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Research-Based Tips for Supporting People With Infertility

Let's just stop asking people their plans for having a baby.

Key points

  • Be patient and don't assume you know someone's infertility experience.
  • Listen with compassion, rather than providing advice.
  • Asking about family plans can be hurtful and triggering for those struggling with infertility.

Co-authored with Shaye Morrison, Ph.D. candidate, University of Missouri

This week is National Infertility Awareness Week. Let’s talk about it.

Roughly 1 in 8 couples in the United States struggle with infertility (or, the inability to achieve or sustain a pregnancy after 12 months of frequent unprotected sexual intercourse). The causes are often equally distributed, with 1/3 linked to female causes, 1/3 linked to male causes, and 1/3 linked to a combination of or unknown causes. Although most of the research on coping with infertility focuses on white and higher/middle-class groups, minority and lower socioeconomic status communities have higher incidences of risk factors for infertility.

Photo by Văn Thắng from Pexels
Couples may react to infertility in ways that are sometimes hard to understand
Source: Photo by Văn Thắng from Pexels

Given its prevalence, you likely know someone who is or has suffered from infertility. Perhaps you want to support and comfort someone who discloses their infertility story to you. Maybe you don’t know what to say.

We got you. We — Shaye Morrison and Haley Horstman — have been studying how people communicate to cope with miscarriage and infertility for almost a decade. We’re going to highlight some of the research on communicating and coping with infertility, mostly from the communication field.

Based on the current communication research, we’ll provide some tips for how to best support couples who are or have struggled with infertility.

1. Don't: Assume You Know What Someone Is Going Through. Do: Be Patient.

Especially if you’ve never struggled with infertility, it can be difficult to understand it. It’s important to recognize that individuals and couples may react to infertility in ways that are hard to understand. People seeking fertility treatments report experiencing depression, anxiety, mood swings, paranoia, and the urge to avoid social situations, particularly those involving pregnant women or babies.

People experiencing infertility are managing a great deal of uncertainty and lack of control over their bodies and lives. In Angela Palmer-Wackerly and Janice Krieger’s study, some participants described infertility as a “roller coaster” with no control over the intensity and direction of their emotions. Others saw their infertility like a job with pressure to perform, succeed, and work hard to achieve their goals.

It’s important to be patient with our friends and family members as they are coping with their varying emotions, along with the financial burdens, identity issues, and social pressures that are often associated with infertility. Be open-minded about the way they are coping with their experience and let them come to you to tell their story.

2. Don't: Provide Advice, Unless Requested. Do: Listen with Compassion.

Research has found that people struggling with infertility need social support but in the right ways. According to research by Shaye and Kristen Carr, even the most well-intentioned messages of support, if unsolicited, are related to feelings of stigma and lower wellness reports.

Researcher Jennifer Bute found that receiving unsolicited advice can be especially frustrating and painful for those suffering from infertility (e.g., “You just have to relax!” or “I got pregnant while my husband and I were on vacation; you two should take a vacation!”). Advice-givers assume that they know what’s best for the couple, which can be patronizing and invalidating. Advice-receivers may feel pressure to disclose private information or have to educate others on infertility.

Although we give advice because we want to help our friends and family, in this case, it is best to simply lend a compassionate and unbiased ear. After that, you can express your empathy and ask how you can best support them.

3. Don't: Ask About Family Plans. Do: Respect a Couple’s Privacy.

How many of you have been at a wedding reception and heard someone ask the newlyweds when they’re going to “start their family?” Or, maybe you’ve been to a family gathering where they’ve joked about how your cousin should start having kids soon because she “isn’t getting any younger.” We know we have, and before we started working on this research, we didn’t give these comments a second thought.

However, infertility is an invisible battle many couples are navigating, so it is best to assume family planning information is private—no matter how natural it may seem to ask personal questions. In Shaye’s current research on couples diagnosed with male factor infertility, she has found that men often feel so much shame around the diagnosis that they don’t want to discuss it with their spouse, let alone friends and family members.

Although asking someone when they’re going to have kids might seem like a harmless conversation starter, in reality it can bring emotional pain and stress to the surface. Instead, allow couples to share their private information at their own pace. We promise, if they want to talk to you about what’s happening in their fertility experience, they will.

We hope these three tips have created a research-based foundation to help you support your friends and family who may be going through infertility. If you are experiencing infertility, we hope that these resonate with your experience and the type of support you find helpful.

References

Bute, J. J. (2013). The discursive dynamics of disclosure and avoidance: Evidence from a study of infertility. Western Journal of Communication, 77(2), 164-185. https://doi.org/10.1080/10570314.2012.695425

Morrison, S., & Carr, K. (2018, November). Effects of Stigma, Efficacy, and Social Support on the Fertility Quality of Life of Individuals Struggling with Infertility. Paper presented in the Interpersonal Communication Division at the National Communication Association Annual Convention, Salt Lake City, UT.

Palmer-Wackerly, A. L., & Krieger, J. L. (2015). Dancing around infertility: the use of metaphors in a complex medical situation. Health Communication, 30(6), 612-623. https://doi.org/10.1080/10410236.2014.888386

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