It is impossible to fully address the topic of infertility without talking about sex. But if I have sometimes been ashamed to discuss my fertility challenges, I have been absolutely loath to bring up its impact on my sex life. Sharing this aspect of myself feels like inviting spectators into my bedroom to examine the sheets. Yet it cannot be ignored. Miscarriage and infertility had a material impact on my sex life. I don’t believe I’m unique in this experience, and I also believe that one of the most effective ways to heal from it is to talk about it. So, here we go, let’s talk about sex.
There are many reasons to engage in sex. Some people chase pleasure, some like to experiment, others seek out fantasy – a way to escape themselves. Mostly, I crave closeness. I’m a hopeless romantic. It’s why I read poetry, watch sappy movies, and listen to love songs. I want the butterflies. I pursue passion.
I remember the exact moment I realized I was in love with my husband. I was on the Bryan Center walkway on Duke’s campus headed back to my dorm room when the feeling washed over me – a spark started in my heart and sent tingling waves of emotion through my nervous system and I knew.
Falling in love was easy when I was 19. Peering over the precipice of adulthood, I knew it was not a trip I wanted to take alone. Every conversation and every interaction I had with my husband felt vital to my future. Intimacy was as essential as breathing. I wanted to blend into him until we were of one mind and one body, or as Kahlil Gibran says, “to melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.”
With time and maturity I disentangled from him and became my own individual within our relationship, and the focus of sex changed from conjoinment to connection. That’s why it felt exciting and appropriate to embark on a journey of family planning. It gave our love a purpose – the opportunity to create something. And when we got pregnant, I felt like our love transmuted into something sacred inside of me. That is, until my body betrayed me.
Miscarriage was traumatizing. There was the physical pain – obviously – but there was also the psychological feeling that my body had been violated and that I was no longer in control of my person. The resulting impact on my relationship was significant. Good sex and true intimacy require vulnerability. In order to give your body to another person, you must first let go of it yourself. Yet after my losses, I was unable to do so. Love and desire felt unsafe; instead of creating life, they’d invited death. I was afraid that sex could only ever bring me to a place of sadness and pain. Compounded on that, there was one year in the middle of our losses when we couldn’t get pregnant at all. Twelve months of trying and tracking and testing; and every month the waiting, the hoping, and ultimately, the disappointment.
Miscarriage was hard on our marriage because we didn’t know how to talk about it, and we pulled away from each other instead of grieving together. But our year of failed conception was something different entirely. Disappointment dominated rather than feelings of sadness. Sadness was exhausting and overpowering; but it was accessible. Sadness could invite others to hold it. Disappointment was harder to share; it was personal and bitter and brutal.
Overt time, fear and failure defiled my sexuality. Sex went from being an act of intimacy to a dreaded chore. “Planned intercourse” around my ovulation felt prescribed and transactional instead of spontaneous and special – even the term was emotionless and clinical. What should have been languorous and fun became efficient and goal oriented. My husband struggled to understand how I could suddenly perform when I was ovulating, but otherwise needed to be in the mood. I struggled to comprehend why he could be in the mood anytime except when there was pressure on him to perform. Many fights ensued. Multiple nights were spent crying in separate rooms. Then, of course, we moved on to IVF and no longer needed to have sex at all in order to get pregnant…
This was not how I had pictured my life or my relationship. We loved each other very much, but I think it’s important to admit that staying married was not a foregone conclusion. Infertility can break a relationship. A dysfunctional sex life can shatter intimacy. Some couples don’t survive this. My husband and I have been married for 11 years. For half of those we’ve been trying to start a family. Concerted effort and couples therapy enabled us to pull our sex life back from the brink and unshackle it from the weight of procreation, but we are still working to find the way back to one another.
There are moments when I feel hopeless in our efforts; times when I yearn to recover the innocence and abandon I felt when I was 19, though I know it is impossible. But in these moments, I’m reminded of one of the bible passages sung at our wedding: Song of Solomon chapter 8 verse 6, “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. For love is as strong as death.”
Infertility and miscarriage washed over us like a flood, breaking our levees and soaking us in sorrow. But our love hasn’t been drown; so we rebuild. Brick by brick we are reconstructing our palace of emotional and physical connectedness. Although our relationship has changed, once again “we’ll celebrate, we’ll sing, we’ll make great music.” (Song of Solomon 1:4)