Can our marriage survive infertility and depression?

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Dear Cary,

I wrote to you once about seven years ago — I was a faithful column reader before and until now. Your advice was spot on, and now I find myself in a heartbreaking situation that I hope you will shed your light on.

My husband and I have been married for six years. We have a mostly happy marriage with ups and downs. I love him. We have been struggling with my infertility this entire time. Basically, my ovaries have not and will not work. Of course I did not know this before we got married, although I suppose I should have wondered. I had never used birth control; I figured that the rhythm method just worked! Now I realize that my body did not work. These years of infertility have been heartbreaking. We have gone through a myriad of treatments. During this time, my husband has become increasingly cold and even cruel; certainly not compassionate. He feels like we are throwing our money away at the infertility industry. Most heartbreaking is, is that he will not adopt and will not use donor eggs (and his sperm) to have a child. In my mind, we have plenty of money — and there are ways to build a family. He just refuses. He doesn’t want kids that aren’t  “his own”; he sincerely thinks he could not love them as his biological children (despite what every parent of adopted and donor-conceived children say; your commenters will surely say this, and saying this does not help). He doesn’t want to be forced to do something he doesn’t feel right about. I understand that.

I tell him that I need compassion from him, and he says he “doesn’t express love in this way,” and I need to just acknowledge the infertility and get over it. The infertility is ruining our marriage. I could imagine handling this mountain to climb, if I felt like someone was climbing it with me. I could imagine a euphemistically called “childfree” life, if I had not found out that my husband is so callous and unsupportive. The way that my husband acts,  it’s as if he has fallen out of love with me. He says he loves me, although he sometimes says he just wants to “get away from all of it (i.e., divorce).”

Complicating the mess is that I have recently changed careers, which involves significant additional training, because I figured if I were not to have children, at least I could have a career that I found more fulfilling. He said that the infertility and my being in school is really hurtful, and he finds it difficult to talk about. Trying to communicate about it is like pulling teeth.

My school is in a different state — and we had planned to move to this state together; we were happy for a change. At the last minute he decided not to move; so now we live apart — although the “plan” is for him to move in about eight months. All of this is incredibly difficult.

I understand that my options are to divorce and become a single mother by myself (donor sperm + donor egg or adoption) or stay with him and not have children. I don’t want to be a single mother; I don’t want a divorce. I don’t want a divorce because that is not why I got married. I believe people who love each other — in sickness and in health — should be able to work things out. Perhaps you and your comments will astutely observe that it takes two to make a marriage work, and for whatever reasons, my husband has checked out. Perhaps. But he has not sent me divorce papers. But knowing that I could build a family but not doing so because of my husband’s recalcitrance is so painful I feel it in my chest <a href=”http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Womens_Health_Watch/2010/November/takotsubo-cardiomyopathy-broken-heart-syndrome”>(takotsubo syndrome)</a>.

He has finally started to go to a counselor; I think that much of his meanness is a result of depression and his own grief and confusion.

I also think he doesn’t want to be labeled  “the bad one,” who divorces his wife because she is infertile. I understand that my infertility is also a loss for him, even if he is handling it in a different way. I am in counseling too. We tried couples counseling to discuss our disagreement about creating a family, but it centered around his depression instead of our marriage and was not helpful after three months. Now that we live in different states, couples counseling is not happening. We see each other every month or so. We talk every day. He says he loves me. But once we start to talk about  “next steps,” he shuts down. He is a bit passive-aggressive (he would rather not make a decision and then all of a sudden we are too old to adopt).

 I feel like I am just waiting for him to divorce me. I don’t want to file for divorce because I can see through his pain and depression (and cruelness) to the person I loved and married. I don’t want to divorce him, when it is he who questions his commitment. I don’t want to divorce myself. Yet not having a family with children to grow old with is extremely sad. Your commenters will say to fill my life with other things (i.e., to change “childless” to “childfree”). But I already have great friends, hobbies, travel and a fulfilling career! How could it be any better? I had a great husband, and I hope he starts being one again. Childless won’t become happily childfree with a cruel husband. If I divorce, do I go on a dating site and say, “I’m forty and infertile! Who wants to adopt children with me!”? I would not have time to wait for someone else to have a family with — I would have to do it alone. How can I divorce the family I have, to adopt another family? The choices I have are all bad.

Thanks for your advice,

Infertile and Sort-of Alone


Dear Infertile and Sort-of Alone,

The key to your situation is for your husband to recover from depression. Depression can distort one’s thoughts and cause one to act cruelly. You can’t make any good decisions together, as a couple, as long as he is in depression. So the best decision you can make, right now, is to put off any permanent changes until he can be treated and show some improvement.

