"We Can't Get Pregnant"

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The Counselor's Turn

Connecting Emotionally

"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.

Family Issues

"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.

Continued on page 5:  The Counselor's Turn, continued


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