"I Want to Travel, but He Wants Kids"
The Counselor's TurnThe Counselor's Turn
Fertility problems can put incredible strain on a marriage. When a couple's vision of the future is called into doubt, they have to decide whether they can create an alternative future -- which may mean confronting issues that they hadn't faced before. Every marriage contains a seed of doubt. The question is whether you can use it as a motivation to make things better. If you're scared of talking about it openly, you'll never find out.
So I encouraged Lani and Dave to consider their choices. First I asked Lani, "Can you imagine yourself without Dave? What would you be doing?" She said, "I'd definitely travel more. I'd find a job doing something more meaningful, even if it paid less. I'd rack up some interesting experiences." Then she paused for a moment, and I could see her husband hold his breath. "But Dave's my buddy," she went on. "Dave's my lover. We've been through a lot together. I don't want to have to choose between these things and Dave."
Dave looked incredibly relieved. Then I asked him, "Can you picture yourself without Lani?" He said, "Yes, I can. I'd move into an apartment. I'd find a job at a better-run company, where it didn't seem like everything would go to pieces if I worked less. I might even get married again. But I don't want to lose Lani."
That conversation really helped clear the air. For one thing, it established that Lani and Dave both wanted to work on the relationship. And once they acknowledged that they could survive without each other, it began to seem less dangerous to express their doubts honestly.
After that we started discussing more practical matters. First they simply needed to take a breather -- to put off any decisions about further attempts at becoming parents until they'd had a chance to recover from all the emotional whiplash. Then they had to imagine the kind of life they wanted if they didn't have children. Over the next few sessions they put together their plan B: They could sell the big house and pay down their debts. That would free them both to look for jobs that better fit their needs, both as individuals and as a couple.
But they also needed to make some deeper changes. Dave came from an anxious family, one with an "us against the world" mentality. His parents were uncomfortable displaying strong emotions and fearful of unfamiliar places and people. To succeed as a couple, he and Lani had to create a new family culture -- whether or not they had children. That meant Dave had to make a decision about travel: Would I rather stay home and be comfortable or work to grow our relationship? He had to make a similar choice about expressing his feelings: Would I rather avoid risking self-exposure or have a healthy marriage? And about entertaining at home: Is the pleasure of a quiet house worth the pain of a lonely and isolated spouse?
Lani came from a big, expressive family in which everyone made their opinions known and you were expected to have a thick skin. That had fostered her habit of directness. When Dave came home from work, she tended to just look up, give him a perfunctory hello and go back to whatever she was doing. If she had a mild asthma attack and Dave asked with concern if he should call a doctor, she often blew up at him. When her rapid emotional changes -- intensified by the hormone injections -- made him withdraw in confusion, she got angry with him instead of trying to draw him out.
As the months went on I worked with Dave on overcoming his inherited anxieties and with both of them on improving their communication skills. Each of them had to listen more, without withdrawing, in Dave's case, or lashing out, in Lani's. Lani had to remember to ask Dave about his day when he walked through the door. I asked her to write down at least one thing she liked about him daily and to review the entries frequently. To help Dave overcome his emotional reticence, I asked him to tell Lani what he liked about her at every opportunity.
I also helped Lani work out ways to avoid being rattled by other women's fertility successes. We made up a kind of mantra: This person's pregnancy has nothing to do with me. That simple statement, repeated faithfully, controlled her jealousy. Finally, we devised a ratings system for Lani's asthma attacks, so that Dave could just ask "what number?" to know whether and how to help without stepping on his wife's strong sense of autonomy.
By developing these new habits, Dave and Lani gradually began to regain their old closeness and trust. They recently took a vacation to Costa Rica, where they went snorkeling and ziplining. Dave told me the experience was phenomenal. Right now they're getting ready to try a type of in vitro fertilization that involves a shorter course of hormones and should be less disruptive to Lani's health. But however the procedure works out, they feel confident that they can handle it.
"We have our battle scars, but I think we're pretty solid now," Lani told me.
Dave agreed. "With or without a baby," he said.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2012.