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Trying to Conceive and Your Sex Life

From Frustration to Shame to Lower Libido

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Updated May 22, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

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Trying to conceive can have a strong impact on your sexual relationship. Before trying to get pregnant, sex was likely a fun and hopefully passionate way to connect with your partner. In fact, having sex without fear of getting pregnant (after years of using birth control) can be thrilling.

However, trying to conceive for an extended time can change all of this.

If you or your partner feels that your sexual relationship has deteriorated because of infertility, you are not alone. These are some of the many ways infertility can affect sexuality.

Sex Becomes Frustrating

Sex can be a source of frustration when you're trying to conceive. Sex becomes a reminder of what isn't working the way it should. We all know from high school health class that sex is for making babies (and if we believed our health class teacher, we believed that sex -- just once, at any time -- could make us pregnant teens.)

Few people ever consider the idea that sex might not lead to pregnancy every time, until they actually try to get pregnant and struggle. When things don't "work the right way," sex goes from being a stress reliever to being a stress creator. It can be very frustrating.

Sex Begins to Feel Like a Chore

Ever whisper to one another, "Let's make a baby," right before sex? These words may be a turn-on the first few months, but say them during sex after trying for years, and they are unlikely to turn up the passion.

Sex during infertility can begin to feel like a chore, something you have to do in order to accomplish a goal. And that goal -- making a baby -- feels impossible to reach. Add in the stress of timing for ovulation, or being told by your doctor to have sex on particular days, and sex may feel more like homework than a way to connect and show love for each other.

Sex and Shame

Those dealing with infertility often confront feelings of shame. Shame is a feeling of being unworthy of love and belonging. Shame in sexuality may be expressed as feeling unworthy of being attractive to another person.

For women, infertility may make them feel less womanly. The breasts and hips, sexual symbols of childbearing and child nourishment, may not seem as sexy as they once felt. A woman may not understand how her partner can find her attractive, knowing she is "damaged" by infertility.

For men, infertility can harm their feelings of masculinity. While women are more likely to struggle with feelings of depression or anxiety during infertility, men with male infertility struggle terribly with shame. Male factor infertility may lead to feeling that they are "less of a man," and they may worry that their partner will leave them for a "real man."

When you don't feel worthy of love, or don't feel sexy or attractive, your sexual relationship is going to suffer.

Anxiety, Depression, and Sex

Anxiety and depression are common in couples dealing with infertility, especially women. Both anxiety and depression can in turn affect your sexual relationship.

Lower sexual desire is a common symptom of depression. Anxiety can also lead to sexual tension, and anxiety specifically around sex is common in couples dealing with infertility.

Sexual Dysfunction in Women and Men

Research has found that women and men with infertility are more likely to experience sexual dysfunction. Sexual dysfunction refers to having problems with any stage of the sexual act, including the desire to have sex, arousal during sex, and orgasm.

It's not hard to imagine how the problems discussed above -- shame, anxiety, depression, and frustration -- can lead to sexual dysfunction. Pressure to perform can also lead to sexual dysfunction, and both men and women may experience this while trying to conceive.

For men, performance anxiety, premature ejaculation, and erectile dysfunction may occur. In one study, when comparing infertile men with a control group of fertile men, 23.9% of the infertile men experienced erectile dysfunction. This is compared to 13.7% for the control group.

In another study on female sexual dysfunction, 40% of women with infertility were found to be at risk for sexual dysfunction, compared to 25% of the control group.

The Bottom Line on the Impact of Trying to Conceive on Sex

The stress of trying to conceive, and the diagnosis, testing, and treatment of infertility, causes tension in the sexual relationship for many couples.

You may feel that you are alone with your experiences, and you may even wonder if your partner feels the same feelings of shame and frustration that you feel. It's important to know that you are, by far, not alone. Research has shown again and again that infertility changes how we see ourselves as sexual beings, and changes our sexual relationships.

There is some good news. A long-term study of couples who went through IVF treatment looked at whether or not the sexual and martial relationship was affected years after treatment. They specifically looked at how couples were doing 10 years after treatment.

Whether the couples succeeded in getting pregnant, went on to adoption, or remained childless, the couples rated their level of martial and sexual satisfaction as being "adequate" or "more than adequate."

That means that while things are tough now, once it's over -- and it will be over eventually -- things will get better.

More on sex and fertility:

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Sources:

Drosdzol A, Skrzypulec V. "Quality of life and sexual functioning of Polish infertile couples." The European Journal of Contraception and Reproductive Health Care: The Official Journal of the European Society of Contraception. 2008 Sep;13(3):271-81.

Leiblum SR, Aviv A, Hamer R. "Life after infertility treatment: a long-term investigation of marital and sexual function." Human Reproduction. 1998 Dec;13(12):3569-74.

Millheiser LS, Helmer AE, Quintero RB, Westphal LM, Milki AA, Lathi RB. "Is infertility a risk factor for female sexual dysfunction? A case-control study" Fertility and Sterility. 2010 Nov;94(6):2022-5. Epub 2010 Mar 6.

Nelson CJ, Shindel AW, Naughton CK, Ohebshalom M, Mulhall JP. "Prevalence and predictors of sexual problems, relationship stress, and depression in female partners of infertile couples." Journal of Sexual Medicine. 2008 Aug;5(8):1907-14. Epub 2008 Jun 28.

Peterson BD, Newton CR, Feingold T. "Anxiety and sexual stress in men and women undergoing infertility treatment." Fertility and Sterility. 2007 Oct;88(4):911-4. Epub 2007 Apr 11.

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