Men are in general pretty bad at talking about their feelings. They are taught from their earliest years – both explicitly and implicitly – to hold emotions in.
Never cry, get on with it and barely whisper about what is upsetting you. When it comes to male infertility, the whisper typically fades to complete silence.
For many men with diagnoses ranging from low sperm counts to poor sperm mobility, infertility can become a hidden source of mental health problems.
Male infertility and the impact on mental health
Fertility problems can leave men with intense feelings of anger, shame, resentment and confusion. But their default setting is to stay silent about how infertility makes them feel.
This unwillingness to talk about problems is not however only down to childhood conditioning. Men struggle to open up about the gut wrenching emotions of infertility for many reasons.
A system set up for female infertility
From a practical perspective it is difficult for men because society is geared towards dealing with female infertility. Consequently, the support structures for men are very limited.
It is not uncommon to hear of a man being given a blunt diagnosis, handed a pamphlet about sperm donation and sent back in to the world to ‘get on with it’.
Apart from being a completely unsympathetic way to deal with earth-shaking news, it is probably the worst way to deal with a group so disinclined to deal with their emotions in the first place.
Don’t question his virility
Another significant barrier is the importance and symbolism of male virility.
The ability to procreate can be considered the essence of what it means to be male. Like childbirth for women it is something that remains no matter how gender roles and societal norms shift over time.
To have that questioned or even rendered void is a fundamental challenge to his sense of self. Only sufferers can truly understand the impact.
Here’s some more bad news…
The problem of male infertility is not going away and in fact, it is getting worse.
Couples in western society are delaying procreation until well in to their 30s and early 40s, bringing with it a host of age-related challenges.
Worse still, recent studies have shown that male fertility rates have dropped by over 50% since the 1970s.
With little support and advice out there it can feel almost impossible for wives and partners to know how to help. Thankfully there are some straightforward steps you can take to support your loved one.
Encourage him to talk about infertility. And then keep encouraging him.
And then encourage him some more.
There are hundreds of chat boards, forums and support groups aimed at women. On them they are sharing experiences, encouraging and helping each other deal with fertility challenges.
By contrast there is very little for men. Therefore wives, partners, friends and family need to research, prompt, cajole and support men as they begin to access help to share their own emotions.
Search online for male infertility support groups and online forums. Speak to your fertility clinic or consultant about support groups for men in your area and search for them online as well.
Speak to a counsellor
Opening up about infertility to a partner, friends or family can be daunting for many men. In the first instance, talking to a partner can bring up intense feelings of failure for not ‘coming up with the goods’ or ‘not being a man’.
With mates it can be impossible to even admit there is a problem in testosterone-fueled environments like the pub or Saturday morning five-a-side football. Family can simply feel too close and brings with it similar anxieties about expectations and opinions.
An objective, independent counsellor – particularly with experience in the area of male infertility – can provide the gentle guidance needed to help men come to terms with their diagnoses.
Counselling provides ‘head space’ and an environment free from the heavy burden of expectations and opinion.
Do not place blame
The medical profession treats infertility as two separate issues: female fertility and male fertility.
As a result either the man or women comes under the magnifying glass as ‘the problem’. Cue the apportioning of blame.
Many couples that have successfully navigated infertility often talk about ‘our problem’. Irrespective of whether a physical issue resides with the male or female, getting pregnant is ultimately a team effort.
It is vital that partners are as supportive as possible and do not place ‘blame’. No matter whether it is – in medical terms at least – a male or female problem.
A poor fertility report can often create a frenzied sense of urgency to do anything to improve chances of conception. But be mindful of the magnitude of the diagnosis. Time and space is needed for anyone – male or female – to process such devastating news.
Pressure to start trying herbal remedies, consuming supplements and changing habits could negatively impact your chances of conceiving.
Stress is a significant contributor to male fertility problems across the board. So you could end up undoing all the benefits of having a supplement consuming, veg-eating, non-pants-wearing partner.
Are you dealing with male infertility issues?
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