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Men & women relate differently to infertility struggles, speaker says

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Shortly after her wedding, Sandra Glahn was surprised to find out that she and her husband liked different types of food.

But when faced with infertility, they discovered that their differences were far greater.

Glahn, an adjunct faculty member at Dallas Theological Seminary, spoke about her experience at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary April 1 in a conference session titled, “Infertility and Pregnancy Loss: Roller Coaster of Hope and Despair – Myths and Facts.” The session was part of a larger conference, “Infertility and Spirituality: Coping, Comforting and Connecting.”

Other sessions included topics such as “Men and Women: Definitely Not the Same,” “Medical Ethics of Reproductive Technologies” and “Spirituality and Infertility: God Why Me?”

William Cutrer, the Gheens Professor of Christian Ministry at Southern Seminary, also spoke at the conference. Cutrer and Glahn have coauthored two books: “When Empty Arms Become a Heavy Burden: Encouragement for Couples Facing Infertility” and “Sexual Intimacy in Marriage.” They also coauthored, “Lethal Harvest,” a suspense novel about stem cell research. They contributed to another book, “Genetic Engineering: A Christian Response.”

“Through working with couples going through infertility, it’s [astonishing] to see how the different genders relate to struggles,” said Glahn, who along with her husband, Gary, adopted a daughter in 1995.

For instance, Glahn said that women speak an average of 25,000 words a day, men 12,500. When dealing with different areas of their lives, women tend to be more global — they may think of infertility throughout the day, Glahn said, while men tend to compartmentalize their thoughts.

“When it comes to conversation, women want to build rapport, while men want to report, which is why maybe in your home you hear, ‘Could you get to the point, please?'” Glahn said. “Women want to share all the details.”

This can lead to problems in discussions about infertility.

“He’s saying, ‘What’s there left to talk about? We’ve talked about infertility already.’ And she’s sensitive, [saying,] ‘Well you must not want children,'” Glahn said. “In reality, they’re just processing it differently. They’re processing it normally.”

Such differences don’t end with personalities, though. Glahn told of her first trip to the grocery store with her husband.

“I know that when I got married I was surprised that my husband didn’t use Parkay,” she said. “We went shopping for the first time and discovered we had a conflict over peanut butter. … You’re bringing two lives together with truly different experiences.”

Glahn said the language used in discussions with other people is important.

“View it as ‘our problem,'” she said. “Typically, one or the other is going to have a medical problem. Instead of saying it’s really his problem or it’s really her problem, [say,] ‘It’s our fertility problem.’ There’s no need to announce to the world who has the diagnosis.”

Cutrer said the problem of infertility is not isolated. He quoted research that says about one in six couples deals with infertility, while 30-50 percent of all conceptions end in pregnancy loss.

“That’s remarkably high,” Cutrer said. “I think we fail to appreciate how bad we are as a species of reproducing.”

Cutrer, who is an obstetrician/gynecologist, spoke about the myths surrounding infertility, including the one given most to couples by their friends: “Just relax.”

“That’s perhaps the worst piece of advice,” he said. “It’s certainly the most common piece of advice.”

Cutrer said that about 30 percent of infertility cases can be traced to female factors, 30 percent to male factors and 35 percent to a combination of the two.

“Does [relaxation] help?” he asked. “Most couples, when they first start trying to achieve a pregnancy, are not stressed out. Most of them are looking forward to it. It’s an exciting time. They’ve planned everything. They’ve done all the right things. That’s not what causes the stress. The stress is when it doesn’t happen, and when the doctor then looks across the table and says, ‘There might be a problem.'”

There is also no data suggesting that couples who adopt are more likely to conceive, Cutrer said.

“Five percent of couples who quit treatment and adopt conceive, [but] 5 percent of couples who quit treatment and choose not to adopt conceive,” he said. “What does that tell you? Adoption is a wonderful thing, but it’s not the treatment for infertility. It does not satisfy all of the same losses.”

Glahn suggested that men view the situation in terms of equivalent losses.

She told of a friend who — in order to understand his wife’s viewpoint — tried to put the loss in a different context. He imagined having a lifelong goal of attaining a dream job, but being unable to take the job because of a disability. Everywhere he went, people would ask him about his job.

“How would it feel to go through life answering the question, feeling like you couldn’t do the one thing that you had always wanted to do?” Glahn asked. “Her number one dream was to be a mom. For her, it was a primary role in which she had always seen herself.”

Glahn said it is important for infertile couples to seek support from others.

“It’s asking way too much of your spouse to do 100 percent of that,” she said. “You need the church, you need RESOLVE (an organization that deals with infertility), you need community. There are other people who can listen and bear some of that difficulty with you. I would urge couples going through this to join a support group — if for nothing else, then so you will continually find yourself saying, ‘I am not alone.'”

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust