Communication Currents

What Women Want: Supportive Communication among Women Coping with Infertility

August 1, 2014
Health Communication

Infertility is a significant stressor faced by approximately 15 percent of couples, and people facing infertility encounter medical concerns, psychological consequences, and uncertainty about their relationships. Women, in particular, feel socially isolated, lack self-esteem, and blame themselves for their infertility. Because social support helps people manage stress, we sought to understand how women experience social support as they cope with infertility.

When faced with both everyday upsets and more severe crises, people turn to their friends and families for supportive communication. Supportive communication is considered effective when it matches people’s desires, and effective support corresponds with psychological, physical, and social rewards. Depending upon their needs, people can receive several different types of support. For example, informational support provides facts or advice. Emotional support manages people’s feelings. Esteem support enhances people’s self-concept. Network support bolsters people’s social resources, and tangible support involves helping with daily tasks.

Women may desire or receive several different types of support to help them cope with infertility, and they may approach several different people for comfort. Rather than isolating a particular support provider, our study adopts a social network perspective by considering different support providers whom women coping with infertility can contact. Women often turn to their spouses as their primary source of support. Beyond spouses, people contact their friends or family members for support, and they may even access resources on the Internet or receive comfort or advice from medical professionals.

Individuals often desire more support than they receive, and our study considered people’s desires to be a primary determinant of whether the support they receive is adequate. People’s desire for support refers to the type and amount of support they want, whereas received support is the comfort that people actually feel they experience. As long as people receive the amount and type of support they hope for, they should benefit; however, the support people receive may be quite different from what they want. If people do not receive their desired amount and type of social support, the support they receive is considered inadequate and negative consequences may occur. Any mismatch between the support people desire and what they receive may be harmful and can cause people to be unsatisfied or unable to cope with their problems.

Our study examined the types of support women coping with infertility desire and receive from different support providers. We also tested whether people experienced negative outcomes from inadequate support.

To explore these issues, we asked 301 women who were experiencing infertility to complete a survey about the amounts and types of support (i.e., informational, emotional, esteem, network, and tangible) they desired and received from spouses, family and friends, online sources, and medical professionals. The women in our sample had been infertile for approximately six years, and their infertility was caused by issues related to the man, woman, or both partners in the relationship. This survey was completed entirely online and could be accessed anywhere participants had an Internet connection.

As expected, we found that women coping with infertility both desired and received more emotional, informational, and esteem support than network or tangible support. They also desired and received more support from their spouses, family, and friends than medical professionals or online sources.

Our results also suggested that to most accurately understand how women coping with infertility perceive support, we must consider the mismatch between the types of support people receive from different sources and their desires from those sources. We found several instances where the women in our sample received support that was inadequate compared with what they desired. For example, the participants in our study desired more emotional, network, and tangible support from their spouses than they received. They also desired more emotional support than they received and got more informational support than they desired from their family and friends. In addition, the women in our sample desired more network support than they received from online sources, and they desired more informational, emotional, network, and tangible support than they received from medical professionals.

We also observed that the gaps between what the women in our sample desired and received are consequential, especially when the gap is from a spouse. The greater the discrepancy between what they desired and received for emotional and tangible support, the lower they evaluated the quality of the support from their spouses.

Our study investigated whether women who are coping with infertility identify gaps between different types of support they desire and receive from several different support providers. Results suggest that spouses are the most important source of support for women coping with infertility. The women in our sample desired and received significantly more support from their spouses than any other support provider. Moreover, a gap between what they desire and what they receive from a spouse contributes to decreased support quality. In fact, spouses were the only source of support in which a gap between what people desired and received was associated with reduced support quality. These findings are noteworthy because prior research suggests that support from sources outside a marriage cannot make up for a lack of spousal support. Men may not want to discuss infertility as much as women do; however, a lack of support from spouses produces negative outcomes.

In just about all of the support gaps we observed, we found that women desired more comfort than they received. The exception to this trend is informational support from family and friends. Women reported receiving more informational support, which consists of facts, advice, or perspective, than they desired from their family and friends. Providing advice or offering an opinion may be a comparatively easy way to support a woman coping with infertility. It is important to remember that when it comes to support, more is not always better because receiving more support than desired can be overwhelming or make people feel worse about themselves. Friends and family members need to consider what people desire and avoid providing advice instinctively because it might not always be helpful for women coping with infertility.

Although our findings enable us to suggest how not to comfort a woman coping with infertility (i.e., avoid only providing advice or opinions), recommending what to do in these situations is more difficult. Rather, our results suggest that it depends. The best way to support a woman coping with infertility is to understand and appreciate what she desires. Support providers can try to match the appropriate type of support to what they hear women wanting, while keeping in mind that it is possible to provide too much support. In general, women desire more emotional support than they receive, so when in doubt, it may be most helpful to concentrate on women’s affective reactions to their experience of infertility.

Overall, our study provides a sobering picture of supportive communication. Women coping with infertility reported gaps between what they desired and what they received for every type and source of support included in this study. Inadequate support from spouses may be especially consequential. Our findings suggest that support providers could produce fewer gaps in support and more beneficial outcomes by seriously considering and attempting to satisfy the desires of women coping with infertility.

About the author (s)

Andrew C. High

University of Iowa

Assistant Professor

Keli Steuber Fazio

The College of New Jersey

Assistant Professor