It may seem strange, but couples who are dealing with infertility (known or suspected) often avoid talking about sex. They talk about timing sex, about arranging their lives to fit the schedules of doctor’s appointments and ovulation, but they don’t often talk about what sex means for them.
Unbearable agony and misunderstanding can occur, and it’s a shame because infertility offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make sex better. Here are some advice-oriented recommendations on communicating with your partner about fertility and sexuality.
Talking about sex and infertility can be a slow process. Plan for more than one conversation.
- Start with a sense of goodwill.
Infertility may not affect both partners’ sexuality the same way, but when it happens it’s likely that both of you will feel some pain about the situation. Often when we talk with our partner about things that are painful, it can feel as if they are the ones causing us pain, or getting in the way of us feeling better. Bringing “goodwill” to your conversations about infertility and sex means reminding yourself that you are not out to hurt each other, that you both mean well, and that the goal is mutual happiness, not one person getting what they want at the other’s expense.
- Take time for yourself.
Talking about infertility and sex can easily devolve into tumultuous disputes that do more harm than good, leaving you feeling more confused and unhappy rather than assisting each of you in clarifying your feelings and needs. This can happen because infertility doesn’t just impact your current sex life; it is tied to how you feel about your masculinity/femininity, your past experiences with sex, and more. Take some time alone before getting into another disagreement to consider what you truly want your partner to understand about your feelings.
This approach can be aided by taking notes.
- Break the issues down.
It can help to separate out your biggest issues. Is it a sense of obligation to have sex on command, worries about performance or gender roles, or are sexual issues from the past that you thought were long gone reappearing?
Consider all of the ways that infertility affects your sexual life and decide what you want to tell your significant other. Doing this in advance can also help clarify your boundaries and suggest what issues belong to you and which ones might be theirs that you want to ask about.
- Deal with your partner, not your stereotypes.
Infertility and sex troubles are intimately related to gender stereotypes, such as the belief that males desire sex all of the time but that women only desire sex for emotional or procreative reasons, among others. Especially when we are feeling vulnerable, it can be easy to fall back on stereotypes and forget that our partners are every bit as multifaceted as we ourselves are. Being in a relationship means committing yourself to deal with your partner as they are, not as you expect them to be, which includes challenging your own stereotypes and listening carefully to what your partner is trying to tell you.
- Talk about what sex means to each of you.
Couples can go their entire lives without ever having an open and honest discussion about what sex means to each of them, and this is perfectly normal. Dealing with infertility provides the opportunity to have this discussion, which will be beneficial to the process now as well as your sex lives in the future, if you are successful. Take some time to outline for yourself what sex means for you, and then share that with your partner. It can be through writing or a conversation, whichever feels safer. But don’t assume that sex means the same thing to each of you, or that it means only one thing to either of you.
- Give yourself and your partner the right to change your mind and your mood.
While dealing with infertility, don’t expect that you or your partner will feel one way about what’s going on in your sexual relationship. It’s also not realistic to expect that you’ll feel the same way at the same time. Give each other permission to think and feel whatever comes up, and don’t throw past statements in your partner’s face if they seem to conflict with what they are telling you today. Holding each other up to unrealistic standards only serves to keep you apart when you need to stick together.
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- Don’t try to talk your partner out of their feelings.
If your partner is feeling guilty or angry or confused about sex because of infertility issues it’s disrespectful (and counterproductive) to try and convince them they shouldn’t. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with what your partner is saying, but rather try to offer support and an alternative point of view without making it an argument you have to win. Arguing can also be perceived as impatience with your partner’s process, and while you may be feeling impatient, you need to take a time out and give your partner the space they need.
- Separate feelings from “facts.”
One way we try to convince our partners not to feel bad is by arguing with facts we’ve gleaned from professionals. All the jargon of infertility can seep into your conversations with your partner about sex. Try to remember that regardless of what your doctor, mother, or psychic says, how you feel about sex is how you feel about it, and neither of you should use outside advice as a way of talking one of you out of how you feel. You have a right to feel the way you do, whether it fits with the information you’re getting from a professional or not.
- Use professionals for support, not for threats.
When you repeat something Dr. Smith told you in the office and use it as “proof” that your partner shouldn’t worry, you’re arguing with them about their feelings. If your partner is feeling stuck on a point they can’t get around, you should instead suggest they use the professionals around them for support and more information. It can feel very justifying to have a professional “take your side” on an issue, but the goal is for both of you to feel OK with the process, and not to figure out who wins the infertility trivia contest.
- Ask for what you need.
You have the right to ask your partner for whatever you need (this is true of sex whether you’re dealing with infertility issues or not). It doesn’t mean you’ll get what you ask for, when you ask for it, but it’s the only way of knowing for sure, and it’s also the only way of making sure your partner knows your needs. Whether it’s more space, less space, a day off from scheduled sex, or doing something together that isn’t about having a baby, as long as you’re open to hearing an honest answer, you should ask for what you need.
- Take no for an answer.
Asking for what you need is the first part of healthy sexual communication, the second is taking no for an answer. If you’re partner isn’t able to give you what you need in the moment, or can’t talk until they’re ready, step back and be patient. “No” in the moment isn’t the same as “no” forever. Also if your partner is asking something from you that feels like more than you can give, it’s important to say no rather than giving in and regretting it later. Being able to hear no and say no is crucial to having healthy boundaries.
- Sticking together in the bad times.
Problems that arise around sex and infertility can push a couple apart at precisely the time when they could use support from each other.
It can be hard to remember that you’re in this together (particularly if you have different goals around fertility and different sexual needs) but if you’re in a relationship that you want to stay in, it’s worth working hard to stay connected. In addition to taking the time to talk about sex and infertility, remember to do other things that you both love, that are unrelated, as a way of nurturing your relationship through a difficult time.