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"We Can't Get Pregnant"

Nancy and Seth desperately want a child, but the stress of infertility is hurting their marriage. Can this marriage be saved?
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Her Turn
"I want a child more than anything, and I'll raise it on my own if I have to — though that's certainly not what I want," said Nancy. "I love Seth and I want his baby, but if he really feels he can't go ahead with whatever we have to do to have a child of our own, I just might end this marriage. Being a mother is too important for me; I don't want a marriage without a child.

"We've been trying for about a year and half to get pregnant. I'm trying not to panic — I think I've handled the disappointment pretty well so far—but at my age, it's getting increasingly difficult not to think the odds may be against us. I'd like to be able to talk to my friends about what I'm going through, but Seth is very private and it flips him out to think that other people might know his business.

"A year ago, my gynecologist referred us to a fertility clinic where we began a merry-go-round of tests. All along we both assumed the problem was with me. We were shocked when the doctors told us that Seth's low sperm count was most likely responsible for our inability to conceive. To be honest, I wish the doctors had found something wrong with me. I think I'd be better able to deal with it than my husband. We were both in shock when we heard the news and it's taken a while to digest it. You never think that such a serious problem will affect you. Over the last few months, I've become increasingly worried about Seth. I know it's a terrible blow for him.

"The fertility specialist referred us to a urologist, who suggested surgery for Seth. It didn't work. After two pretty painful procedures, the count is still very low. Now, we're faced with some hard decisions — and we don't know what to do.

"The doctors suggested artificial insemination with donor sperm. I'm open to the idea but Seth refuses. At least we'll know who one of the parents is. But he's adamantly opposed and his stubbornness is making me angrier by the minute. He's always pictured having a little boy who looks just like him. Well, it's just not going to happen and it's time he got over it. But since we can't talk calmly about anything without having a nasty argument, how will we ever resolve this big one?

"I've always wanted to be a mother as well as have a career — and I know I can do both. I'm one of nine children in a very traditional family. My mother stayed home so, naturally, we were all much closer to her than my father. He was an alcoholic, but until my late teens, I never really knew exactly what the problem was. Dad wasn't a fall-down kind of drunk; he functioned well enough most of the time. But we all sensed that things were different at other people's houses. Mom made a lot excuses for my father — she came from an alcoholic family herself. I think we were all a little bit afraid of him.

"I was an excellent student; school was an escape for me. There was never any question in my mind that I'd get a college degree and work in a professional capacity, though the girls in my family were never encouraged to succeed. Going away to college meant getting away from the chaos at home. I knew I wanted a career in the film industry, so after graduation I moved to Los Angeles. I fell in love with a fellow student — we were married for five years, but grew apart and divorced amicably. Meanwhile, I started working at a movie studio, first in sales, then in promotions and marketing as I tried to find my niche.

"I met Seth at a film festival in Park City. He was working for a film company based in San Francisco and had recently divorced too. Tall and handsome, he came on pretty strong, which put me off at first. We started a long-distance romance, seeing each other every few weeks. Over time, I fell very much in love. A year after we met, Seth moved to Los Angeles. By this time, I had a good job at one of the smaller studios and I arranged for Seth to have an interview. They hired him on the spot.

"In fact, baby business aside, things have been pretty stormy at home. Sometimes, after a heated battle, we go for days without talking — and even longer without sex. One never-ending argument is over Seth's drinking. He likes to be out late at night, which is not my style. I think he goes out drinking too often and drinks entirely too much. He's a very sociable guy — which is what makes him such a good advertising man. But it all reminds me too much of my dad. And if I dare bring up the subject, he immediately launches into a tirade that I'm trying to control him. Just to be difficult, he tells me he'll be home at a certain time, then arrives hours later and never calls. It's so childish and it makes me livid!

His Turn
"Nancy never lets up," said Seth. "She's constantly on my case and I can't breathe, think, or do anything without her giving me instructions or complaining about what I'm doing or not doing. Things haven't been going particularly well for me at work — several projects I've been trying to get off the ground are stalled. I'm having trouble focusing. No one has said anything to me, but I don't feel great about my performance over the past year or so. And the last thing I need is to have a wife who dumps on me at home.

"To be honest, with all the fighting, I'm not sure it makes sense to talk about having a child. All these fertility tests, plus my two surgeries — which were not pleasant — have drained me. It's hard to face the fact that because of me, we may never have a child of our own. Doesn't every parent get a charge out of seeing a little bit of themselves in their kid? I'll never have that. Is it so terrible to want a child of my own flesh and blood? Will I be able to bond with a child who isn't biologically mine?

"I'm also uncomfortable with the whole process of artificial insemination. We're both Catholic. Though we don't go to church regularly, I can't help thinking that this flies in the face of the church's teachings. And I'm totally uncomfortable at the clinic. It's so austere and well, clinical. The other day, a nurse asked us to choose the physical characteristics that we wanted in a baby. It was unnatural and demeaning and I felt sick to my stomach: It was like picking from a Chinese menu — one from column A, one from column B. Will Nancy think that a baby conceived this way is more her baby than our baby?

"If something interests me, I'm single-minded in my pursuit of it — and ever since I can remember, I've been in love with the movies. I spent two years in film school after high school, but when a small independent group asked me to work for them, I dropped out and have been supporting myself ever since.

"Before Nancy, I had two very intense relationships that ended badly. When I met Nancy, I hadn't been in a serious relationship for a long time. When we started talking about getting married, I asked the company I was working for if they'd consider hiring Nancy, but they had a strict policy against spouses working together. Since her company didn't, I made the switch and we got married. I don't understand why Nancy acts as if I had some secret knowledge that my being hired would throw a monkey wrench into her career. That's completely unfounded, but she won't believe me. The truth is Nancy needs to look for a job at another company if she wants to get the money and prestige she deserves. I'll help her write her resume, make connections — but here, my hands are tied.

