Thanks for reading Can We Talk?, a sex and relationships column that aims to tackle the burning questions about sex, dating, relationships, and breakups that you’re too afraid to ask your partner — or maybe even your besties. Last time, relationship therapist Moraya Seeger DeGeare, LMFT, helped a reader who was having trouble enjoying sex again after pressing pause on trying to get pregnant. This week, we heard from Refinery29 readers about how fertility and attempting to conceive affected their relationships.
Jac Ciardella: Our relationship has always been really good. After years, people would still say, “They’re like newlyweds.” We were always the couple that made people nauseous. But one of our biggest challenges as a couple was going through fertility treatments. We started trying to build our family in 2015. Candice went through six attempts at intrauterine insemination (IUI) without success. When we were facing in vitro fertilization (IVF), we decided to try it with me. I’m a transgender man, and we decided [I'd do the egg retrieval, but] Candice would carry the children. When that didn’t work, we tried an IVF cycle on Candice. Eventually, it worked, and our daughter Jo was born three and a half years ago. We now have a second child, Jack, who’s one year old.
Candice: We really leaned on each other and our support system during fertility treatments. We didn’t anticipate all the bumps in the road. Jac is a talker, but I wasn’t one before. He helped me grow into one and share and not just bottle stuff up inside. That was something that came out of our fertility journey. We’d be cooking and talking. And then we’d sit down to eat and talk. And then we’d talk as we’d watch shows during commercials. We’d talk over ice cream or coffee. We were never not talking.
Jac: Unless we were eating. We’re both Italian, and they say, “feed the pain.” Cooking for each other was definitely our “acts of service” love language coming out… “Physical touch” is one of our love languages, too, but it was different during this time because you don’t want to be touched when you’re going through fertility treatments, because you feel disgusting. It’s definitely less sex and more cuddling.
It was helpful that when she was going through IVF, I had done it too. Not too many guys could say “I get it” and really get it. The injections, the pain. I had done it multiple times and knew that it sucked. It made it easier to empathize. I could say, “I do know exactly how you’re feeling.”
Candice: In the long run, it probably saved us from some fights. I’m an overthinker and stubborn and that’s a bad combination sometimes. I think Jac having gone through it all too was helpful. He knows me and actually knew what I was going through. [And] he was always able to give me the positivity that my overthinking mind wouldn’t allow in. He would say, “Hey, it’s hard, this sucks, but we’re in it together.” This is not the road we would have chosen. Obviously, nobody wants to choose a very difficult road to try and grow and build a family. But this was our road. I don’t know if I would have survived it as well as I did if it wasn’t for him.
Like all good husbands, you span out your wife and what they weave, and you unweave it. That’s your job.
The second time around, going through it again to have our son Jack, I had a toddler, so I was unable to overthink it nearly as much as before.
Jac: You didn’t have as much time to let your mind wander off to bad places. Can[dice] does what we call “weaving tapestries of badness.” Like all good husbands, you figure out your wife and what they weave, and you unweave it. That’s your job. So, in those ways, I think this whole experience bonded us even more.
Candice: You see the fertility doctor and you’re in the waiting room, and you’re always waiting for a result or waiting to be seen. You can see the couples who will make it through and the ones that won’t. The ones that are still loving, who are still interacting, who are still there for each other — those are the ones who will survive difficult moments and make babies. In certain moments, you can’t help but feel discouraged or upset, but it’s wonderful to have a husband who’s so loving. Who says, “Hey, we’ve got this.”
Samantha, 32, Henderson, NV
We started trying to get pregnant around 2017, and the next year I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which can impact fertility. We tried a bunch of different things to try to make a baby happen. A lot of natural remedies, and a few medications prescribed by the doctor to help with my PCOS and try to force ovulation. I also had gastric bypass surgery to get my hormones more balanced to try to help as well.
Unfortunately, none of it worked. It got to the point that it took the excitement and romance out of our marriage because everything was so scheduled, including sex. It was upsetting, frustrating, and disappointing each month to learn that everything we were trying wasn’t working — we always felt like we were always under pressure. All this eventually led to such a poor sex life that he cheated on me with one of his employees at work. Due to all of the heartbreak, differences between us, and the cheating, we decided to get divorced in 2021 and go our separate ways — childless.
I don’t believe that not being able to have kids was the sole cause of our split. There were also confidence and mental health issues at play. But I do know he really wanted kids, and I think it put a rift in our marriage when I started to accept the fact that it might not happen. I wish I knew ahead of our fertility journey that all that frustration and disappointment could actually push us apart.
I have accepted that I won’t have kids on my own, and I am okay with being the proud mom to a bunch of fur babies. I am now dating someone who I enjoy spending time with, without all of the guilt and pressures of trying to have kids. He has a child, and we have five cats and a dog between us — not the family I originally imagined, but it works for us, and I’m happy.
Becky Morrison, 42, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
My husband and I have struggled with fertility since 2014. Going through treatments such as IUI and IVF negatively affected our sex life. Before you start, the doctor tells you and your partner to have sex on specific days of your cycle. You don’t do it on other days, and if you’re not in the mood on the days you’re supposed to do it, well… This led to arguments. For example, during our first round of IUI, we came home to find out our home was robbed on a day we were supposed to have sex. Our apartment was a mess — belongings and police dust everywhere. All I could think of was, We have to have sex now. All my husband could think about was cleaning up and making our home feel safe again. I had to learn to take my husband’s needs and feelings into account instead of focusing on the endgame — I was so desperate to have a baby, I would have tried anything at that point. Really, if my fertility doctor told me to dive into a pool of pudding, I would have done it.
