How To Support A Friend Experiencing Infertility
Imagine for a minute that you have just received a life-altering diagnosis*. The plans for your future have been shattered. The treatments you choose can leave you with debilitating migraines, nausea, bruising, mood swings, and extreme fatigue. Your new reality consumes your every waking moment. No one knows how to respond, so they tiptoe around your diagnosis. You can’t concentrate at work. Your friendships and marriage start to suffer. You feel alone, grieving the life you thought you’d have. This is what your friend who is experiencing infertility is going through. And it’s not an exaggeration. According to the National Survey of Family Growth conducted by the CDC, 1 in 8 couples have trouble getting pregnant or sustaining a pregnancy. And 7.4 million women, or 11.9% of women, have received infertility services in their lifetime.
You want to be supportive and empathic. You want to help your struggling friend in any way possible. But you have no words. You have no experience. In fact, you may have children of your own already and feel slightly guilty to bring them around or talk about them now. Or you may be pregnant and afraid of being a constant reminder to your friend of what they don’t have yet. You’ve entered into a delicate predicament where you don’t know what to do or how to act.
First and foremost, kudos to you. For realizing that you may not have all the answers. For acknowledging that this situation is worth researching and putting the work into. Learning how to best support your friend during this time takes courage and vulnerability.
Talking about such an intimate detail of a relationship isn’t always something people feel comfortable doing in the first place. Everyone has a different comfort level with what they are willing to share. Your friend may tell you right away that they’re struggling to conceive, or they may choose to wait until they get a prognosis. They may be feeling embarrassed, ashamed, in denial or in disbelief. But once they do share, take it as a compliment that your friendship is a safe place for them.
Support Through Empathy
The complexities of infertility go beyond one person’s journey into parenthood. It’s an experience involving so many layers that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it looks and feels like. There are different diagnoses under the infertility umbrella with varying plans of treatment. There are various emotions that are experienced daily, different support systems, and different financial situations. In other words, everyone has a vastly unique infertility experience, leaving them feeling extremely isolated and lonely.
We often think of empathy as “walking in someone else’s shoes” because it’s an easy concept to teach. However, that logic buckles under the weight of assumptions. Brené Brown, researcher and author of Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, explains, “Empathy is not relating to an experience, it’s connecting to what someone is feeling about an experience.”
Even if you don’t have a clue about what the struggle of infertility entails, you can relate and empathize with the emotions your friend is feeling. And the only way to know what those feelings are (as opposed to assuming) is to ask them and actively listen to their response. “How are you feeling?” goes further than “How is it going?” When they do share what they’re feeling, acknowledge and validate it. Providing support through true empathy is essentially saying, “I hear you, and I believe you.” Period.
Things That Are Not Helpful
In our attempt to be helpful and supportive, we often default to societal norms or what has been modeled in our lives. We rarely even realize when we’ve offended a friend because most often, it is NOT our intention to do so.
Here are a few things that are definitely not helpful and why:
“At least you have/didn’t/can…”
Not helpful because: Any sentence that starts with this phrase immediately minimizes and invalidates their feelings. It’s toxic positivity at its worst.
“It’ll happen if it’s meant to be…”
Not helpful because: Although intended to be reassuring, this phrase ultimately brushes their feelings aside. It can imply that if it doesn’t happen, then they aren’t meant to be parents. This is quite hurtful.
“Have you tried…”
Not helpful because: They have tried. And tried. And tried. Unless you are a fertility doctor, you are not in a position to give them advice on what to try.
“You could always adopt!”
Not helpful because: Adoption is not right for everyone. Offering it as a comparable solution is not what they need.
“I know exactly what you’re feeling. We tried for months, then went on vacation and it happened! Just try to relax!”
Not helpful because: It makes it about you and your experience – not about them and theirs. No matter how similar you may think your situations are… any type of comparison just isn’t beneficial.
“You’re just so brave!”
Not helpful because: As encouraging as you try to be, toxic positivity can creep in, even with your best intentions. We often jump to positive statements like these before validating their experience, which ends up dismissing their sadness, despair, grief, anger and fears. Also, they may not feel the way you think they do, and insisting they are brave, strong, resilient, etc., adds more pressure on them to live up to those expectations.
