because, regardless of which partner is found to be responsible for the reproductive difficulties, both partners must work together to remedy the situation.
Nevertheless, it is believed that at least half of all infertility issues can be traced to what is known as “male-factor infertility” – that is, the reproductive problems lie with the man and are caused by such factors as low sperm count, poor sperm quality, or both. Other causes of male infertility include hormonal imbalances, anatomical issues, and genetic defects.
In fact, statistics indicate that 33% of infertilities are caused solely by male factors, 33% are the result of pure female-factor infertility, and 33% result from a combination of both male- and female-factor infertility.
Yet, despite the evidence that male infertility is just as much of an issue as female-factor infertility, public awareness of this fact appears limited, if not absent.
Both the medical and scientific communities as well as mainstream and popular media have focused much greater attention on the treatment of infertility in women than in men.
Well, one reason may well be the types and numbers of specialists practicing reproductive medicine.
The American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) has reported that as much as 65% of its membership is made up of obstetricians and gynecologists, whereas less than 10% of its members are male specialists such as urologists or andrologists.
Another reason may be that male infertility is often circumvented rather than treated directly, such as by using donor sperm with artificial insemination, or combining IVF with ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection), for which only one living sperm is required per egg.
Regrettably, the psychological literature has paralleled this pattern of ignoring male-related infertility issues and focused much more attention on women’s emotional responses to infertility.
In general, many mental health professionals see infertility as something that takes less of an emotional toll on the male partner and men have often been relegated to the role of a “hand-holder” – the person in charge of providing support for his partner during her grieving process.
Part of this may be due to the fact that the more stressful infertility treatments – such egg collection and hormonal injections – fall upon the female.
However, a much more likely explanation for this lack of attention on the male in infertility are society’s gender roles and expectations.
Mothering has long been held to be much more integral to a woman’s identity than fathering is for a man. Additionally, men are typically encouraged to suppress emotions. Unfortunately, this leaves little room for men to deal with their own feelings of sadness and loss surrounding an infertility diagnosis.
It seems society and the medical profession have inadvertently conspired to underestimate or ignore men’s responsibilities and roles in the infertility process.
Fortunately, some patient advocacy organizations such as RESOLVE and Path 2 Parenthood do provide male-focused materials on their websites as well as some in person and online support groups. However, it is still relatively rare for men to value or take advantage of such support. In fact, no matter what the health issue, men generally avail themselves of support resources less frequently than women. Therefore, part of the issue here may be intrinsic to the male psyche.
Regardless of the reasons, the net effect of this lack of visibility and focus on helping men who are suffering from infertility is to make male patients feel even more isolated, and to make resources to help vulnerable males even more scarce, than is needed.
And men can benefit from infertility support just as much as women …
The Benefits of Male Infertility Counseling
Although relatively few psychological studies have been conducted examining male infertility, those that have been conducted do seem to indicate that a significant number of infertile men experience emotional and psychological wounds arising from infertility diagnoses, including shame, anxiety, anger, lower self-esteem, guilt, depression, loss of sex drive, and feelings of isolation.
And this isn’t even to mention other issues infertile men commonly struggle with, such as loss of their sexual identity, the ability to provide for their partners, or the loss of genetic continuity and the ability to pass on the family name.
To make matters worse, these emotional issues add additional stress to their relationships at a time when infertile couples are already under tremendous pressure, all of which can lead to decreases in intimacy and further breakdowns in communication.
For example, whether it’s because they don’t feel comfortable sharing their emotions or it’s due to their inability to “fix the problem,” many men don’t discuss their feelings about an infertility diagnosis with their partners.
In fact, all too often men struggle with the effects of an infertility diagnosis in silence, turning neither to friends, family members, nor professionals for help.
Unfortunately, men’s not talking about their own problems and feelings often leads their partners and others to assume that they are coping effectively and are “OK,” which, in turn, can end up even adding to men’s anxiety, inadequacy, and sense of feeling marginalized and isolated.
Then there’s the fact that many men focus more on their partner’s needs at the expense of their own feelings, as they believe they must be strong for their partner and protect her during this traumatic time.
All of these factors – not to mention all of the feelings the female partner is going through and the medical, emotional and financial pressures of treatment that the couple is experiencing together – can exert extreme pressure on individual men and on their relationships with their partners.
Fortunately, when it comes to better understanding and coping with the myriad emotions and issues that surround an infertility diagnosis, professional infertility counseling can help men just as much as it can help individual women and couples.
While it’s true many men don’t feel the need or desire to discuss their feelings with anyone, many men who’ve taken advantage of professional counseling have reflected that if they had known “what counseling was” they would have gone much sooner.
Despite cultural stereotypes to the contrary, many men have reported the need or desire to talk to someone outside of their relationship in order to:
- Gain a better understanding of infertility and the various treatment procedures available;
- Better comprehend what their partners are going through;
- Better communicate with, help, and support their partners;
- Cope with the anxiety, stress and uncertainty of the infertility experience.
And infertility counseling can help men achieve each and every one of these goals.
Whether you’re a man or woman, an infertility diagnosis is something for which few of us are prepared and it’s something that will likely change the way you think and feel, about your relationship and your self.
Having an infertility counselor by your side can help you find ways to handle the difficulties of the present, as well as move forward towards an uncertain future with both confidence and optimism. I encourage both women and man to get the help they need and deserve.
[ back to articles ]
If you have any questions regarding the article above, or if I may be of any other assistance, please don’t hesitate to contact me at 503-961-9200 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to helping in any way I can!