As time went on, neither of us was enjoying sex, and our relationship was stressed. So we sat down and talked about what was important in our life besides having a baby and discussed how much enjoyment we had lost in other aspects of our lives. This put things into perspective. We were a little less prescriptive about intimacy. Following all the rules from our fertility doctors was important, but not the main focus anymore. We knew that this was the most healthy thing for our relationship and our own mental health. As a result, we fought less, enjoyed life more, and had better sex.
I would have tried anything at that point. Really, if my fertility doctor told me to dive into a pool of pudding, I would have done it.
However, we experienced multiple miscarriages and health scares, and this taught us that my husband and I cope with grief and loss in different ways. Whenever I had a miscarriage, I would need his support while I processed all those horrible emotions. However, my husband needed to "get back on the horse" and distract himself with his hobbies and interests. We both made a point to be very open about how we felt after each miscarriage and checked in with each other. I wanted to make sure he was coping in a way that he needed. You need to both be on the same page and be honest about your feelings, or it can rip your relationship apart.
I also tried to work through the shame and utter failure I felt about infertility. At one point, I started to think my husband would leave me for a more fertile woman. My self-esteem tanked and my stress levels continued to climb. I decided I needed to talk to a therapist about how to improve my mental health. I found one who specializes in grief and loss, and who also struggled with infertility. This helped.
Nicole N., 41, Brooklyn, NY
My boyfriend and I met online in 2014, but it wasn’t until about two years ago that we began trying to conceive. Everyone said to just “have lots of sex” and we'd get pregnant. So, at the beginning, we took a "whatever happens, happens" approach. Then I began tracking my cycle, too. We don’t live together, so at first it was a strain telling him, “I’m ovulating this week, you need to come over ASAP.” Especially because we both have busy work schedules. But we’ve still managed to keep the fire, and have been intentional about bringing romance and sensuality into the bedroom, even when the sex is scheduled.
But, along the way, we’ve wondered if keeping the flame was enough. At age 40, after months of trying, I decided to speak to my doctor after attending a summit about vaginal wellness, infertility, and disparities in the Black community. I tried out several fertility specialists. After hearing our options, we said we’d preferred not to go the IVF route because of the stress and fees. I'm currently taking the fertility medication Letrozole and doing timed intercourse with hopes of getting pregnant.
Sometimes I freak out when I have to put out over $500 for a 15-minute appointment and bloodwork. But my partner pays a portion of it and we make sure to talk about the impacts of sharing the financial burden, even though our finances are mostly separate. We talked about getting a loan specifically for treatments, but we still have the options to dig into our vacation, shopping, or “going out to eat” funds. At our age, our parents won’t financially contribute, but we’re making it work, while keeping communication steady. Overall, though, the financial strain has been a bit taxing on our relationship.
For a Black man, struggling with fertility feels like a faux pas.
My partner — a Black male — is still processing this journey because Black men really don't have an outlet for support. I have friends I can talk to who’ve been through this. But for a Black man, struggling with fertility feels like a faux pas. There’s no one to turn to. I always ask him how he feels, and I suggested he talk to a therapist. I believe this has helped him, but I wish there was space for him to have this conversation with his bro-friends candidly. Or even to hear it on popular, male-centric podcasts. Often fertility issues and conversations fall on the women. We’re still figuring all this out and supporting each other through this, but the biggest thing I’ve learned is it’s important to talk to people.
Kami*, 34, MA
My husband and I have been together for half of our lives and have been trying to conceive for more than two years. In that time, we have lost a pregnancy, spent upwards of $20,000, and have had our faith tested in all ways imaginable.
We tried three IUIs first. The first one worked, but I lost that pregnancy. Coping with this involved therapy, lots of long walks, and integrating meditation and mindfulness habits into our lives. It's challenging to get your mind off the thing you want the most — especially in a pandemic, where our world became so much smaller for so long. We also tried to focus on enjoying the many things we do have.
When the IUIs didn’t result in a baby, we went through a round of IVF. We ended up with three viable embryos, none of which took. Throughout this time we were basically at the mercy of our insurance coverage. The financial aspect has definitely been frustrating for us. We're essentially blitzing through our savings, and are aligned in going the adoption route if it continues this way. We’re planning to try another round of IVF at a new clinic soon, and are still trying the “old-fashioned way.” The thing about attempting to conceive is that sex becomes gamified and time-sensitive. It’s hard not to think of it as a chore (for both of us).
I am fortunate to have a wonderful partner, who has always supported my choices on this path. But even with that support, especially during COVID where appointments are solo, it’s impossible to not feel lonely. It’s an incredibly grueling process that you become consumed by. He can only understand what I’m going through to an extent. But I'm comfortable communicating with him and indicating when I need more TLC. Throughout, he has really encouraged me, tried to keep my spirits up, and often says, “We will do whatever you want to do. If you want to stop, we'll stop. If you want to take a break, we'll take a break.” It's not easy on him either, and I understand that.
There is no doubt in my mind about our relationship's ability to handle all this. We are committed to each other and this is one part of our story; yes, it's been a sucky one so far, but we have hope it will get better. That we’ll figure it out.
Interviews have been condensed for length and clarity.
*Name has been changed to protect identity for professional reasons.