Does he resist treatment? He may. Until his condition becomes unbearable for him he may resist treatment. And it is a complicated situation. But the one clear message I want to send to you is that your husband is suffering from depression and that is the main problem in your marriage. So whatever can be done now to help him recover from depression should be your top priority as a couple.

His depression may resist treatment. It may last a long time. It may have several causes. He may have ups and downs. But it is the central issue and it can be treated.

Having children or not having children is not the central issue. The marriage is. A marriage can be a boundless source of energy and support for both partners if both partners are healthy; such a marriage can weather loss and disappointment. It can be a safe haven in which crucial decisions can be made. The question of children or no children may be a painful thing for him to face in his depression but it is not the central issue and it is not causing his depression. Nor is your moving to go to school causing his depression.

We don’t know what is causing it. But, again, it is my strong feeling that his depression is the factor that is pushing your marriage to the brink.

If nothing can be immediately done about his depression, or if he takes steps and there is no immediate improvement, then wait. Let life go on and let your marriage be in a holding pattern for a while. Meanwhile pay attention to your own needs; live on your own and wait. There is no need to divorce him yet. Just wait. Wait until he finds treatment and shows steady improvement or until one day you realize nothing is going to change and that his love is gone and the marriage is over. You may reach the point where you see that he is a lost cause and will never get better and there is nothing you can do. No one can say how long that might be but I feel certain that you will know if it reaches this point and that it will come to you as a kind of death. If it happens, it will come to you with fhe force of certainty and you will feel grief because it will be over. You won’t need anyone to tell you it’s over and you won’t need to guess or wonder. It will come to you that the marriage is over and then dissolving the marriage legally will be a formality. Then grieving will happen because the marriage is over, not because you are getting a divorce. It will be a kind of grieving because a kind of death has occurred, metaphorically speaking; he has gone so far into his depression that he cannot come out.

My guess is that this will not happen, that you will wait and he will improve and you will learn how to live together with your different feelings about children. You will have some shared loss and you will go on. That is what I see. The fact that he has started seeing a mental health professional is a good sign. There are many effective treatments. If he can find one, and stick with it, and improve, then the chances are good that you can have a marriage that works for you, even if it does not give you everything.

I pray that you will find the strength and wisdom to see this through.

Cary Tennis' Finishing School



13 thoughts on “Can our marriage survive infertility and depression?”

  1. Hi, i was married for 5 years without having a child, my husband got angry at me and wanted to get a divorce, i was so confuse because i don’t want to lose my marriage, i went to see a Doctor and i was told that i have EGG problem that i cannot have a baby, i cried all day and my marriage was really dying gradually.
    so one morning as i was browsing through the internet i saw a post on how on how A woman payed for an EGG Donor from infertilityhome, i was so desperate of it and i contacted the organization through their Email, and i was told that i can for An EGG donor and they will do the transplant for me, i did what they ask me to do though the money they ask for was much but i didn’t bother about the money all i was after was the EGG donor so that i can have my own babies. finally i did the transplant and as i speak to you right now i am a mother with 4 children. i am so so happy for what infertilityhome have done for me. if there is any one out there who is also in such condition, you can contact they organization for help through their Email: infertilityhome@yahoo.com i am so happy and my marriage is going on so well.

  2. I’m on the other end of the spectrum. My husband is sterile and we are both 33. We’ve been trying for five years. I’ve done steps for IVF and donor and my body couldn’t handle it. I had heart damage and surgery from the bcp, loss vision for a while, and take 7 pills every morning to have a sense of normalcy. I’m honestly bitter because I’m 2012 I almost died to have a baby for a sterile man who cheated on me during our engagement( found out 4 months after wedding). My mother wants me to flee bc I’ve been physically, emotionally, mentally, and financially drained in this marriage. He benefits from ME. I’ve gone downhill and cry for everything. I would swear that someone gave me a poisonous apple (him). We are young and he’s had procedures done but refuses to do things like lose weight, eat healthy, or exercise regularly to try to get better so we can try naturally. It’s okay for him to not TRY but I have to suffer. On top of that urine comes out when he releases so it’s nasty wet spots like a fountain in the bed. I’m turned off because it hurts and causes me to itch. The doctor said it won’t cause a disease or anything, but I’m tired. He’s very insecure, selfish, controlling, and does not have a friend in the world so I have to retreat to staying indoors. Some days I’ve considered suicide because I’ve gone through so much and he won’t leave bc his life is good. I’m miserable! The sex is awful, no kids, lack of ambition on his part…I can’t change his behavior but he forces me to stay with him. He has a bad temper and even after my heart surgery I’ve been called every foul name you can imagine. However, if I say I’m leaving, he says it’s because of infertility. I have to plan my escape from my own husband. I’m seeing a psychiatrist, neuropthamologist, therapist for emotional healing, and cardiologist. My cardiologist (60 yr oof man)told me that nothing will change and I need to live my life. Help! I was raised in a Christian home where you sacrifice for others, have faith, believe, and no donor sperm/IVF. I don’t know what to do!!!!

