As Lent comes to a close this week, it seems appropriate to talk about an area that has the potential to cause great suffering in a marriage. We accept a cross from day one when we get married – “in good times and in bad.” We are sinners and we marry sinners. Imperfect people promising each other that which we can never give, namely perfect happiness (unashamedly stolen from Bishop Sheen’s Three to Get Married). Ironically, on the happiest day of our life, we willingly accept a life of constant disappointment and struggle. But taking up our daily cross is the way that Christ gave us to get to Heaven.
One of the greatest crosses to bear in marriage as I’ve learned is NFP.
Before I go on, it is worth noting for those unfamiliar with NFP that Catholic couples are not required to practice it. There’s no moral law saying that couples must practice periodic abstinence except out of love and consideration for the spouse at certain times, for instance during an illness. However, the Church does advocate responsible parenthood, and NFP is the Church’s answer to how couples can practice responsible parenthood without utilizing birth control, since use of them (chemical, barrier or otherwise) is considered a grave moral evil (mortal sin). I won’t go into the why here because that is a whole blog post unto itself.
With that in mind, most marriage preparation within the Church either includes or flat out requires that engaged couples learn a method of NFP, under the assumption that they will at some point in their marriage need to delay or avoid pregnancy. After two years of marriage, I have found a disconnect in my experience with NFP between what I was taught and how it is actually practiced. This has led to a huge trial of faith for me and my husband (but more on that later).
These are a few things I learned in my NFP classes that looked very different when lived:
1 NFP will make your marriage stronger.
Through adversity comes strength. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Yada yada. The principle is sound and time tested. But let’s be honest. Christian couples are supposed to remain chaste until marriage, and once the vows are said the floodgates are open to a whole new and pretty dedgum wonderful world. It is very wise of the Church to saddle this world with some rules and require that couples accept the consequences (ahem babies). But the pitch we got in marriage prep made it seem like NFP would automatically make a marriage stronger, as if by magic. Nope! In the early days of marriage, sex and periods of abstinence can be incredibly difficult to navigate because experience is not on your side. Disillusionment early on is not uncommon.
2 NFP couples develop better communication than couples who contracept.
What we were taught in our NFP classes was to use the periods of abstinence to cultivate other non-sexual expressions of love and connection. I can imagine that after 10+ years of discipline and maybe an oops baby or two, this becomes easier to do. But for a newlywed, it’s frankly unrealistic. We were encouraged to cuddle, practice acts of service, offer reassuring touch, and engage in deep conversation – all the things that in a healthy, loving relationship get you in the mood for sex. We were basically led to believe that if we couldn’t do these things and abstain, we were lacking in virtue, charity and discipline. Allowing a young married couple to expect to be able to cuddle or have a deep heart to heart in the midst of a long period of abstinence and not feel jaded when prevented from consummating the very natural and healthy feelings those evoke because they need to avoid a pregnancy at the time is almost cruel. It requires a heroism that only comes with time, more time for some than others. A better piece of advice that I only recently heard was to use the periods of abstinence to cultivate our individual personalities, to do things apart, so that when we can come back together, we are refreshed rather than drained.
3 NFP prevents either spouse from being used merely as objects for sexual pleasure.
Ok, this one is actually spot on, but there is still a beef I have with this in practice. Wives may not feel used, but during periods of extended abstinence they definitely feel guilty and we aren’t well equipped to deal with that. Since all the signs of fertility are read in a woman’s body, it’s really up to the woman as to whether or not a couple can “do the deed” (DTD). It’s a heavy cross, even when the husband is involved and understanding. When a husband doesn’t want or know how to be involved, it’s plain unbearable. It cannot be dismissed that what sets the marriage relationship apart from every other relationship (or should) is sex. I have emotional connections with others, I laugh with others, seek advice from others, confide in others, and vice versa. Granted, for me these are all relationships with women. But what makes my relationship with my husband set apart from all the rest is the complementary intimacy we share that has its ultimate expression in the marriage act. Being forced into long periods where we are deprived of that is undeniably guilt-inducing.
All that being said, there are a few areas where I think the Church can really step up and offer some help to offset the inevitable frustration and struggle couples will face:
1 When NFP classes are taught to engaged couples as part of marriage prep, they should feature couples from all stages of married life.
