It had been almost a year and a half of near silence from one of my dearest friends. Zilch from someone I spoke to every day on my way home from work since we met in 2002. Crickets from the girl at whose wedding I served as the maid of honor. Dead air from the person who was the emergency contact on my alarm system and for my gynecologist.
And then out of the blue, I received an email from her with five opening words: "I was a shitty friend." It was barely a sentence, but enough of a statement to explain what had happened to one of the most significant friendships of my life.
Truth is, I did feel she had been a bad friend. But I've learned, coping with infertility can bring out an unexpected side in people and, as it turns out, can destroy friendships.
Trying to Conceive Simultaneously
Here's a bit of the backstory: Rachel and her husband had been trying for two years to have a baby. They were struggling to keep themselves together through the process. At the same time, I was also struggling to conceive as a single mother by choice. I had gone through eight failed intrauterine inseminations (IUI) and reached a fork in the road and opted for in vitro fertilization (IVF).
I viewed our shared infertility struggle as a way to bring Rachel and I closer together. But for Rachel, our shared struggle caused her to retreat and distance herself. Her actions left me shattered and confused.
Rachel's email was an honest account of her heartbreaking fertility journey. It was an admission that she pushed me away out of fear—and perhaps jealousy—that I might become pregnant before she did. Rachel's email also disclosed the fact she was currently pregnant, meanwhile I was the one who continued to struggle at that time.
It was a lot to read. Some of it I had assumed. Some of it blew my mind. Majority of it broke my heart.
How Infertility Can Ruin Friendships
I wish I could say our situation was a unique one, but it's not unusual for infertility struggles to wreak havoc on an individual and their relationships, according to Anne Malavé, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and fertility counselor based in New York City.
"When people go through infertility, it's a life crisis or a trauma. For many people, it's one they have trouble recovering from. Some women have described an infertility diagnosis to be worse than a diagnosis of cancer," says Dr. Malavé.
Infertility causes losses both seen and invisible.
About 12 percent of women in the United States struggle to get pregnant or carry a pregnancy to term, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It's not easy and can be isolating. Barbara Collura, the president and CEO of Resolve: The National Infertility Association, says she felt she had no one to turn to when she went through IVF, not even her close friend who went through it before she did. She knows now it's normal to feel that way. "Don't feel bad because you don't know how to tell people how to support you," says Collura. "We need to educate ourselves and give ourselves some breathing room."
In order to cope with infertility issues, some choose to do just that. That can be simply because of a need for privacy during an infertility journey or a struggle to deal with perceived insensitivity from friends and family who may say things like "adopt" or "relax," says Dr. Malavé.
Others can't help but begin to feel left out, especially when those around them are celebrating pregnancies. "If you are going through a parallel experience, drifting away can happen. When someone else becomes pregnant and you don't, you feel like you no longer belong, and you can no longer relate," says Dr. Malavé. For some, it can also lead to jealousy.
A fertility struggle doesn't always have to mean the end of a friendship. Setting boundaries and creating a pregnancy- or fertility-free way to stay in contact can help save these relationships, says Dr. Malavé. But there is a very real possibility that a friendship could be collateral damage of infertility. "Sometimes in life you can't be there for other people," says Dr. Malavé. "If you know in your soul that you have done all you can do, if you have tried to preserve the relationship, there is value in that."
Rachel couldn't be there for me. It doesn't make her a bad person. And I know under the wreckage there are the remains of a beautiful friendship with a wonderful person. To me she is still the girl with superb taste in music. The gal with an insane ability to remember everything. A woman so hilarious that she had to wait until I was finished taking sips of my drink before telling her joke.
Infertility causes losses both seen and invisible. I feel those losses even today. I wish I could say our friendship could be salvaged from the mangled mess, but for me, there is just too much hurt to get over. Still, I see past what we went through and find comfort in the fact that Rachel and I have survived and we were lucky to both end up with beautiful sons.