How to Tell Your Partner About an Unplanned Pregnancy
So you've peed on a stick and see two pink lines... here's what comes next.
DEAR DR. JENN,
My boyfriend and I have been sheltering in place… mostly horizontally. I thought we were careful, but apparently we weren't careful enough. When my home pregnancy test turned up two pink lines, I almost fell over. I love my partner and we've talked about wanting kids eventually, but in a theoretical, someday kind of way, so I'm really not sure how he will react to the news. I'm worried he will spiral, or resent me. How do I tell him? —Tongue-Tied
There is no right or wrong way to tell a partner about a pregnancy. (Well, maybe a few wrong ways.) But breaking the news when the pregnancy was unplanned can be particularly anxiety-provoking. Given that almost half of all pregnancies are unplanned, you’re not the first woman to ask this question. Whether we've already peed on a stick or just suspect something is up because of a missed period, as women, we’re generally blessed and cursed to learn the news before our partners do. That means we’re also the ones deciding how to handle the reveal.
When two people are actively trying to get pregnant, that reveal can be an exercise in creativity. The Internet is full of cute stories: “World’s Best Parent” T-shirts, romantic dinners ending with pastel cupcakes, dogs carrying notes, women writing on their soon-to-be-round bellies. Many people wait until after the first trimester is over to tell friends and acquaintances about the pregnancy because miscarriage rates go down, but your partner is not on that list. Tell them right away. You are in this together.
It’s in situations like yours — in which two people have not made a lifetime commitment to one another or haven’t yet decided whether they want children together — things get trickier. You're probably not sure how your partner is going to react, and there’s a good chance you’re ambivalent about what you want yourself. You don’t know how this is going to impact the relationship and your future together. But you do know it's going to be a game-changer, regardless of what your partner says and whether you decide to become a mother.
If you're in an intimate and healthy relationship with this man, I say tell him right away. This is not something you should have to deal with by yourself. (Besides, if your boyfriend is at all perceptive, he is going to sense that something is going on.) Honesty and trust are the cornerstones of any relationship, so if you want to stay together, you can’t lie about what’s on your mind. Face it together.
Where and How to Tell Him
Since you’re concerned about his reaction and your emotions, tell him at home. Global pandemic aside, this will give you the level of privacy this conversation warrants. I suggest using the sandwich technique, a mindful, sensitive communication strategy (which, unfortunately, your pregnancy test didn’t have the courtesy to do when breaking the news to you). Start by talking about the strengths of your relationship. Then, let him know you are pregnant. Whether you’ve made up your mind or are ambivalent and have concerns, share what you’re thinking. If the pregnancy hasn’t yet been confirmed by your doctor, say as much, and invite him to join you for the appointment. End by underscoring that you’re in this together, you love him, and you appreciate his support.
He is going to have his own reaction, especially since he did not see this coming. Some partners will react with utter enthusiasm. Others get silent or angry, which is usually a cover for fear. They are fearful about how this will change their lives, the relationship, their finances, everything. And sometimes they are angry at themselves or their partner for not being more responsible about birth control.
Be Emotionally Prepared
Whatever the case, prepare yourself for your partner to have big feelings about this new development. While difficult, do your best not to take anything he says during this discussion too personally. Unlike you, he needs to go through this panicky experience right there, in front of you. He may need to vent his feelings, fears, anger, shock, and concerns before the two of you can start to contemplate any decisions together. If he needs to go for a walk or a drive, give him the space to do that — you want your partner to think things through for a moment before you start discussing your new reality. In an ideal world, you’ll both react similarly to the news, but you'll need to be prepared for the possibility that you two might want different things.
Making Big Decisions
I’ve had some couples in solid relationships that were moving toward deeper commitments say that a pregnancy was the surprisingly joyful spark that lit a fire under their ass. Those couples work through their fears and, often, end up walking down the aisle and happily raising a kid.
Other couples decide to terminate the pregnancy. Regardless of your feelings about abortion, this is an enormously agonizing decision that carries with it emotional repercussions. Even if it is the right decision for a couple, it can still be a painful one. When one person wants to keep the baby and the other doesn’t, things get even more complicated. Ultimately, the couple has to talk through the decision together. That process can be extremely difficult and heated, and having a therapist in the room can help.
Even couples who love each other and are deeply committed sometimes choose not to keep a pregnancy, which can take a huge toll on the relationship. In my years of practicing family therapy, I’ve found that married couples who have abortions are a secret group. I have seen many in my practice over the years and typically they don’t talk about it with friends because they fear being judged or feel immense guilt. I once had a married couple with two children who came in for a single session to contemplate what to do about an unplanned pregnancy. They felt like they couldn’t talk to anyone about it. If they ultimately chose to have the baby, they didn’t want it to get back to him or her one day that their arrival was not such a happy occasion; if they chose not to, they did not want to have to deal with their friends' reactions about their choice.
To Tell or Not to Tell
Now, you’re in a committed relationship. That’s obviously not the setting against which all surprise pregnancies occur. So is it ever OK not to tell the father that you are pregnant? In my opinion, no. I think it’s our moral responsibility to tell the person we have made a potential baby with. After all, that's half their DNA, and if you have the baby, they may grow up resentful of and hurt by their father's absence. Of course, the exception is if he is someone who is abusive and his knowledge could put you in danger, in which case: turn around and never look back. I have known quite a few women who have opted not to tell a man because it was a one-night stand and they had made a decision for themselves that either they wanted to have an abortion or they wanted to raise the baby without any financial or emotional help from the man they conceived with. I do think, even in those cases, the discussion should be had.
In the end, sharing this information with your boyfriend and working through all the emotions, fears, and conflicts together will probably intensify your relationship at a pace you hadn’t planned for. That can land you a number of places. It could mean the end, or it could mean something great that you'd never imagined.
In Hump Day, award-winning psychotherapist and TV host Dr. Jenn Mann answers your sex and relationship questions — unjudged and unfiltered.