All our classes were taught by couples who had been married for 30+ years and their expertise was crucial to our learning how to chart. I won’t dismiss the valuable insight they offer, and they serve as a sign of hope that though we are embarking on something difficult, it is possible to do and grow in love. But not a single one of these couples mentioned extreme times, the postpartum period for example, when they had to abstain for an unknown amount of time and how they struggled through it. I’m sure a huge part of that is just that they simply don’t remember, or perhaps that they can look back at those times fondly as ones that strengthened their marriage. Sigh, oh hindsight! This is however a disservice to engaged couples as they think about planning their families, who will need to delay or space children for any number of reasons and need to hear the real trials they will face from someone who remembers well, at least to let them know they aren’t alone.
2 Priests need to listen to NFP experiences from married couples at all stages of marriage and family planning too.
Marriage and sex is holistic, meaning that it involves the whole person – mental, emotional, physical and spiritual. When issues arise in the realm of sex, spiritual issues will arise, and couples often seek priests for counsel as they should. Some priests are not well equipped to offer practical counsel in this area beyond telling couples that birth control is a grave moral evil (they already know, that’s why they’re in your office seeking help). This is both a great poverty and a great opportunity. It is absolutely within the realm of a priest’s calling to help married couples through trials they face in the sexual sphere when it becomes an issue of living their marriage vows or understanding Church teaching. I had heard once that Pope St. John Paul II had many married friends when he was a priest and continued those friendships through his papacy. He could see and hear in these couples how deep spiritual truths were realistically lived, and part of the fruit of that is his work Theology of the Body.
3 Form groups within parishes and diocese where married couples at all stages can meet and share their NFP experiences.
Solidarity is a wonderful principle and it is desperately needed in this sex-crazed world when trying to maintain chastity within marriage. Creating healthy, faith-centered outlets where couples can draw support from the experience of others is vital to their success with NFP. This would also be a great place for the priests of the parish to implement #2 above.
4 Make sure couples know that there are different methods of NFP, and if a particular one isn’t working out well, they have other options.
For understandable reasons (ie cost), a diocese that requires NFP classes for its engaged couples will likely only offer classes for one method. There are, however, many methods available (Creighton, Billings, Marquette, and Sympto-Thermal, just to name a popular few) that work better or worse in different situations for different people. Course instructors often have a loyalty to the method they teach primarily because they personally have used it successfully. Though well intentioned, this sense of loyalty translates to the couples and can be a setup for frustration. The emphasis is all too often placed on the need to buckle down and “learn the method” when a couple is having difficulties. What should instead be conveyed is that an NFP method is only good if it helps clarify a couple’s window of fertility. If after some instruction a method confuses rather than clarifies that window, it serves only to put strain on a marriage, and it might be best to find a different one.
5 Keep it real!
I know now that the way we were taught NFP was an overcorrection for the prevalence of birth control use within Catholic marriages. At least for me, NFP was painted as a magical way to have the perfect marriage, a safeguard against the problems posed by a birth control mentality. Because of this, we had very unrealistic expectations of what practicing NFP would be like, and that has created unnecessary pain, confusion and anger within our marriage. Due to some grave medical consequences of the timing of my current pregnancy, my husband and I gave serious thought to using barrier contraceptives after the birth of our child, in large part because of this anger and confusion. I’m sure there are countless other couples who have gone through something similar and used their experience to justify using contraceptives outright, and I have to admit, I completely sympathize. By choosing the rose-colored-glasses approach to teach NFP, the Church is frankly shooting herself in the foot.
A final point to touch on briefly since this is an argument I have heard used is that NFP is cheaper than birth control. This is such a false argument that I hope no one reading this has heard it used. NFP has a steep learning curve, meaning it isn’t cheap. Most methods have an upfront cost of around $150 minimum for classes and/or materials, and if a couple periodically meets with an instructor in addition to that, costs can wrack up quickly. The argument is certainly made, and is a valid one, that it’s way cheaper than having another kid, but it is certainly not cheaper than birth control.
Ultimately, Catholic couples have three choices when it comes to sex – DTD whenever they like and accept all the babies, practice responsible parenting and NFP, or put our souls in mortal peril by contracepting. Yes, we are taught that love grows through sacrifice, and this certainly isn’t a lie. But it’s not a small ask the Church is making of faithful married couples, and she should be fearless in giving us the blunt truth about what we are undertaking. We serve a God after all Who called Himself the Truth, and never spoke by halves or sugar-coated His more difficult teachings. The honest truth is nothing to fear! Just set it free.