Men can be emotionally expressive and vulnerable in sharing experiences of infertility, new research shows
The study from Dr Esmée Hanna and Professor Brendan Gough in the Centre for Men’s Health at Leeds Beckett and published in the latest edition of Health journal, expands on their recent research which showed that online forums are helpful in providing a safe, anonymous space for men facing infertility to share their experiences with others in the same situation. The latest study explored how men share their emotions and feelings about their infertility with other men online.
Dr Hanna explained: “Relatively little research on infertility focuses on men’s experiences, particularly in relation to emotions. Our latest research highlights the value men derive from emotional sharing within the context of a men-only forum, demonstrating how men share, care and support each other online in ways which would not be perceived to be traditionally masculine.
“Men are typically thought of as unable to identify or describe their emotions and adopting pragmatic attitudes in trying to ‘fix’ problems such as infertility. However, our research proves that men can be comfortable describing their emotional helplessness to one another within a supportive setting deemed ‘safe’ by them.”
It is suggested that infertility affects one in six couples within the UK however, when men’s views of infertility have been sought, they have often been framed via, or complementary to, women’s perspectives. Men often feel they need to play the emotional role of being ‘the rock’ in supporting their partners, repressing their own emotional needs and feeling neglected from the fertility treatment experience.
Professor Gough added: “Men can feel that their masculinity is constrained by infertility, and that stigma persists around infertility (particularly male factor). So seeking support from friends and family is often viewed as problematic for men. However, evidence of men seeking help for health-related issues online is increasing and mental health interventions for men are increasingly adapting to the use of online services.”
The researchers adopted a research method known as ‘netnography’, analysing threads within the forum (which sits within a website specifically focused on infertility and men) dealing with personal and social aspects. These threads were concerned with the expression of emotions as well as stress and coping, help-seeking and the provision of anonymous advice and support. ‘Netnography’ allows in-depth insights and a window into naturally-occurring behaviours.
Dr Hanna said: “The emotional impact of infertility for men appears, from our analysis, to be significant and is described as relentless, fluctuating, pervasive and uncertain.
“Men described peaks and troughs accompanied by feelings which correlate to a state of poor mental wellbeing, often referring to this as an ‘emotional rollercoaster’. The experience of low mood was described in clinical terms, such as depression, whilst the strength of feelings men noted were conveyed in terms of how they felt both within and about themselves, such as self-loathing. That men are engaging in sharing such lows demonstrates how men are emotionally effected by infertility and so may need support during the medical journey.”
Alongside highs and lows, men talked about the importance of faith and optimism, with the experience being described as fluctuating. In spite of this, they attempted to channel their experience into displaying empathy and supporting others within the community.
For men on the forum there was a strong sense of being emotionally controlled by infertility within their lives. Counter to traditional notions of masculinity, where men should be seen as being in control, they felt trapped, weighed down and powerless.
The men identified that they felt particularly alone with their feelings due to not necessarily having, or being able to access, the same or similar support networks as their female partners.
Another common theme was that of paranoia: worry that things will not work out ok, worry about sharing good news with others on the forum and causing them upset, and worry even when their partner became pregnant, that something could go wrong.
Dr Hanna concluded: “Our research contributes to the unpicking of previous assumptions that men are less concerned by infertility then females, and furthers our understanding that infertility can be an emotionally distressing experience for men.
“By understanding further how men experience infertility, and the emotional impact that it has on them, recommendations concerning how men can be better supported via both professional healthcare settings and more informal peer or social support settings can be developed. In an era of digital health provision, consideration of the offer of further online ‘safe spaces’ for men to share and discuss infertility with others who have experienced similar issues may enable greater emotional resilience and coping for men who experience the difficult consequences of infertility.”