How couples handle the stress of infertility treatment has more to do with their personalities and the nature of their relationship than the process of treatment itself, Belgian researchers report.

Dealing with infertility isn't the same as other life stresses, because becoming a parent is a central life event important for one's development as a person, Dr. Benedicte Lowyck of the University of Leuven noted in an interview with Reuters Health. "It's not like coping with buying a house or coping with illnesses," she said.

To understand how people dealt with this process at a deeper level, Lowyck and her colleagues looked at how relationship characteristics and personality traits affected relationship satisfaction and sense of well-being in 70 couples undergoing assisted reproduction via in-vitro fertilization and intracytoplasmic sperm injection.

As reported in the journal Fertility and Sterility, study participants completed four different tests gauging their relationship and their sense of well-being when they were starting infertility treatment, and again three and six months later.

With regard to the personality, Lowyck and her colleagues looked at whether individuals scored high on traits ranging from "self-criticism" (overemphasizing one's self-definition while neglecting relationships) to "dependency" (an overemphasis on relationships versus one's own identity).

They also determined whether a person's attachment to his or her partner fell into one of four categories: secure, in which a person feels worthy of the other's care and feels that they can rely on that person; insecure and preoccupied, meaning a person doesn't feel worthy but does think their partner is responsive; insecure fearful-avoidant, meaning they felt unworthy and expected their partner to reject them; and dismissive, meaning they felt they were worthy but didn't think their partners were responsive.

Well-being was worse for people who fell into the self-critical or dependent categories. "It's very important to have a balance between the development of those two lines, and when they are out of balance it becomes a liability," Lowyck noted.

People who felt securely attached to their partner also maintained higher levels of well-being.

While the duration of fertility problems didn't affect relationship satisfaction, the number of previous treatments did. People in self-critical, preoccupied, or dismissive relationship roles were less satisfied with their relationship, while securely attached people were more satisfied.

The findings don't mean that people in rocky relationships will invariably find infertility treatment extremely stressful, Lowyck said, because people can undergo counseling and therapy to help build stronger, more secure attachment to their partners. "There are many ways to deal with it and many ways to ask help for it."