I recently read an article about a study from Stanford University that documented the extent to which struggles with fertility hurt women’s sex lives. My first thought when reading the study was that this “groundbreaking” research was anything but that to women who live with infertility.
I thought however, it may be worth sharing as at least it is now “scientifically verified” that losing the “spice” in the bedroom can be yet another rarely talked about side effect of months of trying for what never comes.
“Forty percent of infertile women suffered from sexual problems that caused them distress, compared with 25 percent of a control group of healthy women. They experienced low desire and had trouble becoming aroused. They engaged in sexual intercourse or masturbated less frequently. The research is important because it highlights a problem few women talk about. Also, the data make a clear case for fertility doctors to collect couples’ sexual histories and refer them to counseling, especially given the growing awareness of how patients’ emotional health affects their chances of treatment success, explains Janet Takefman, psychologist and chair of the mental health professional interest group of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.
In the Stanford study, published in 2010 in Fertility and Sterility, researchers surveyed 119 women with an average age of 36 and found that infertile women were less happy with their sex lives, compared with a group of 99 healthy women. However, the infertile women had similar levels of sexual satisfaction as the healthy women before being diagnosed.
Since fewer than half of the women had received IVF treatment, it was unclear whether hormone shots depressed their libidos, though the researchers believe the cause was mostly psychological. Women with infertility suffer from depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem, and their distress is compounded with each unsuccessful treatment attempt. In the Stanford study group, the average length of infertility was 3.4 years. Ronny Diamond, a therapist based in New York and the co-author of Couple Therapy for Infertility says that women’s sexual desire is further dampened if they feel unattractive or unfeminine because they can’t conceive. “Sex, rather than being a place where you can escape the world, becomes a reminder of what you can’t do. You can’t make a baby,” she says. As a result, women are less likely to feel close to their partners. Worse, they might feel they’re disappointing them.
When sex is so fraught with failure, it quickly becomes a casualty. When it does occur, it may be the on-demand variety that feels like a chore for both men and women. “When the woman calls her husband at work and says ‘I’m ovulating. Come home. We’ve got to do it now,’ it ruins people’s ideas of romantic conception,” says Diamond. There’s little room for foreplay, and men may have trouble performing under so much pressure. Alice Domar, a psychologist who developed a popular mind-body program for infertility patients, advises patients to protect the pleasure of sex by designating one bed for baby-making sex and another for fun sex. Or they can try to strive for “mindful love-making” and focus on their partners’ touch and smell rather than think about the purpose of the act. Although medical intervention can be an added source of stress for couples—fueling arguments over how much money to spend for treatments and whether to use donor eggs or sperm—some say it has helped their sex life by relieving them of their baby-making duty.
The question remains, however, whether couples’ sex lives bounce back once a couple gets past infertility, whether by conceiving, deciding to adopt, or making peace with not having children. There is some good news on that front: A 10-year follow-up of couples who completed IVF treatment—successfully or unsuccessfully—rated their sexual satisfaction as being adequate or somewhat better than adequate. Although one-third of childless women in this study reported that infertility had a negative impact on their marriages, Takefman notes that infertile couples have a lower divorce rate and can recover from sexual stress. “You’re fighting a crisis together and learning how to cope quickly with something traumatic,” she says. “If you survive that, you’ll be in good standing for the rest of your marriage.”’