"Nancy is bossy and critical and treats me like a kid who has to check in with her. Why should I call every time I'm about to make a move? She's just going to yell at me, and I refuse to put myself in that position. Nancy has to realize that I have an important position in this company and I'm responsible for a lot of people and projects. That means I often have to work late and on weekends. I can't take three days off just because she wants to.

"And I don't drink nearly as much as Nancy says. Okay, I like to go out with the guys and let it rip once in a while. But I'm not an alcoholic like her dad. She needs to lay off me on this one, too, before we can even start to talk about a kid."

The Counselor's Turn
"Couples in the midst of an infertility crisis often come to therapy confused and overwhelmed," said Dr. Heitler. "Resentment, anger and blame are typical. They're searching for answers that will help them put their sadness and pain into perspective. Throughout our sessions, I reminded Nancy and Seth that infertility is not a character flaw — it's a medical problem. Most importantly, it's a couple problem — and certainly no one's fault.

"The other issues confronting Nancy and Seth have taken a long time to develop — and they weren't going to be resolved quickly. These two needed to learn the basics: how to speak clearly about what they want; how to really listen to, and empathize with, their partner; and finally how to arrive at a decision that feels right to both of them. Despite the obstacles, I sensed that they could do it: Intelligent and committed, they had both been through divorce already; they wanted to make this marriage work.

"These two have lost the ability to connect on an emotional level — a connection they desperately need if they are going to be able to communicate about practical matters, such as which treatments to pursue, as well as more spiritual ones, such as how to heal psychic wounds and navigate the tough road ahead. For some couples, a strong support system of family and friends can provide solace during stressful times. But these two can't agree about whether or who tell about their struggles, so they're going it alone.

"First on my agenda was Seth's drinking problem. I suggested that Seth join a weekly counseling group I host because I sensed he'd enjoy the group's rapport. It was easy for a man like Seth, who was so successful in so many ways, to convince himself that alcohol wasn't holding him back. However, in time, as group members challenged some of his statements, he admitted that he was drinking to escape problems he couldn't solve and to distance himself from Nancy. Eventually, he was able to stop completely and agree to tackle the real issues.

"Seth revealed an important clue when he mentioned his mother's addiction: It is well documented that the propensity for addictive behavior runs in families. Though Seth is determined to deny his drinking problem, his mother's history makes me think there's reason to believe that it is indeed a factor in his current problems. Anyone who was raised in a family where addiction was a problem needs to keep this in mind.

"At this point, we could focus on the marriage. Because of what felt to him like overwhelming demands, Seth thought he was completely justified in not calling home and breaking promises he had made to Nancy. I explained that such passive/aggressive actions only incited more power struggles and did nothing to resolve Nancy's anger.

"To replace the negative competition between them with constructive dialogue, I established strict rules in my office that I hoped they would also use at home: Speak only in 'I'-statements, rather than blaming 'You'-statements; there would be no name-calling; and they had to listen fully without interruption when the other was talking. With me as referee, they knew they could talk freely without being attacked. Whenever either slipped into a combative stance, I immediately called his or her attention to it and asked him or her to re-phrase what they were trying to say and to consider their partner's position. I wanted them to learn to monitor their own tone of voice, gestures and language so that they could establish a dialogue that would resolve conflict, not simply win an argument.

"For example, whenever the subject of Nancy's work came up, she became irritated and blaming because she was confusing her resentment of the situation with her anger at her husband. Once she opened herself up to what Seth was saying, she heard him state unequivocally that he wished he could change things but was powerless to do so. Nancy began to consider other options. Instead of relying on her husband and keeping herself gridlocked in a job she disliked, Nancy tapped her sources, and within a few months, found a new job at a higher salary. Now that she feels professionally fulfilled, she can calmly discuss work-related issues with Seth. More importantly, she allows herself to feel Seth's pride in her accomplishments — an important step in restoring intimacy.

"Nancy also worked hard to monitor the way she spoke to Seth as well as the list of demands she placed on him. As she began to catch herself before she started to nag and criticize, Seth stopped running so hard in the other direction.

"Finally, as tension eased and Nancy and Seth warmed toward each other, we were finally able to discuss the fertility problems. Seth was truly crushed by the realization that he was responsible and I encouraged him to share his feelings. Nancy was at last able to empathize with what he was going through and they discussed the options that might make him feel more comfortable as well as whether he would be able to bond with a child that wasn't his own. During several tearful sessions, we talked in general about how Seth felt about being with children. I asked him to imagine how it would feel to hug a child who wasn't his biological child, as well as what really makes a person a parent.

"Together, Nancy and Seth decided to switch from the hospital setting to a private infertility specialist whose practice was smaller and homier and where the nurses knew and had interviewed personally every sperm donor. Nancy let Seth make all the decisions: he declined to choose eye or hair color and was most concerned about the donor's medical history.

"Nancy and Seth stopped coming for counseling on a regular basis after a year, though I see them from time to time for checkups. They are now the proud parents of Amanda, an adorable blue-eyed, two-year-old who looks very much like her mother, and who doesn't stopped talking — just like her Dad."

"Nancy and Seth stopped coming for counseling on a regular basis after a year, though I see them from time to time for checkups. They are now the proud parents of Amanda, an adorable blue-eyed, two-year-old who looks very much like her mother, and who doesn't stopped talking — just like her Dad."

"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed. "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is a registered trademark of Meredith Corporation.


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