You’re hanging out with one of your friends, and he confides, We’ve been trying to get pregnant for over a year, and it just isn’t happening. It’s been hard on our marriage. What can you say to help, encourage, and support your friend who is facing infertility? What shouldn’t you say even though you may mean well?
How can you support your friend during this challenging time of crisis and grief?
As men, we often have some generally unhelpful tendencies in these situations. Let’s acknowledge them so we can try to avoid them:
✹ When presented with a problem, we want to fix it. Often, the better move is to try to feel it.
✹ We project the help, support, and needs we would have onto the person we’re trying to help.
We forget that everyone is different, and everyone is not us.
✹ We’re frequently uncomfortable with emotions or feelings – our own or someone else’s. This can cause us to withdraw or avoid people and not engage in hard conversations.
1. We Need To Do Better For Each Other. Empathy Is A Must.
Here are things we know about infertility:
It’s a sensitive topic.
It can cause stress in a marriage or relationship.
It can cause different struggles for men than it does for women.
Resources and support for men are often lacking.
Understand & Practice True Empathy
Brené Brown is a researcher who has studied empathy. She makes some helpful observations about it:
Empathy is a skill. We might have to work on improving it. Keep trying.
There’s a difference between empathy (I feel with you) and sympathy (I feel for you).
Empathy is a way to connect to the emotion another person feels. It doesn’t require that we have experienced their exact situation.
Empathy allows people to feel, be fully heard, and be accepted when they are struggling. It encourages compassion, authenticity and intimacy to flourish in our relationships. Empathy: It sounds like you’re in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.
Each person’s needs may be different. Healthy empathy will ask: How can I support you? What do you need? This is where discernment comes into play. Be aware: These common missteps can cause more harm than good:
We’re afraid to say or do the wrong thing, so we say or do nothing.
We try to encourage people by downplaying their feelings and struggles. This is just a speedbump. You got this! You’re so strong. You’re smart. You’ll figure this out!
Often, we attempt to make people feel better by telling a story from our lives (or someone else’s) that we believe is worse. At least you… I know this guy who…
We jump to fixing the problem instead of feeling it. Listen, medicine is great today. You’ve got all kinds of options. IVF has a high success rate.
We ask questions that our friend may not be comfortable with. So, is it you or her? Do you really want kids? You think you’ll stay together?
It’s completely ok to say something like: I haven’t been through this, and I don’t know much about it, but whatever you need, I’m here for you. (Even if you’ve been through this or something similar or know someone who has, resist the temptation to assume things or compare situations. Understand that your friend has their own unique experience and needs support.)
★ This brief video provides a great explanation of empathy.
2. Know The Basics Of Infertility, But Don’t Feel Like You Need To Be An Expert.
Remember: Your friend doesn’t need you to be a fertility specialist. They need you to be a good friend. Knowing these basic things can help you be that caring friend.
Infertility is NOT an inconvenience; it’s a condition* of the reproductive system that impairs the body’s ability to reproduce.
Infertility affects men and women equally.
In about 40% of infertile couples, the male partner is either the sole cause of or a contributing factor to infertility.
85% to 90% of infertility cases are treated with medication or surgery.
3. Practical Ways To Support Your Friend
Be generous with your time, energy, and emotional support. Be discerning and respectful, too. Your friend may only let you so far into this part of their life and marriage.
Your friend may need different things at different times. Sometimes they may just want you to listen. At times, they may want to do something fun and be distracted for a bit. Don’t be afraid to ask them what they need and follow their lead.
If your friend allows you to speak into this situation, here are some practical tips:
Understand that infertility affects three primary things – your friend, their spouse, and their relationship as a couple. Take all three of these things into account.
Understand that for most men, fertility issues impact how they view themselves. Your friend may feel less masculine/virile. Encourage him to follow his health professional’s advice instead of hollow or thinly veiled attempts to help him feel “manly,” which may come off as condescending and emasculating. Also, anonymous online support groups help many men with their sense of self.
Understand that men, when faced with situations that cause stress, difficulty, or a sense of crisis or grief in their marriage, often try to stay “strong” for their spouse. This phenomenon is often called Partner-Oriented Self-Regulation (POSR).
They may bottle up their emotions, avoid bringing up the situation, and act like everything is normal. A person who “regulates” themselves in this manner mistakenly believes they’re helping their spouse. In reality, they may be sending a message to their spouse that they are unmoved and calloused. This can make a difficult situation worse. Encourage your friend to be honest, vulnerable, and real with his spouse as he seeks to support them. Assure your friend that this requires real strength.
When a couple is dealing with fertility difficulties, facing the issues as a team, maintaining quality communication, following health professionals’ and counselors’ advice, and having a sensitive support system are crucial. You can be confident that anything you do to encourage these things is being a good friend.
*There is division among medical professionals/global health experts over classifying infertility as a disease or a condition.