Partner Support Can Help Alleviate Emotional Burden of Fertility Treatments

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The stress, anxiety and loneliness that often accompany infertility can place strain on even the strongest relationships. 

We spoke with Clinical Psychologist Lindsay Sortor, PsyD, of the Penn Center for Women's Behavioral Wellness, about how partners can build a support system while undergoing fertility treatments to alleviate some of the emotional burden. 

This is part two in a series on caring for yourself or a partner during fertility treatments. In part one, Dr. Suleena Kansal Kalra, MSCE, a fertility specialist at Penn Fertility Care, shares how women can bolster their physical and mental health. In part three, we take an in-depth look at the Penn Fertility Wellness Program. 

Start a Dialogue 

How men and women cope with infertility can be very different. 

As women undergo the majority of the invasive fertility treatment procedures, they often bear the most physical and emotional strain. At the same time, men may feel alone, inadequate or as if they aren’t truly involved in the experience.

“More often than not, as with most partnerships, partners aren’t coping the same way at the same time,” Dr. Sortor said, emphasizing that couples should strive to keep the lines of communication open, both with each other and with those around them. 

“Social support and even the perception of social support is highly protective,” Dr. Sortor said.  “Whether that’s with your partner, within a support group or in an online peer forum, communication and thoughtful disclosure is primary and paramount.” 

Be There

“Often times women feel they are bearing the brunt of the burden of medical appointments, invasive procedures and countless hours on the phone,” Dr. Sortor said. “If the other, non-conceiving partner can be involved with that, it can afford the couple a sense of sharing the burden.”

Even small but thoughtful gestures can make women feel less alone and more supported. 

“It comes down to communication, as well as showing up and being present,” Dr. Sortor said. “Another way partners can offer support is by demonstrating interest in the procedures and coming up with questions themselves [to ask during appointments.]” 

Remember, Distress is Normal

Studies have shown the emotional distress caused by infertility is similar to the distress experienced by people diagnosed with a chronic illness such as cancer or heart disease.

 “Any infertility treatment is going to be an emotional roller-coaster,” Dr. Sortor said. “Even if early rounds of IVF are successful, each cycle is still going to cause stress. But if these individuals know that distress is normal, the barrier to seeking social and psychological support is going to be much lower.” 

Additionally, it’s important to recognize that there’s often a stigma attached to infertility as well as to seeking psychological support.

“It’s a double whammy of potential isolation factors,” Dr. Sortor said. “As best we can, I think it’s important to normalize the distress these women and these couples are experiencing so that we can increase the social support and awareness.

“Social support and feeling surrounded by a community is going to cultivate psychological wellbeing throughout the [fertility treatment] process.”

The Penn Center for Women's Behavioral Wellness is a collaboration between the Departments of Psychiatry and Obstetrics/Gynecology in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. The center provides clinical consultation and treatment, as well as opportunities to participate in research focusing on conditions related to women’s behavioral health across the lifespan.

Fertility Wellness Program

Penn Fertility Care, in collaboration with The Healing Arts Center, offers a quarterly Fertility Wellness Program to help patients feel less anxious, less isolated and better able to cope along their fertility journey.

The eight-week group program is led by the Penn Fertility Wellness Team and provides emotional support, behavioral wellness, tools for stress management, acupuncture, yoga and mindfulness.

Cost is $495, and the program is open only to Penn Fertility Care patients. For more information or to enroll, call 215-627-3782 or email PennWellness@healingphilly.com.

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