‘Infertility Is Brutal on Marriage’—or Not?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Below are two very different reactions to our previous note, “When Infertility Threatens Marriage,” which featured a reader expressing anger toward her husband for persuading her to wait until 35 to try for a baby; another woman who broached—with studies to back it up—how infertility can ruin a couple’s sex life, and marriage overall; and another reader describing how infertility led to her friend’s divorce. The second reader featured below is outraged over that note—“disgusted” even—because she believes it perpetuates myths about infertility.

This first reader, however, exclaims, “OMG that note is exactly right; infertility is brutal on marriage.” She elaborates:

My husband had an undescended testicle at birth and testicular cancer when he was an adult. Despite those issues (should have been red flags), we didn’t get tested until well over a year after we started trying to have a baby.

I had turned down several good career opportunities to conceive. When my tests were fine, but his weren’t (they were all over the map), he blamed it on me, saying I stressed him out. He also flatly refused to see a specialist, so I left and took a job I loved far from our home.

We did see a specialist in the city I was working in and he was optimistic about IVF-ICSI, since my numbers were fine and age was on my side. Then I had an HSG (x-ray to see how the tubes and uterus are) and I got what was later confirmed to be a false positive. My husband was weirdly satisfied, but IVF was still on the table. I ended up leaving my job for a job where I would travel to work and back home, week on, week off. He was paying for the flights. While I loved my job again, the cost was insane. So I moved back.

In hindsight, I should have just called it quits and got my dog, moving on. After all, I had a husband who would not support fertility treatment or my career.

I did get naturally pregnant twice. The first was a missed miscarriage [a.k.a. silent miscarriage] and the second miscarriage was just before a trip to the fertility clinic. The first was just bad luck—a trisomy incompatible with life. After the second, a battery of tests were done and I had an autoimmune disease that should have been obvious as the symptoms were so classic.

We actually did do IVF-ICSI with a lot of backup from a fertility psychologist and the doctors pushing my husband along. They said they’ve never seen anyone so stubborn and resistant. At one point the psychologist said my mental state had deteriorated so much that it was cruel to not do treatment.

The first round worked and we have a beautiful, healthy child (after a terrible pregnancy and emergency C-section). Now we are trying again, but I still feel so much resentment towards my husband. It’s been eight years! I started off being a young wannabe mom and now I’m the dreaded advanced maternal age.

I have felt completely unsupported and alone in both the quest to have a family and in my marriage. No support for infertility or my career. Meanwhile, my husband has gone from strength to strength in his career.

Here’s the passionate dissent from our second reader—a “long-standing facilitator of an online infertility support group”:

Let me preface my comments by saying that The Atlantic online is my most favorite print media outlet.  Your feature pieces are so engaging I have even used them inside my classrooms. So, when I saw Resolve [the National Infertility Association] post about an Atlantic piece on infertility in the Notes section, you can imagine how excited I was to see the topic finally generate some real discussion in a serious online magazine. Being infertile these last eight years, well, I’ve been around the infertility block and I think this topic is one that should no longer be whispered about.

I was completely disappointed. I realize what I read was a rough-ish first take on a story that might not even make it to print, but I was disgusted by it, because it simply perpetuates every misguided stereotype of infertile men and women that exists. It’s unfortunate stories like this that are the very reason why infertility is not considered a legitimate health problem deserving of medical treatment covered under health insurance, just like every other disease.

I don’t have a lot of time to go through your piece point by point, because I don’t even know if a live human will be reading this. But you should know:

  • Infertility has strengthened my marriage. I know this to be true of a great number of couples. If someone’s marriage was crushed by infertility, maybe their marriage wasn’t too strong to begin with. I could elaborate on this all day long. It is the one thing I am thankful for and proud of: my marriage is better and more solid than most couples I know with kids.
  • Some of the strongest and bravest women I know are part of my island of infertility-warriors. They fight the stereotypes infertility, and they advocate for themselves with friends, family, and health care professionals tirelessly.  They are relentlessly stubborn and hopeful. I invite you get to know some real women who have been through multiple rounds of IVF. There's nothing weak or broken about them.
  • Not being able to conceive has not turned me into a weeping puddle of a woman and I resent the age-old, sexist implication that scary female hormones—endogenous or exogenous—are insanity-inducing. We are not The Girls On the Train; stop making us out to be hormonally imbalanced nut cases. The IVF hormones I’ve had to take for seven failed IVF cycles (you read that right: seven) basically just leave me with a headache and a few extra pounds to lose each time. Most of the women I know don’t even struggle with the extra weight like I do.
  • $15,000 [the amount spent thus far on infertility treatments by this reader] is a drop in the bucket in the IVF world. I have no infertility coverage and have paid every dime out of pocket for our treatment. IVF clinics charge people like me MORE than they charge insured patients. I paid a little more for my first two IVF cycles out of pocket than an infertility acquaintance’s health insurance company paid for five IVF cycles. I think clinics actually like it when someone is uninsured. They make more money that way. I think that’s gross. The financial aspect of infertility is the most stressful part of this entire process. We need to start demanding that infertility be covered by mandate like any other disease.

If someone really does read these emails, I’m more than happy to continue this discussion.

If you’d like to ask that reader a question about her experience, about infertility more generally, or if you’d like to discuss your own difficulty with fertility and how it affected your relationship, for good or for ill, please send us a note: hello@theatlantic.com. All views welcome.

(The joyous video above is from a reader, Kacy, who blogged about her “bumpy ride” through infertility with her husband, Jack.)

Update from another reader who struggled with both infertility and marriage:

This article could not have hit any closer to home. Infertility has almost ruined my marriage. My husband and I are 34 and 35 and have been trying for a child for five years and have had five reoccurring pregnancy losses at six weeks each time. Each loss is devastating.

We did all the testing and seeking options from three fertility specialists and no cause can be identified. They say it’s likely genetic and recommend in vitro, but when you don’t have $15,000 to spare and no guarantee the next pregnancy will take, it adds financial stress to an already emotionally stressful situation. When no cause can be found, you start think irrationally, and unknowingly anxiety and depression start to develop. If there is not a scientific explanation, then there must be a divine force making a statement that we shouldn’t have children together.

This stress compounded over five losses and many years made me weak and vulnerable, and I allowed someone outside my marriage into my life for distraction and understanding of these new feelings. I fortunately determined that it’s not another man I need. I need clarification to accept that we may not have a child, but my husband is my family and he is everything to me.