IVF Treatments Strained My Marriage + 3 Lessons That Helped Us
When I started IVF, my life became a blur of blood draws and ultrasounds, nightly injections and calls from nurses. So when my husband, Jamie, complained about the inconvenience of having to drop off a semen sample at the fertility center, I didn't have much sympathy. You have no idea, I mumbled under my breath. But I didn't utter a word aloud because I didn't want to make him feel bad, and I didn't want to admit that the process was overwhelming for me. Instead I stuffed my resentment down, unaware that it would erupt later.
Here was my experience with IVF, how it strained my marriage, and what I learned from the experience.
My journey with IVF
The egg retrieval brought us hope, at first.
My egg retrieval procedure brought hope that the stress of IVF and my fertility struggles were behind me. The doctors would extract my eggs, inseminate them in a petri-dish, then transfer two embryos into my uterus. At last I'd be exactly what I'd longed to be for so long: pregnant. But after the procedure, my left ovary never clotted. I almost bled to death and was rushed into emergency surgery. The recovery was emotionally and physically excruciating.
Then I hit rock bottom.
At the same time, I learned that my sister-in-law was pregnant and I sobbed at the ultrasound pictures. I was hormonal and acting irrational; eventually I even grew tense with my husband's side of the family because I was so jealous of their happiness. Fortunately, my husband understood that I had hit rock bottom and needed a break to heal. He supported my plans to attend a writing retreat in Guatemala. I came back from that trip feeling better than when I'd left knowing that he had stood by me.
When we were finally able to transfer two embryos, then came the next blow: the embryos did not attach to my womb. I was not pregnant—and was devastated by the loss. My husband grew silent and buried himself in work. I cried in public and told everyone we knew. We didn't understand each other's grieving process, and we didn't comfort each other. During a time when we needed each other most, we had our worst argument—the argument where we questioned whether or not we should be together. All of the built-up resentment from the IVF process finally exploded.
The night after our awful fight, I got a text from a friend that said, "I love you, and I'm here for you." I realized then that I hadn't said those very words to my own husband. My own grief hadn't allowed me to acknowledge his. He had stood by me when I was at my lowest and now it was my turn to stand by him. I vowed to comfort him and to disregard my own pain for an evening. That night, the loss was not ours, not mine, but his. And it made me want to cry less—channeling my energy into comforting my husband. The next morning, in return, he comforted me. We were without child, but he had gained something: the ability to comfort each other through shared loss.
We still had a steep road ahead, but those hard times actually taught us crucial lessons about love that we use to this day, 11 years into our relationship.
Here's what we learned:
1. Ask for help.
Competence does not equal comfort. Just because I can do something—like give myself injections, get regular blood draws, or hold afternoon calls with nurses—doesn't mean I don't need support from those you love. Asking for help will go a long way toward bringing you closer together rather than pushing you apart.
2. Treat each other like friends.
Just because my husband and I were going through the same thing doesn't mean we processed and reacted to it in the same way. It wasn't until my friend texted me about the situation that I realized, I I needed to be a friend to my husband. Ask yourself: If my partner were my friend going through this alone, how would I treat him or her?
3. Recognize what is at the core of a fight.
Life stresses—especially fertility struggles and treatments—stir up so many demons in all of us. But often, when arguing, we don’t really want to hurt each other: My husband and I didn't, but we argued because we are hurting separately, internally. We learned to step back and ask, "What is this really about?"
Some of my own deepest discussions with my husband have come out of this question, and have helped us love each other more deeply, drawing us closer rather than pushing us apart. Today, these lessons guide our roles as partners and as parents.
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Nadine Kenney Johnstone is author of Of This Much I’m Sure, a memoir of her experiences struggling with IVF and illness, and the healing power of hope and love. Her story has been featured in Chicago Magazine, The Month, PANK, and various anthologies, including The Magic of Memoir. Johnstone, who received her MFA from Columbia College in Chicago, teaches English at Loyola University and doubles as a writing coach, presenting at conferences internationally. She lives near Chicago with her family.