Couples Counseling Can Ease the Stress of Infertility Treatments

couple holding hands

Infertility is among the most challenging experiences couples face, and affects 10 percent of couples worldwide.

Lack of marital intimacy—a frequent result of infertility–can lead to dissatisfaction with the relationship, among other problems. I encourage any couple with infertility seek out skilled sex therapy to find an effective solution to the impacts of infertility.

A 2022 study by Mehrnoosh Hosseinpoor, Seyedeh Zahra Masoumi, Farideh Kazemi, Farzaneh Sholtani and Mohammad Ahmadpanah looked at how counseling can help couples dealing with infertility.

The findings suggest counseling can improve marital relationships during infertility treatment, and prevent the typical negative effects of not being able to conceive a child and carry it to term, such as emotional divorce.

About Infertility

If you want to become pregnant and it has not happened after 12 months of with regular, unprotected sexual intercourse, you are experiencing infertility. There are two categories of infertility:

  1. Primary infertility is when a pregnancy has never been achieved
  2. Secondary infertility is when at least one prior pregnancy has been achieved

Particularly for women–because our society places so much of women’s value on the ability to reproduce–infertility can lead to feelings of failure and low self-esteem. These can hamper the desire for intimacy and sexual relations. Lack of marital intimacy leads to other problems, such as dissatisfaction in the marriage and a loss of love and affection.

Infertility treatments, which primarily involve stimulating the woman’s hormones so she produces more eggs, can greatly add to the strain and anxiety of infertility.

Infertility Counseling

Infertility counseling with a sex therapist can help couples find, understand and resolve the relationship problems infertility and its treatments cause.

Various approaches have been developed by marriage and sex counselors to help couples address the conflicts and miscommunications infertility seems to bring up. One of these approaches was created by John and Julie Gottman, both clinical psychologists.

The Gottmans’ method is designed to enhance couples’ love and affection to rebuild the connection.

The Gottmans developed nine components of healthy relationships, known as the Sound Relationship House theory:

  1. Building love maps
  2. Sharing fondness and admiration
  3. Turning toward (as opposed to turning away from each other
  4. The positive perspective (seeing your partner in a positive light vs. looking for and finding fault)
  5. Managing conflict
  6. Making dreams come true
  7. Create shared meaning
  8. Building trust
  9. Shaping commitment

In Gottman’s training program, couples are taught effective communication skills. With practice, these skills help couples share their feelings in productive ways to reduce destructive patterns of interacting.

The Study

Sixty couples were included in the study. Inclusion criteria included:

  • Primary infertility who experienced one treatment failure
  • age 18–40 years
  • infertile for up to five years
  • not having a mental illness that affected fertility
  • not having had couples counseling or therapy in before

Exclusion criteria were:

  • past divorce
  • marital conflict severe enough to require counseling
  • stress from serious illness or death of close relative
  • pregnancy (the woman could not be pregnant when the study began)

All couples filled out the same pre-study questionnaire about the health of their relationship.

In addition to the usual infertility procedures:

  • the care of a physician,
  • nutrition counseling and
  • ultrasounds and tests,

the intervention group met with a counselor face-to-face. The counselor  used the Gottman method with the GATHER counseling process (which has the counselor greet, ask, tell, help, explain and return/refer).

These couples received the counseling in eight sessions of approximately our hour, with a week or more between sessions. The control group only got the routine care in the bullets above. Four weeks after the last counseling sessions, the same questionnaires from before the study were administered again to both groups.

The Results

The results analysis revealed a statistically significant difference between infertile women participating in the control and intervention groups. The Gottman therapy enhanced feelings of intimacy in infertile women, and to a smaller extent, in infertile men.