Men who are infertile can react to that fact in various ways, and how they react may well predict the future course of their marriage and their likelihood to become adoptive parents, a new study concludes.

For many men, "infertility represents the most significant lapse in mastery since youth," Dr. John Snarey of Northwestern University writes in Developmental Psychology. He studied a sample of 343 married men, of whom 15 percent had fertility problems.

In reacting to the loss of self-esteem that accompanies infertility, Snarey and his colleagues write, a man usually chooses one of three child substitutes: himself; an animal or inanimate object; or other people's children.

Infertile men who chose themselves as the surrogate child "showed a preoccupation with activities such as personal body building, health foods and macho sexuality." Of these men -- 13 percent of the infertile men in this study -- two thirds were eventually divorced, and none adopted children.

The majority of men, 63 percent, treated a "nonhuman object" -- the house, a car, a pet -- as if it were an infant, lavishing it with attention and referring to it as their "baby." Of this group, 80 percent remained married (although half said they were dissatisfied with their marriage), and 13 percent eventually adpoted a child.

A quarter of the men became involved in "vicarious childrearing activities," such as leading youth groups or working with young people in the community. Of this group, 90 percent remained married, mostly happily, and 58 percent adopted children.