In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Brennan Peterson of Chapman University examines the psychological challenges surrounding the issue of infertility.
Brennan Peterson is an associate professor of psychology and the Director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Graduate Program at Chapman College in Orange, California. His research focuses on the mental health implications of infertility including couple coping processes and fertility awareness issues. He holds a Ph.D. from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
Dr. Brennan Peterson – Psychology of Infertility
No one ever plans on being infertile. However, one in six couples in the United States will receive this diagnosis. Although infertility has historically been attributed to women, it is just as common in men.
The realization that you are infertile can be emotionally devastating. Supportive relationships from family and friends can turn into stressors. Marriages that are strong and enduring may be taxed to the point of exhaustion as fertility treatments drain financial, physical, and emotional resources.
When faced with the stress of infertility, a couple must cope with it the best they can. Studies have consistently found that the most common, yet ineffective, coping strategy is avoidance. Women avoid emotional pain by escaping reminders of infertility – even staying away from life-long friends and family. Men avoid discussing the infertility with others when they realize they are powerless to solve the problem.
Research has also found that the way someone copes with infertility has a significant impact on their partner. Men’s use of minimization can increase depressive symptoms in their wives, while women’s lack of emotional expression can increase a husband’s marital distress.
The good news is there is hope for couples who cope with infertility – even if they never have a biological child. Results from a 5-year longitudinal study found that couples who find new meaning in life because of their infertility report decreased personal and martial distress. This is a difficult and long process because it is psychologically painful. It requires letting go of deeply held beliefs, lifelong expectations, and core elements of one’s identity.
Yet studies find that couples who go through this journey report increased empathy and compassion for the suffering of others. In a very real sense, the couple closes a chapter in their life - only to begin another – with an improved capacity to understand the struggles of life that bind us all together.