The emotional side of male infertility on men

Infertility is stressful. There is a mountain of research to support this. We as clinicians and scientists understand a great deal about the emotions that women experience when they are going through infertility treatment, and actively work to offer a variety of ways to support women emotionally during this process. For example, infertility centers/clinics have counselors, group therapy is available in many areas, and other health-promoting approaches (yoga, massage) to name but a few.

It is only more recently that we are starting to focus on what the man goes through when there is a male factor diagnosis. My collaborative work with Kevin McEleny has enlightened both of us as clinician scientists and we now have better insight into what men are going through when they are dealing with diagnosis and treatment for a male factor infertility issue. Our recent research found that men in both the US and UK experienced the following challenges during infertility diagnosis and treatment:

  • Avoiding the issue. Many of the men we spoke with did not want to disclose their infertility status or even that a pregnancy was from fertility treatment. Additionally, men often avoided social situations when peers were either expecting a child or had younger children, because it was upsetting. 
  • Feeling uncertain about the future. Men told us that during infertility, they often felt very uncertain that they would be able have a child, and that the infertility treatment process was very confusing. Uncertainty for the future can really be upsetting for people especially when they are generally goal-focused about other things (projects at home, work achievements). This uncertainty can increase stress for the man.
  • Emotions. Men reported a variety of emotional responses to struggles in achieving fatherhood or following unsuccessful fertility treatment, including sadness, shock, disbelief, denial. They also said they often felt inadequate and even sometimes that they felt ‘less of a man’. These emotions and the burden of infertility treatment put strain on their intimate relationships (both communication and sexually).
But there is some good news. We also found that many of men we spoke with took some positive steps to deal with their infertility stress:
  • Keeping a focus on the goal. For some, having clear and actionable steps, and focusing on parenthood really helped men feel more positive. Fertility treatment can often feel like a marathon. There is often another test, another appointment, another procedure. Looking forward to the next step in the process may help. Remember, though, there may be a point that you cannot do any more. Anne Judge talks about knowing when to stop treatment here. The amount of treatment people are willing to do is very individual.
  • Relying on support from partner. While some of the men said their relationships with their partners was strained, some said it felt stronger and that their communication improved. For some, having that common bond and goal can really help unite them during a difficult time. If this is not the case for you, please consider getting some couples support to help improve communication both during and after treatment (whether that is you’ve stopped treatment, moved on to adoption, or are pregnant).
  • Relying on support from health care team. Over time, some men become more familiar with their fertility team and this increases their comfort. Utilize these relationships for additional emotional support. Fertility treatment is often very busy and technical, but all fertility staff know how stressful this is and want to help you.
  • Acquiring accurate information to help understanding issue better. When men understood more, they felt more in control of their situation. Seek out accurate information about your own fertility, your partner’s fertility, and the treatment process. This site is a great place to start. Your fertility team is also there to help you understand the process.

What can you do?

First of all, the fact that you are HERE is a very positive step. We created this site to help in one way to support men through this very complex and emotional experience. Use this site as a source of accurate unbiased information written by experts, but also (and more importantly) to connect with others on a similar journey. We know that finding others who share common experiences makes people feel less alone. But this may not be enough. There may be a point where you need additional emotional support. If that is the case, consider reaching out to a counselor to talk. In some areas, you may even be able to have a counseling session over the phone or by video chatting from the comfort of your home. Finally, when possible, be kind to yourself. We know what you are going through. It is highly emotional, exhausting, and frustrating but your fertility team is here to support you.