Family building is not always straightforward. If you and your partner have been trying to have a baby for over a year and have been unsuccessful, your healthcare provider may diagnose you with infertility.
1 in 7 couples are affected by infertility. Of those couples:
- 30% of infertility cases are attributed solely to the female
- 30% are attributed solely to the male
- 30% are due to a combination of both partners
- 10% of cases have an unknown cause
When the infertility diagnosis comes solely down to one partner in the couple, it can be a heavy burden to carry. Plus, a lot of research, literature, and support regarding infertility centers around women. This can make it difficult for men to express their thoughts and feelings around a diagnosis of male-factor infertility.
Men tend to take on a secondary or “backseat” role during infertility, especially as many infertility treatments primarily involve the female partner. If your partner is told he has male-factor infertility, it’s good to find ways to help him through the diagnosis. We’ll discuss how to support your partner in this article.
What is male-factor infertility?
For natural conception to happen, a man needs to have healthy sperm, be able to have an erection and ejaculate so the sperm reaches the female reproductive system, the sperm must swim through the reproductive system to reach the egg, and it must be able to fertilize the egg once it gets there. That’s quite a lot of aspects to align!
With this in mind, there are a few things that can prevent this from happening:
- Problems with sperm production, such as oligospermia (low sperm count)
- Sperm abnormalities: poor sperm motility or abnormal sperm shape, called morphology
- Structural abnormalities: abnormalities of the reproductive tract which can block the flow of sperm (this might be a congenital problem or could be caused by a previous infection or surgery)
- Ejaculatory disorders, such as erectile dysfunction or retrograde ejaculation
- Immune problems, which can cause a person to produce antibodies against their own sperm
- Genetic disorders: including Klinefelter’s syndrome, Kallmann’s syndrome, Cystic Fibrosis, and more
Lifestyle can also affect fertility. Heavy tobacco or alcohol use, drug abuse, use of steroids, exposure to toxins, and taking certain medications can all play a role.
It’s also important to remember that sometimes it’s difficult to find a specific root cause for infertility. For 1 in 4 couples, the cause of infertility cannot be identified.
How is it diagnosed?
To diagnose male-factor infertility, your health care provider will ask you a series of questions and may perform several tests. It’s best to see a urologist or male infertility specialist if you suspect you have infertility so that they can perform the appropriate examinations. Tests may include:
- Semen analysis to assess the volume, count, motility, morphology, and concentration of your sperm
- Blood tests to check hormone levels and rule out other conditions
- Physical examination of the penis, testicles, and scrotum
- Testicular biopsy might be carried out depending on semen analysis results
- Other tests such as an ultrasound can look at the structures inside your testes
It can take a while to reach an infertility diagnosis, so be patient. If your partner is facing a series of tests, try not to make him feel rushed or under pressure. He may want to attend all the medical appointments on his own, or he may prefer that you go together. Don’t guess. Ask him when he would like you to be with him and how you can support him.
It can be hard to hear that you have infertility. There is often an assumption that fertility is a woman’s issue, so a diagnosis of male-factor infertility can come as a shock.
How men may experience infertility
Lisa Schuman, LCSW, a fertility-focused social worker and director of The Center for Family Building, discusses that men’s reactions to the news of their infertility can vary pretty widely. “Some men are very upset to receive this type of diagnosis, whereas others are more readily able to move forwards and be practical in their approach to fertility options,” said Schuman.
Try not to assume that your partner feels the same as you about a diagnosis of male-factor infertility. For example, some women feel devastated that they may not be able to use their husband’s sperm to build a family. However, it’s important to remember that although this may be how you feel, your partner may not be on the same page.
“Women often assume that their partner feels the same way about infertility that they do, but that often isn’t the case,” said Schuman. Listening to each other and accepting if your partner feels differently from you is crucial. Your partner also may not want to talk about it as much as you do, and it is important to respect that as well — it’s a good reason for you both to seek mental health support.
Your fertility journey is very personal. For example, when considering using a sperm donor, some men have a strong belief in continuing their genetics and using a known donor, others prefer using a donor outside of the family. It is good to encourage men to work through what they feel and what is important to them.
“Some men feel very connected to their family legacy, and they decide to use their father, or brother, as a sperm donor,” said Schuman. She explains that for some men, this is to continue their legacy, but for others who have a very close family, it continues an emotional connection.
Bottom line: Every man will approach male-factor infertility differently, so don’t try to assume you know what he is thinking. Instead, be upfront and ask.
Practical things partners can do to help
You likely know your partner better than anyone. But you may have never been through a situation like this before, and sometimes it can be hard to know what to do. Here are three ways you can actively support him:
- Learn about fertility. Fertility can bring a whole new language into your life. Complicated terms, tests, and procedures. It’s a lot to get your head around. And that’s alongside the rollercoaster of emotions you are both experiencing. However, taking the time to learn about male-factor infertility shows that you care, are being proactive, and are there to be an advocate if needed.
- Adopt a healthy lifestyle together. Sometimes, male-factor infertility can be due to lifestyle and environmental influences. If you are waiting to reach a diagnosis, or have pinpointed lifestyle elements that may be making it harder to conceive, then make some changes together. Eating a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, and avoiding drugs, smoking, and too much alcohol are positive changes you can adopt as a couple. Learn more about improving sperm quality.
- Keep your partner actively involved. It’s common to see the woman in the relationship take charge of fertility appointments and decisions, but it’s important that both partners feel equally “in control,” especially if they’re using a sperm donor.
“When men get involved and are instrumental in choosing a sperm donor, it gives them a sense of authority and helps them to feel more connected to the child,” advised Schuman. “A man isn’t going to be pregnant, so being able to make the final decision on a sperm donor can give them a sense of strength and belonging.”
Emotional coping methods & support
If your partner has been told he has male factor infertility, encourage him to vent — but only if he wants to. It’s not unusual for men to confuse virility and fertility. Hearing a diagnosis of male factor infertility gives some men the impression that they are “less of a man,” or that they have to remain solid and emotionless to support their partner. Neither of these is true; 30% of infertility is due to male factors, so there are many families in the same position who can’t have a baby in a traditional manner.
“Men can feel quite private about discussing male-factor infertility,” explained Schuman. “Speaking to other men having the same experience through a support group can be very beneficial.” Your partner might be experiencing feelings of shame, guilt, anguish, or sadness, but it’s not always easy for men to talk about these feelings. A male-factor infertility support group can be a safe space to discuss emotions and concerns.
Finding a therapist who specializes in fertility couples counseling might also help. Family building can be a complicated and emotional journey. A fertility-focused counselor can help you consider your options for building a family and work with you to understand how each option might affect your relationship.
Couples counseling isn’t just for relationship breakdowns. A fertility counselor can offer guidance and support alongside information about your fertility options, parenting concerns, and disclosure information for your future child. They understand infertility from both a clinical and emotional standpoint, and can raise questions that you may not have even thought to ask each other through this journey.
You may feel isolated and depressed that this is happening to you. It can be difficult to accept the need for medical assistance in reproduction — especially sperm donation — but you don’t have to go through the process alone. Get accurate information and the support you need to grieve. It can do wonders in helping you through this period, so you can achieve your dream of being parents.