Having trouble navigating relationships with your family and friends when experiencing infertility
Many people struggling with infertility or other life challenges find that their relationships are affected. For example:
- You might feel that the people you normally count on for support don’t understand what you’re going through.
- You might find social settings difficult because of triggering questions, insensitive comments or unsolicited advice.
- You might feel disconnected from others as they have children, as either one of you steps back from the friendship.
- You might feel excluded when you’re not invited to events like baby showers or birthday parties with children. (Even if you wouldn’t want to attend anyway, it would be nice to be invited.)
Supportive social interactions are key when you have to cope with something difficult, but because of these examples (and others), social isolation is common for people going through infertility. It may feel easier to be alone and keep your emotions to yourself, than to open yourself up to the possibility of receiving insensitive comments and responses.
Because infertility isn’t talked about nearly enough, many people simply don’t know how to be sensitive or supportive. This doesn’t mean that you can’t still have a relationship with these people, but you might want to set healthy boundaries with them when it comes to your infertility process - you don’t have an obligation to share everything with everyone.
To share with someone is important though; isolation can increase the difficult feelings you already have with infertility. So you may have to find a different support network from your usual one. It could be found in support groups, online communities or among more distant friends who share a similar experience.
Setting healthy boundaries - here’s what you can do…
Although it may feel selfish not to let someone into your process, or to tell someone directly what you need, it’s actually an act of kindness for everyone involved. You don’t only honor yourself, but also demonstrate to the other person that you value your relationship by investing in shaping it.
If we don't set boundaries, we usually end up shutting down, lying to or bursting out on the other person, or avoiding them altogether. So letting someone know what you need basically lets us maintain positive relationships with people we care about.
1. Start by getting to know your needs
One reason why it’s difficult to set boundaries is that you might not be sure what you need. Try journaling to understand what you need, and specifically what you need from the people in your life.
Remember that not all relationships have to give you everything. For example, you could turn to one person whenever you want to scream and cry, another when you need to discuss your treatment, and a third when you want to do something fun to take your mind off of infertility.
2. Communicate your needs and boundaries.
Setting a boundary doesn't have to involve criticizing the other person, placing a demand or issuing an ultimatum. It's about communicating your feelings.
For you to feel comfortable and to avoid unnecessary conflict, it may help to prepare. You can for example try writing down what you want to say.
Here are a few examples of how you might set a boundary with someone:
- “Please don't ask me anything about fertility right now, I’m too overwhelmed. I'll bring it up if I want to talk about it.”
- “I understand that you're trying to help when you send me articles, but I don’t need medical advice right now. I would much rather you asked me how I’m doing now and then.”
Handling triggering questions - here’s what you can do…
Regardless of how well you communicate your needs, you are bound to run into people that ask you triggering questions about having kids, your treatment, and other aspects of fertility. They might be well-meaning, but that doesn't mean the questions don't sting, upset you, make you angry, or trigger you into a tailspin.
1. Take a breath
When someone asks you a question about your fertility, try taking a breath before you say anything back. When you create a little space between a stimulus (the question) and your response (how you react), you can make a choice about what you want your response to be.
If you expect certain questions to come up, you can prepare responses ahead of time to make interactions less uncomfortable. Consider, or journal about, things like: What do I think the person's intentions are? How does this question make me feel? What is my relationship with this person? What is my ideal outcome of the conversation? Then you can prepare responses taking these things into account.
You can also just arm yourself with one of the below if you want to avoid a conversation:
- "I'm not feeling up for a conversation about this right now."
- "I appreciate your interest, and I'll let you know when I have something I want to share."
3. Let your feelings out
It’s important to take care of yourself when you’ve been asked a triggering question. When you have some space for yourself, you can do some journaling, do some deep breathing, scream into a pillow, move your body/dance it out, or vent to a friend or partner who is in a place to listen and validate you.
Try these exercises in Tilly's app...
- Setting healthy boundaries
Did you know that setting boundaries can be an act of love? Learn how to honor yourself and ask for what you need.
- Preparing responses to triggering questions
It’s no fun being bombarded with invasive questions from friends and family. Prepare yourself with responses that can get you through the conversation.
- Balanced thinking: Understanding the other person's perspective (role switch)
After a tough interaction, it can be hard to see that the other person maybe didn’t mean to say something hurtful. Try this activity to gain new perspectives and
A mental health app for your fertility journey
Evidence-based self-care tools and facts. Supportive community. Treatment tracking.
What to expect during the different stages of IVF
How to support a friend going through infertility
IVF stimulation - How to choose a protocol
How I processed my feelings about using an egg donor
8 ways to get through a difficult day with infertility
Struggling with infertility? An interview about the need for support with psychologist Anders Möller