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The social network of infertility: Study examines couples' privacy preferences
Aug 8, 2011 - 4:00:00 AM

Couples who are having trouble getting pregnant adjust how much information they share with friends and family, depending on whether it's the husband or the wife who feels stigmatized about their reproductive difficulties, a new study shows.

Researchers at the University of Iowa and Penn State University found that when the woman is concerned about people's reactions to their infertility, both the husband and the wife disclose more to their social network. If the man is feeling stigmatized, both partners share less.

Study author Keli Ryan Steuber, assistant professor of communication studies in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is eager to learn more about the why behind this finding in future research. Based on interviews with 50 infertile couples, she speculates that it has to do with protecting the husband's public face, and responding to societal pressure to pursue motherhood.

It aligns with the idea that couples do more work to maintain the husband's public persona, said Steuber, who coauthored two recent papers on the topic with Penn State's Denise Haunani Soloman.

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.'

Steuber surveyed 50 heterosexual married couples on the East Coast who were coping with infertility for eight months to five years. Nearly 80 percent of participants had no previous children.

They answered 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 analyzed how much was shared with whom, and the reasons behind the decisions.

About 15 percent, or 4.3 million of the 28 million married couples in the United States, have difficulty conceiving. Communication about it is tricky, Steuber said, because having children is sometimes perceived as a community event. Grandparents and other relatives may insert themselves into the discussion, and people drop hints or pry for information about when couples plan to start a family.

It can be an especially tough topic for couples to talk about because of the uncertain outcome.

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