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Sharing Infertility: Couples Disclose Less to Friends and Family when Husbands Feel Stigmatized

Why do some couples talk about their infertility, but others do not? Interestingly, a recent study found that couples who are experiencing fertility problems adjust how much information they share with friends and family depending on whether it’s the wife or husband who feels stigmatized about their trouble getting pregnant.

Researchers at the University of Iowa and Penn State University surveyed 50 heterosexual married couples on the East Coast who had been coping with infertility for eight months to five years and asked them questions about medical and financial aspects of their infertility, their relationship and their feelings about the experience. The couples identified five support people in their lives — three who provided support to both of them, and two who were closer to one member of the couple. Researchers then analyzed how much was shared with whom, as well as the reasons behind the decisions.

“In this study, ‘stigma’ was represented by two components — personalized stigma and disclosure concerns,” says study author Keli Ryan Steuber, assistant professor of communication studies in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Personalized stigma represented personal fears or experiences of the infertile individual, and disclosure concerns represented the act of protecting their infertility status or compartmentalizing who has access to knowledge about their infertility.”

The study, published in the Journal of Applied Communication Research., found that when it is the woman who is concerned about people's reactions to the couple’s infertility, both the husband and the wife disclose more to their social network.

“In our study, when husbands experienced personalized stigma, personalized fears or negative experiences about other people’s reactions to their infertility, then both husbands and wives disclosed less to their family and friends,” Steuber says. “However, when wives experienced personalized stigma, husbands and wives disclosed more about their infertility experience.”

Steuber speculates that the results have to do with protecting the husband’s public face, as well as a culture that encourages women to pursue motherhood. "It aligns with the idea that couples do more work to maintain the husband's public persona," she said. "For women, it may be a response to our pronatalist culture. There's an expectation that women want children, and sometimes those who are voluntarily childless are labeled as selfish or too career-driven. We wonder if that stigma overrides the stigma of infertility, to the point that women and their husbands feel compelled to clarify: 'We're not choosing to not have children. We can't have children.'"

Other findings from the study include:

  • Couples were generally OK with spouses having different privacy restrictions for different support-network members.
  • Wives share more about infertility than husbands, and women typically turn to other women for support.
  • Husbands lean on their wives as a main source of emotional support.
  • If either partner experiences doubts about the marital relationship (level of commitment or concerns about the relationship's future), the husband worries that he may have communicated to family and friends about their infertility in a way that was uncomfortable to the wife.
  • Couples were more likely to reveal details of their experience to people they would feel comfortable confronting about a breach in confidentiality.

Steuber plans to continue exploring couples with infertility and their social networks. The next step is to examine how couples seek support online through such venues as Facebook, blogs and message boards.

"We know that these communities can be helpful in terms of social support," Steuber says. "People will post something and get a reassuring response by other people going through a similar experience. Or, they might not get a response at all and feel turned off by that. We're curious about the interpersonal benefits and disadvantagesof communicating on these online forums."

Steuber also plans to explore how online interactions with strangers compare and interfere with the support they're getting from face-to-face relationships with their spouse, family or friends.

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