Not helpful because: Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. Your friend is living with an ongoing, all-consuming, painful experience each and every day.
Things That Can Be Helpful
Supporting a friend through something as sensitive as infertility can feel like a big undertaking. You won’t always do or say the right things. However, if you devote time to doing even a few things listed here, you’ll develop a closer friendship through your genuine support.
Don’t rely on your friend to fill in all the details. To better support their journey, do some research to understand the terms and typical steps of infertility treatment options. Resolve: The National Infertility Association is a great place to start.
Ask Them What They Need
It’s simple, yet we rarely ask people what they need. Try: “Do you need me to listen? Give a distraction? Or give you space?” If they have trouble thinking of specifics, try brainstorming tangible ways you can be supportive such as attending appointments with them, babysitting (if they have older kids), or exercising together to get those endorphins flowing.
We are all human and make mistakes. If you accidentally say something offensive or insensitive to your friend, apologize. Let them know that you’re still learning but are trying to be as supportive as possible.
Check In Regularly
When your friend says, “I’m fine,” recognize that that’s not always the case. (I’m fine is usually code for: I just don’t have the energy to explain all the ways I’m NOT fine.) Sometimes a random care package or a “thinking about you” text can show you truly care and are there for them, no matter what.
Be a Shoulder to Cry On
Infertility is not a lighthearted discussion – it’s heavy. It’s emotional. Being a safe space for your friend to open up is a huge responsibility. How you react sets the tone for future interactions. Be gentle and understanding. Let them cry, and tell them their feelings are ok. It IS a big deal. It IS scary. And it IS painful. And if you can’t seem to find the right words in the moment, just say: “I’m here. I hear you. I believe you.”
Respect Them and Their Boundaries
Understand that certain social settings or holidays can be highly triggering for someone experiencing infertility. For instance, a baby shower or gender reveal party can just be too painful to attend. A birthday party or even a social gathering could cause extreme anxiety. Realize this is an incredibly difficult experience for them. Their boundaries are not meant to offend you, but to protect themselves. Reassuring them that you understand and respect their decisions can strengthen your friendship.
Encourage Professional Help
This is a huge life transition with a lot of complex emotions. Research has shown that women with infertility have the same levels of anxiety and depression as women with cancer. Sometimes confiding in a trusted friend just isn’t enough. Your friend may need the skills of a professional to help them through the journey. Remind them that it’s ok to ask for help and that reaching out to a professional doesn’t make them weak.
Support That Doesn’t Stop
So, does getting pregnant end your friend’s infertility journey? Unfortunately, no. A positive pregnancy test is not a guarantee. Breathing a sigh of relief that it finally happened isn’t in the cards for them because there is always the risk of miscarriage or genetic defects (just like any pregnancy). The difference is the stakes are higher. The anxiety and the fear of losing their “miracle” baby is greater. Your support shouldn’t end once they get a bump or have a baby. The experience of infertility is traumatic and life-changing. Your friendship might never be the same… but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Being a supportive, safe space can strengthen your friendship for a lifetime.
*There is division among medical professionals/global health experts over classifying infertility as a disease or a condition.
World Health Organization: Infertility
CDC Reproductive Health: Infertility
Resolve: The National Infertility Association
The Relationship Between Stress and Infertility
Coping With the Stress of Infertility | Alice Domar, PhD
Grieving Infertility and Miscarriages
Guide for Guys: Supporting a Friend Facing Infertility
Guide for Guys: Supporting A Friend Facing Infertility
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.
- The American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) has found that at least 1 in 7 couples has fertility issues. The inability to have a child affects 6.7 million women in the U.S. That’s about 11% of the reproductive-age population.
- 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.
Mapping men’s anticipations and experiences in the reproductive realm: (in)fertility journeys.
The male experience of infertility: a thematic analysis of an online infertility support group.
Emoting infertility online: A qualitative analysis of men’s forum posts.
Research-Based Tips for Supporting People With Infertility | Psychology Today
Grieving Infertility and Miscarriages – First Things First
How to Give Support to Hopeful Fathers Facing Male Infertility
‘It tears every part of your life away’: The truth about male infertility | Men’s Health
How Infertility Affects Men Emotionally. Maternal Mental Health Institute
25 Things to Say (and Not to Say) to Someone Living with Infertility