Happy Together Again: Reframing Infertility in Your Marriage by Susan G. Mikesell, Ph.D.
The sun is getting low in the sky on this ideal spring Saturday. Planting and pruning have created a hum of activity all day in Jane and Tom’s new neighborhood. The family across the street who they do not know well invites them to a gathering of several new neighbors. The successful gardening on this glorious day taps Jane’s creative energy. She is feeling up so she encourages Tom to accept the invitation.
Even though Jane and Tom have always thought of themselves as social they have felt a little reluctant to venture out into an unknown crowd. Their three-bedroom “dream” house is still waiting to be filled with baby sounds despite two years of “trying to get pregnant”. Repeated cycles of hope and disappointment have laid a foundation for a painful reaction to the question: “Do you have children?”
Not long ago Jane would spend most of the time at parties in the bathroom with cold water on her swollen eyes. Tom would feel exasperated because none of his efforts would make her feel better. He would even deny that the children question upset him thinking he needed to stay positive to help Jane. Their communication with each other at these times was reactive and defensive. They had a hard time communicating a sense of togetherness, a sense of loving and being loved. Their interaction at this time might have gone like this.
They are walking out of the house heading home after one of these events.
Jane: I just don’t understand why people have to be so insensitive. Why is she so stupid? Doesn’t Pat know that it isn’t helpful to tell me that I always can adopt.
Tom: Pat didn’t mean to offend you. You know she was just trying to get out of an awkward situation.
Jane: I feel all alone. Nobody understands. Don’t you get how painful her insensitivity is to me?
Tom: Sure I do. But getting so upset doesn’t make it better.
Jane: Well what do you want me to do just swallow it all like you do!
Tom: I cannot ever get it right for you.
They walk the rest of the way home side by side but feeling miles apart, misunderstood and disconnected.
Infertility challenges the best relationships. Jane feels hurt when Tom appears to be defending Pat. Tom feels powerless when his attempts to sooth Jane prove ineffective. Both partners find themselves reacting defensively and not attending to the impact their words are having on each other. Warmth, fun and happiness will diminish between them with repeated disappointing exchanges. They will feel farther and farther apart. In the early stages of their relationship they were so in tune that they “got” each other without much work. Now they feel like they are living on two different islands without a bridge between them. How do they reconnect?
Happiness is usually linked to family building or resolution for the infertile couple. Jane and Tom can regain access to the connection and joy in their relationship by moving their focus from this outcome to what is happening between them. Creating an atmosphere between them that feels safe is where they would start. This can happen even in the midst of all the distress that the infertility experience evokes. Safety in a relationship is enhanced by being respectfully heard and understood while addressing frustrations, upsets and hurts. Tom will need to learn to hear Jane’s upsets as just that, her upsets, and not interpret them as indirect communications or criticisms of his sensitivity or caring. Jane can learn to state her frustration in terms of herself not others. Both partners can learn to consciously communicate in a respectful, nondefensive way.
Here is how Jane’s and Tom’s conversation might go with these changes.
Jane: I really felt so upset after Pat told me I could just adopt when I told her we had been trying for two years to get pregnant. I get very irritated with people who don’t think about the impact of their words.
Tom: So you were upset after talking with Pat and feel irritated with her because it didn’t seem to you like she was thinking about the impact of what she said. Am I understanding you?
Jane: Yes. It made me feel alone, invisible, like nobody understands how painful this is.
Tom: So when that happened you felt alone and invisible like nobody gets how painful this whole experience is.
Jane: You do. I just want our baby. I don’t want to think about adoption now.
Tom: You want our baby. So it makes so much sense that you would feel hurt when Pat made it sound like we could easily substitute an adopted child for our baby. (He puts his arm around her shoulder) I guess it makes you feel sad that so many people don’t understand how painful it is for us to want a child and not be able to have one.
Jane: (Nodding her head) Yes, really sad. (Looking at Tom) Tell me how it was for you tonight with the talk about kids.
Tom: Okay. I just don’t let it in. I change the subject if I can.. It was hard when Bill started talking about the t-ball game and asked me when we were going to contribute a team member.
Jane: When Bill talked about t-ball and wanted to know when you were going to give them a new team member you just don’t let the upset get in and try to change the subject. Did I get you?
Tom: Yes you did sweetie and now I would just like to look at the beautiful moon and enjoy walking home with you. I love you.
Jane: I love you too.
They kiss and walk the rest of the way home arm in arm.
How do Tom and Jane make these changes? They learn to be more conscious in their relationship, to build an uncluttered bridge between the islands of their unique, individual perceptions of infertility. As they prepare to listen to each other they imagine themselves standing on their own island at the base of the bridge. Proceeding over the bridge Tom leaves behind any of the trappings from his island that would interfere with his reception of Jane’s words or create a reaction in him. In other words he brings his unencumbered curiosity to Jane’s island in order to truly “get” her experience. Jane does the same preparation to listen to Tom. Jane prepares herself to speak by framing her message in “I” statements, rather than “you” statements or global third-person statements.
The communication tool they have learned is The Intentional Dialogue, developed by Harville Hendrix, and taught by Imago Relationship Therapists. Through this more validating communication pattern they learn how to support their individual experiences while restoring the connection between them. Three distinct processes for the listener are involved in the dialogue, Mirroring, Validating, and Empathizing.
Mirroring is repeating back nondefensively and without judgment what the partner has said. The listener continues the mirroring or holds the partner’s experience, without comment, until the partner indicates s/he is finished.
Validating is giving feedback to the partner that what s/he is experiencing makes sense from his/her point of view. The listener that is fully present on his/her partner’s island can see things through the speaker’s eyes. The listener expresses nondefensively that the speaker has a valid point of view even if it differs from that of the listener’s view.
Empathizing is the ability to imagine, from the speaker’s point of view, what s/he might feel about what has been said. These feelings might be different from what the listener might feel in the same situation.
Through this type of communication Jane and Tom become more assured that they can ride the emotional roller coaster and master the decision-making maze of infertility together. The closeness that inevitably comes from these exchanges increases their intimacy and reminds them of how glad they are to be with each other. Happiness returns as the delight and sense of good fortune they have with their relationship.
Susan G. Mikesell, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice and a certified Imago Therapist inWashington, DC. Her specialties include: Infertility, Stress, Career/Life Work, Hypnosis, Depression, Women’s Issues and Wheelchair Access
Phone: (202) 363-9600