    1. Hello,

      I’m so sorry to hear about the difficulty you are experiencing with your husband. It has been a couple years since you posted here. Are you still experiencing the same problems or has your situation changed?

      I may know someone who could help.

  3. Thank you Cary and commenters for your wisdom. It is now several months later, and my husband has asked for a divorce. While we agree that many of our smaller issues could be dealt with, he could not overcome my infertility. He wants “a real family,” where his partner is the biological mother of his children. While he knew that I would carry a child made from his sperm (and donor eggs), he said it is not what he wants. So he has finally had the guts to ask for a divorce. It is incredibly sad. I can’t believe I married someone like this. I feel like I’ve been dealt the worst hand – first infertility and second, a husband who didn’t love me enough to climb this mountain together. So today begins my new life. I am lucky to have loving friends. And one couple, in particular, are giving me their frozen embryos. So I’ll make a family, in spite of my body and in spite of my mistake of marrying the wrong person. I am happy about this but incredibly sad of losing someone who I thought was my best friend.

  4. I’ve read many articles on fertility, age and the modern woman who seeks career, marriage and kids and her dilemmas about career, marriage in our 30s, finding the right guy and having kids before we are too old. I am one of these women who have had to figure these things out. One article I read quoted a woman in her mid-50s who did not find the right guy to marry in her 30s and thus did not have kids because she didn’t find the husband while she was still fertile. She said that she regretted not having kids — but she did not regret not getting married — because you have decades more to find romantic love and the right guy, and as you get older, you get more perspective on being A-OK without a man. Well, ok, I read it several years ago and I might be getting the details a bit mixed up on the mid-50s lady’s feelings and life history … but the idea stuck with me and struck a nerve with me: would you regret not having kids in your 50s like this lady? I know I would regret not having kids, while there are plenty of other fish in the sea. I love my husband dearly. We’ve been together for nearly 20 years. But if he wouldn’t make a family with me in my remaining years to do donor egg or adopt, I’d have left and done it on my own in a heartbeat. I also love Cary Tennis, but I believe another advice columnist would advise you to DTMFA. (Apologies if this is a little flip to make a little bit of an inside joke about advice columns but truly I think your husband’s depression is not the central issue; when I read your letter, I read your life’s desire to have kids as the central issue)

  5. Perhaps it is because I have never really desired motherhood but I feel badly for the husband in all this. She says she wants him to show her compassion but really seems to want him to acquiesce to all her desires. Perhaps his depression stems from his feeling that their marriage is not enough for her. Maybe the couples counseling would have revealed more but it seems that she called it off. Then she decides that they need to move so that she can have more schooling. How do they live? How does he leave their present home? I don’t get it. I do know that desire is at the root of much suffering in the world. I am in my 50’s now and my husband and I couldn’t have children in the classic way. Then seven years ago we hosted a 19 year old girl from Germany and hit it off so completely that we are like family now. She is finishing school there but visits every year and calls us every week and wants to move near us when she is done with college. We are her American family. We have other young adults in our lives as well who we call good friends and who we help when we can. Though some people think we are a little strange, in a good way, it works for us. My point being that living a life in service to others is fundamental to happiness. Give up personal desire for happiness and security and likely you will find those things.

    1. I could not disagree more with Lizard’s view that this woman is asking her husband “to acquiesce to all her desires.” He has said something completely irrational: that he does not want to create a family with her using donor eggs because he doesn’t think he could love kids who are not “his own.”

      Excuse me, but WTF?!? Here’s how donor egg IVF works: the egg donor provides eggs; the eggs are fertilized with THE HUSBAND’S sperm; one or two embryos are then placed in THE WIFE’S womb. She then goes through nine months of pregnancy and gives birth to a child or children who are GENETICALLY, BIOLOGICALLY HIS CHILDREN. Apparently he wanted that… and he can still have it! Not through adoption, obviously, but through donor-egg IVF.

