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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

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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

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