Multiple facets of the infertility experience can block emotional fulfillment for men, and unfortunately, tools at men’s disposal remain limited. In hopes of naming male infertility’s emotional challenges, this article covers insights from a recent Hasidah webinar on male infertility, shared by a panel of experts and regular people on the journey.
“There’s a lot of really hard things about this. Each one on its own is hard. Put them all together, and it exponentially increases.” – Aron Wolgel
According to a meta-analysis on emotional responses to infertility in men, “men with male factor infertility experienced more ‘negative emotional responses’, including a sense of loss, stigma and reduced self-esteem, than men whose partners were infertile or who were in couples in which fertility difficulties were unexplained.”
Obviously, we can understand why infertility, on its face, hurts. However, the experience of male infertility also carries more specific, nuanced implications for emotional wellbeing.
Dr. Bill Petok, an experienced psychotherapist focusing on male reproductive health, describes three needs which are critical to mental health, but which are challenged by male infertility: privacy, protection, and language.
Men, especially, tend to feel empowered by control over their privacy. And infertility takes away that sense of control: “Everybody knows when you have a baby, how that came about, but you don’t talk about it. And that’s normal. That ought to be a private matter between two people. Now all of a sudden when you’re working with a urologist, a reproductive endocrinologist, a whole team, it’s no longer private; which I think can be terribly embarrassing on one level, and difficult to know how to talk about on another.”
The society we live in dictates certain ideals for men’s roles in their relationships. Unfortunately, these societal dictates can make men feel self-indulgent in acknowledging their own emotions. The stigma-induced idea is that men are supposed to be the protectors, and protectors aren’t supposed to need protection: “If you’re a man in a heterosexual marriage, you’re assigned a role culturally, and that is ‘protector.’ You’re supposed to protect your wife. ‘She’s going through all these shots, all these things, where do I get off, talking about how I feel? Look what she’s enduring.’ So we’re cast in this role of protecting others.”
In order to maintain emotional wellness, we need useful language to describe our experiences and reactions. But men don’t tend to have vocabulary for infertility experiences, making outreach that much harder. “How do you come up with the language to talk about this? We don’t get very good education about male reproduction…The first time many men learn about their reproductive system is when something goes awry.”
Dr. Stan Honig, a longtime urologist specializing in fertility, points out that men and women often feel comfortable with different approaches to infertility treatment, which can create conflict: “Not everyone is on the page at the same time. There may be points where the wife wants to move forward much faster than the male, and the male isn’t ready. There has to be a mutual understanding… I always stress to the couple, that you have to respect each other.”
Dr. Petok immediately agrees: “It’s very unusual for both people in a couple to be at the same place emotionally at the same time. Because one is here and one is here, it doesn’t mean they don’t care about one another. It just means they’re in a different place, but there has to be an understanding of that.”
Male infertility takes an underrated toll on emotional health, which makes social support extra important. But connecting with others on the topic can feel impossible.
Aron Wolgel attests: “I think it’s just really hard. I think we have to name that first and foremost. And it’s hard for so many reasons. For me, something my experience centered around was navigating the balance between what is personal and what is private.”
Even if you decide to reach out, despite the immense bravery that entails, good friends don’t always know how to respond. Wolgel describes the dilemma: “In many cases, it was just a lot easier not to talk to other people. ‘Cause then I wouldn’t have to make things awkward for them… People get stuck!”
You could decide to seek help in therapy. However, for some, taking that big step leads to more frustration; according to Dr. Bill Petok, patients have access to a disproportionately small pool of male therapists, let alone male therapists experienced with infertility.
Aron Wolgel also describes the tension around seeking support: “I knew I needed to seek something out, but I didn’t know who to look for, and even once I found them, what to talk about.”
Reaching out for support on this journey can feel bewildering, especially when we rarely discuss such vulnerable matters in daily life. It’s important to remember the old adage, though, that “anything that is human, is valid.” If you have even one trusted relationship in your life, it doesn’t matter how you say it or how you explain yourself; just the act of sharing the burden can feel empowering.
Speaking of the empowerment of relationships on the male infertility journey, one webinar panelist describes his experience in a realistically optimistic light:
“Me and my partner went through four cycles of IUI, and then continued to one IVF, which was successful. We’re expecting a baby in September. It has been a long journey – about four years now. I’ve learned a lot through the process: medical terminology… but also emotionally and mentally, having discussions with my spouse. Just being there for her, and she’s being there for me.” – Adi Lavy
Realistic optimism may be the ideal approach to the objective challenges of male infertility. The journey is an opportunity for growth, but you also don’t have to focus only on the positives. It’s not self-indulgent to acknowledge the difficulties and internal conflicts you may be experiencing. And as isolating as this can all feel, there are always others who want to hear your story.