Understanding Male Infertility

More than six million U.S. couples currently face infertility & 40 percent suffer from male factor infertility.

During this difficult time, women receive tools and resources to help them deal with their feelings. Unfortunately, society often leaves men alone to process the emotions of infertility and fertility treatments.

Thankfully, we no longer view infertility as strictly a woman’s problem; however, men still struggle to find proper support. Men suffering from infertility need to know their emotional health is a priority, too.

Men are often not as willing to talk about infertility, which may stem from the traditional view that children fall under a woman’s domain. Over the ages, society categorized conception and fertility as a ‘woman’s responsibility.’ Understanding the origins of this perception and shifting your paradigm will help give voice to your role in overcoming infertility.

Establishing a Support System for Men

When a woman experiences infertility, friends and family often identify with her pain and want to offer comfort. They understand what she is going through, or can empathize. At the same time, many people forget the other half of the couple — and that he is also in pain. If a fertility specialist identifies you as the cause of the infertility, your feelings of helplessness, stress and anger exponentially increase.

Just as there are significant overall differences in men and women, disparities exist between how they deal with infertility. Women have a need to share and express their feelings. They often reach out to family and friends. In general, men may internalize their feelings and try to remain strong. Because other men don’t often talk about sensitive issues like fertility and having children, you may feel like downplaying your struggle.

Tip: Men dealing with infertility experience many emotions, and they need validation of these feelings, and suggestions to help them cope. Talk to your spouse, and make connections with other men experiencing infertility. It helps to know you’re not alone.

Common Misconceptions about Male Infertility

Many conditions contribute to the disparity in male and female responses to infertility. Unlike women, men don’t receive a monthly reminder of their fertility, or lack thereof. For this reason, men may seem less sensitive or distressed by childlessness. Monitoring ovulation is a woman’s task, and contraception often falls to the female partner.

Frequently, the initial fertility diagnosis occurs because the woman initiates the process with her gynecologist; her male partner doesn’t always participate in these office visits. Consequently, men come into the diagnostic picture much later. Tests tend to be more invasive and complicated for women than for men. In addition, men often think of their reproductive system as uncomplicated, with little that can disrupt its function, further distancing men from the initial shock of infertility.

The Cultural Significance

Several factors influence how men react to male infertility. American culture doesn’t inundate our psyches with images of fathering in the same way it focuses on women as mothers. A quick look through traditional men’s magazines reveals very few articles on how to be a great dad. Women’s publications devote cover articles and entire sections to parenting. Our culture shields men from developing expectations of their role as a parent. This may account for seeming indifference when a man faces childlessness.

Additionally, our culture expects men to show strength in the face of adversity and deems emotional responses to these events as weak. For men, strength seems to require detachment. How emotionally invested can we expect a man to be when pregnancy, a biological event for woman, remains solely a social experience for the male partner?

Of course, an infertility diagnosis can crush a man, especially if he longs to become a parent. The same issues that confront women weigh on men, and both sexes must now cope with taking parenthood for granted. Failing procreative body functions devastate men, especially since we associate these functions with sexuality. If they fail to conceive, men may consider it an assault on their masculinity.

Understanding Your Emotions

While you and your partner undergo infertility treatments, you may experience similar emotions and feelings:

  • Anger with “fate” and invisible factors that thwart your plan to become a parent
  • Frustration with the myriad of tests and procedures you will tackle together
  • Numbness, and an inability to focus
  • Sadness, isolation and depression as you face statistical realities

However, men and women may also experience quite different emotions while they battle infertility. That’s because societal roles often determine the role that men and women will play: men, the protector, and women, the procreator.

Male Responses to Infertility

Emotional responses to an infertility diagnosis can vary. You may initially feel shocked and overwhelmed by your diagnosis, which can cause you to see yourself as imperfect. Additionally, men often develop a sense of failure and feel they will miss out on an important life experience.
Often, men feel uncomfortable expressing depression and sadness, so their outward reactions may come out as verbal anger, a more socially acceptable mode of expression. As anger changes to other less comfortable emotions, such as grief, men may further retreat and repress any emotional responses.

When a man receives a diagnosis of male factor infertility, he often feels responsible for the infertility, especially if the condition relates to any earlier life event. For example, sports injuries, childhood illnesses and other contributing factors become the easy targets of disdain and frustration.

Feelings of Inadequacy

When fertility issues arise with the male partner, many men struggle with feeling inadequate. Although these ideas have no basis in truth, men often equate their manliness with their ability to impregnate their wives. Just watch a proud father boast about his four strong sons, and you can see the correlation. Feelings of inadequacy are exacerbated when a man must masturbate into a cup and undergo an embarrassing examination to discover the root cause.

Loss of Control

Certainly, fertility issues highlight how little control we have over our bodies. Men need to feel empowered in their lives. When a man suddenly discovers that he can’t control his ability to procreate, this revelation can be unsettling.

Tip: Accepting your reality can take time, so give yourself a chance to process your emotions.

Thoughts of Failure: A Need for Boys

For centuries, men have wanted to produce male heirs because survival of the family line and the family name depended on a son. In many cultures today, these thoughts still prevail, adding to a man’s struggle. The notion of continuing a genetic line has strong emotional connections for many men, particularly those who are ‘only’ sons. Infertility can mean not only the inability to pass along the family name, but also the family genes.

Many men also wrestle with lost dreams. If a man questions whether or not he’ll ever have children, then he must face the fact that he might not have an heir to carry on the family name. Certainly, men, as well as their partners, should consider other options, including adoption, surrogacy and perhaps fertility treatments.

Guilt

When a man suffers from male factor infertility, guilt is a common response. Men know that their wives want children and the guilt arises because they feel like a hindrance to that dream. Rationally, you may see that no one deserves blame, but that knowledge may not resolve the emotions tied to infertility. Reach out to your partner as much as possible, and remember that you are in this process together.

Physical Reactions

Sexual problems can surface with a diagnosis of male factor infertility. Erectile dysfunction and loss of desire can occur. When a man questions his masculinity, he may worry so much about his ability to function as a “man” that he finds himself unable to achieve or maintain an erection. These same concerns can rob him of a desire for sex. Treatment may remove the privacy of sex because diagnostic procedures can require “sex on demand,” which further aggravates these problems. The strain of worry and frustration can remove fun and intimacy from your sexual relationship.

Tip: Remember that making love matters to you and your partner, even if it won’t produce a pregnancy. Focus on romance and connecting as a couple.

Relationship Fallout

Marriages can suffer, too. Men often feel as though they have let their wives down. The stress can spill over into the marital relationship. A husband may suggest his wife should find a “real” man who can give her a child naturally. Small disagreements can get blown out of proportion. Some men may seek sex outside a marriage as a way of affirming their masculinity and desirability to a woman, which will only create more problems for a couple.

Tip: Look at this situation as a challenge to your relationship and find ways to improve the partnership. Infertility can draw you and your partner closer together, particularly when each person sees it as a team effort to overcome the problem.

In addition to your marriage, other relationships can suffer the impact of male factor infertility. Men may avoid relatives and friends who have children of their own. Holiday celebrations with young children present become difficult reminders of infertility. Because men feel less comfortable discussing their emotions with friends and co-workers, these interactions don’t offer supportive outlets for frustrations, which may cause a man to further withdraw.