      And since it sounds like Lizard doesn’t get this at all, it is devastating for a woman who wanted kids to find out that she can’t have them, at least not with their own eggs. It is a form of grief; it’s not an easy thing to go through. This woman needs sympathy and support, not gruff, callous bullshit.

      So, his reasons for not wanting to pursue donor-egg IVF are NOT EVEN COHERENT, much less rational, and he’s failing to support his wife at a very difficult time in her life. Is that because of his depression? Maybe so. But depression is an insidious disease and if he’s not treating it, he is betraying his wife. Being married to someone does not give you the right to make them miserable, to inflict your worst self on them, to make them spend their lives childless… just because you don’t feel like going to the doctor and getting your depression treated.

      I’ve been in a long-term relationship with a depressed man, and because he was “only” depressed–not concretely abusive–I stuck it out far longer than I should have. I passionately wanted to marry him at the time, but god, I wish I’d left much sooner.

      To the letter writer: good luck making a happy life for yourself, whether or not it’s with him. If you decide to proceed with donor eggs, be aware that you can do it much more cheaply in Europe than in the US–there are world-class clinics in Spain, the Czech Republic and Greece that do it all the time for women from around Europe and around the world. It costs about $6000-$8000 plus the cost of a one-week trip to Europe, vs. easily $25k+ here in the States. Good luck!

      1. You are right that I don’t understand the maternal drive and I look at things more from a marriage partnership perspective. I agree that the donor egg IVF can be a solution in which he is the biological father. Perhaps he responded illogically to this suggestion out of grief as well. Or perhaps his depression is more seriously biochemical. The donor egg IVF might solve their problem. I hope that she can convince him with love and compassion to pursue this course with her.

  6. Great answer by Cary. Infertility isn’t destroying your marriage; it’s just a fact, albeit a painful one. Your husband is destroying your marriage. Hopefully he will pull out of his downward spiral.

  7. Oh, LW, I wish I could climb through this computer and give you a hug. You are in a tough situation. I went through five years of infertility treatments and surgeries and miscarriages, and hands down it was the darkest time of my life. Unless you’ve been there, it’s really hard to understand how powerful the desire to be a mother can be. My husband was pretty neutral on whether or not to have kids, but he supported me the best he could (through some pretty trying years) during the quest. To have your shot at motherhood thwarted by your body and then by your husband’s refusal to consider other ways makes me ache for you. I agree that your husband’s probably depressed, and I hope he sticks with therapy and comes out the other side able to be the guy he was when you married him. But either way, be true to yourself. You’re not too old for any of the options yet. You deserve a compassionate husband and the chance to be a mom.

  8. Forty is not too old! I gave birth at that age and, while the sleep deprivation was very hard on me, the wisdom accumulated over the years more than made up for it. I look on young parents as relatively clueless. “Too old” is just an excuse.

    This gives you time you may not have thought you had. If your husband can use this time to good purpose, you may have a chance to convince him that the options he is rejecting now could make a joyful life for all.

    Good luck and best wishes.

  9. Dear LW,
    I agree with everything Cary says, especially about the depression not being caused (but perhaps triggered) but the circumstances. I would only expand on “…live on your own and wait” by saying while you wait, don’t wait idly but do everything you can to enrich your life, to maintain and even increase your well being. You had a partner. Right now you have a partner-in-waiting. Don’t wait for him to bring to your couple-hood what you need from it. Provide it yourself. That is essential and entirely possible if you give it your attention. You may not yet have friends for activities in your new city. If there are Meetup groups, that’s a good place to start or clubs and societies that match the hobbies and interests you mention. I think you may be in need of healing. You state “…my body did not work.” That’s a very hard viewpoint to live with. So much about it does work, I would recommend you add to your present feelings also that you celebrate the things that do work. Your heart that aches, your mind that thinks, your stomach that processes your food and keeps you nourished, and so on. I would recommend you make a sacred thing of your body, perhaps even of your life, there in the new city. You can reframe this time as a sacred journey, as a mystery that life is unfolding for you.

    Separate the infertility from the depression and stick to that. See your husband in the light of someone who needs help instead of someone who is not a good husband. Both are true, but the former will serve you and the latter will hurt you and you can choose which way to go. But mostly, help yourself. No need to focus on making a decision about the marriage, it will unfold, as Cary wrote. When your husband gets better, you don’t want the tables to turn and suddenly, now that he’s better, you both have to work on getting you better. I would suggest, nourish yourself so that you will be ready when the good times return. (And if they don’t, you will be in a really good place for the next chapter of your life.)

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