Children change everything. Any parent will tell you that. Everyone agrees that adding children to a marriage alters every aspect of life.
What parents cannot seem to agree on is whether or not all of the changes are positive. Sometimes, tired parents seem to boast about the hours spent in the family minivan, driving to endless enriching extracurricular activities. They seem to take pride in how they never really see their spouse anymore or have an adult conversation that is not about the kids. Parents point out these things, seemingly as badges of good parenting, though they do not seem to actually enjoy it.
For five years, my wife Cheri and I tried to become parents. We enjoyed a healthy, romantic, playful marriage. But five years of infertility treatments taught us something: kids don’t even need to be born for them to take over your marriage.
The cultural pressures that make new moms and dads ignore their marriages act with just as much force on those of us who are only trying to have children. For our years of infertility, these pressures weighed on us, creating five habits that, had we left them unchecked, would have destroyed our marriage.
Habit #1: We Did Nothing to Protect Each Other
Infertility is like an uninvited guest who then refuses to leave, no matter how many subtle hints you drop. While people have nothing but nice things to say when you have a baby, infertility seems to open up all of the worst kinds of comments and questions from family, friends, and even strangers.
We learned pretty quickly that if we were going to deal with infertility and keep our marriage in one piece, it was going to take some strategy. How would we answer those awkward questions from the grandparent-wannabes? How would we deflect insensitive comments from strangers? By protecting each other, sensing what comments would hurt and where we could help each other, we could stay on the same page. A little bit of work went a long way, rather than grasping for answers month after month.
Habit #2: We Let Desperation Creep In
There is nothing like desperation to erode a happy marriage. If you want to put your marriage in serious jeopardy, put all of your hopes, all of your efforts, all of your time and attention into achieving a goal that is not in your control.
Infertility makes couples desperate because we are working against the “clock.” We are working against the limitations of our bank accounts. Thirty-seven does not feel old, until you suddenly become aware that with every passing year, the odds grow steeper against you. That nest egg in the bank looks pretty healthy, until you realize that just one or two rounds of in-vitro could wipe it all out, and you could have nothing to show for it.
Before we ever made our biggest decisions, we decided—once and for all—that we had to banish desperation from our home. We could not go to the doctor and say, “This has to work!” We had to determine that we would be okay and that life would go on, even if we did not get what we wanted.
Habit #3: We Thought of Nothing Else
There are parents who think of nothing outside of their children. You can tell, because the conversations you have with them are just about the kids. It seems that some parents believe their new career is to be their child’s public relations manager.
If you’ve struggled with infertility, you know: you do not have to actually have kids in order to be single-mindedly obsessed with them. It became easy for dinner conversations to be about nothing but children and what we were doing to get one. It was effortless to let children become the sole focus of our relationship. We put off travel plans and let our other interests dwindle in the pursuit of children. We became nothing but our infertility.
In other words, we stopped having fun. Sure, infertility may be an unwanted guest. But no one should feel guilty for enjoying the opportunities that not having children affords. Go ahead and take that trip you’ve been planning. Go on dates. Have fun. If there is one thing children do not need, it is two parents who forgot years ago how to have some fun together.
Habit #4: We Stopped Being Romantic
When infertility decides to join our marriages, romance gets shoved out the door. Everything becomes mechanical, obligatory, set by a doctor’s schedule, if you know what I mean. Those new parents who talk about how their love lives have taken a hit because they are just so exhausted with three little ones? They are not the only ones who are starved for romance.
Just as much as young parents, couples struggling with infertility need to commit to romance—and not just the procreative, scheduled, medically-necessary kind. Infertility requires the kind of romance that restores and heals a marriage that is under assault.
Habit #5: We Shut Down Communication
Adding it all up—the creep of desperation, lack of romance, and the stress of treatment—it is easy for couples to shut down. Maybe the husband retreats into a part of his life where he feels he has more control. Maybe the wife does not feel she can really be honest.
Whatever is going on, couples have to know that there is not going to be a point at which the decisions concerning treatment become easy. The stakes only get higher. And no couple can get through it while giving each other the silent treatment.
No wife can get through infertility with her husband giving up and saying “Whatever you want.” No husband can get through infertility with his wife shutting down emotionally.
None of these habits have to take hold of your marriage. In fact, infertility can build a marriage, if we let it. We made it through infertility, and with our marriage strong and happy in the end. Five years of waiting not only made our marriage better, we cannot imagine our marriage without it. The same can be true for any couple who promises to come together in hard times, rather than be torn apart.
Matt Appling is a teacher, pastor, and writer in the Midwest and has published two books with Moody Publishers. He and his wife, Cheri, live in Kansas City and together wrote Plus or Minus: Keeping Your Life, Faith and Love Together Through Infertility. Follow Matt on Twitter @Matt_Appling and visit www.plusorminusbook.com for more information about the book.
Publication date: March 18, 2015