Abstinence: The Great NFP Turn Off

If you’ve tried introducing anyone to NFP, you probably lost them at the “a” word: abstinence. It really is a turn off. The Catholic Church has somehow decided that the only licit way for married couples to space or avoid pregnancies is to abstain when a woman is fertile. In our modern world, to both Catholics and non-Catholics, this teaching seems at best unrealistic and out of touch, and at worst utterly cruel. 

Sex is very important within marriage.

Let’s start with making one thing clear: the Church recognizes that sex is a very important part of marriage. In no other relationship is sex licit than the permanent covenant union of a man and a woman. Sex is the seal of the vows that a man and woman exchange at the altar, literally the two becoming “one flesh”. Non-consummation under canon law is grounds for an annulment. In the eyes of the Church, a married couple not having sex literally isn’t married. Sex is a very big deal!

Let’s remember what marriage is, shall we.

Given that the Church recognizes the importance of sex, why on earth does she say abstinence is the only licit means of avoiding pregnancy?

We have to first understand here that the Church’s commands are in perfect keeping with Christ’s. Jesus wasn’t really well known for sugar-coating what the fate of his followers would be. The gospels are full of accounts of him telling us to take up our cross, and then showing us precisely what he meant by that on Calvary. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t pretty.

We also have to remember the purpose of marriage. It is not solely the institution that guards against fornication, like the minister at the wedding from every Jane Austen movie adaptation has said. The purpose is twofold: union of the spouses and the procreation of children. Those two things are wrapped up in a vocation, and the greater purpose of every single vocation is to get to Heaven. 

Putting these two things together, we understand that when we get married, we are taking on a shared partnership where our goal is Heaven, and the way we get there is by taking up our cross. We are not embarking on a life of happiness on our wedding day. We are committing to fight our selfish natures and work to love our beloved as Christ does for the rest of our lives. 

What abstinence isn’t: The “honeymoon effect”.

If you went through marriage prep, you probably heard the phrase “honeymoon effect” to assuage any fear of abstinence. Don’t worry about these periods of abstinence in your marriage, you may have heard. They’re gonna make sex so much better! 

I get what they meant… now. Abstaining from something that we greatly desire increases our anticipation and subsequent enjoyment of it. It is absolutely true that frequent sex can become boring. A simple way to spice things up is to just stop having it for a while. 

Still, I’ve grown to dislike the phrase for several reasons.

Early sexual experiences are mostly just figuring out logistics and likely not doing so very well. It is not uncommon for women to go without achieving an orgasm for some time as the spouses learn this new language together. Furthermore, sex is never the same twice, nor should it be. It changes over the course of a marriage, impacted by the experiences a couple shares. The idea of reverting back to honeymoon sex honestly holds no appeal. 

It also bears mentioning that women tend to desire sex most when they are fertile (estrogen loves testosterone) and that some women experience a complete loss of libido during infertile times. For couples who face this added cross, periodic abstinence can present serious, though not insurmountable, issues.

Also frequently overlooked are extreme periods of abstinence, in the cases of serious illness, postpartum, menopause, irregular cycles, military deployments, and after multiple NFP failures. The ebb and flow that produces the “honeymoon effect” is completely absent from these situations. 

Sex needs rules. 

I have certainly done my fair share of struggling with this Church teaching, particularly when we found out we were expecting our second unplanned baby. In time though, reluctant obedience has cultivated a little wisdom. It makes perfect sense that something as powerful as sex should be governed by a very strict set of rules. In fact, the Church is absolutely consistent in that manner across all areas of life. 

Bishop Fulton Sheen once described the 3 basic passions of man as food, knowledge and sex. Each of these passions is governed under the umbrella virtue of temperance. The fact that they are governed does not mean the Church believes they are bad, but rather recognizes they are so good that without rules, they can exact an unhealthy control over us. Without temperance, the passions cease to be servants and become tyrants. 

It can be very easy, particularly in today’s world, to forget that sex is but one aspect of our humanity, and that within marriage we are called to discover our spouse, the whole person. Periodic abstinence can become a way for spouses to keep their focus on their spouse as a person, ensuring sex remains a blissful servant of their relationship. 

Sacrifice and self-denial are the food of love, even when it comes to sex. It is a discipline, and the benefits will only be experienced in time, more time for some than others. . 

What to do when sex is off the table.

The questions still remains: how do we act as a married couple when sex is off the table, both in and out of the bedroom?

To a large degree, each couple will have to figure this out for themselves. This isn’t a cop-out or total license, rather a recognition that each marriage is unique since it involves two unique persons, and how they discover to love each other will also be unique. 

This freedom is governed by the law of love, the kind of love that wants nothing but the good of the other. This means that sinful acts are always off the table out of love, since unrepented sin deprives us of Heaven. But even acts that are licit must be governed by the question, does my spouse feel loved or used? 

Let’s start in the bedroom. Nakedness and physical touch are not wrong unless they are used solely to arouse and excite during an agreed upon time of abstinence. This means some couples can sleep naked together, while others may have to wear the XXL college tee shirt to bed for a week or two. 

Out of the bedroom, periods of abstinence are great times to cultivate other aspects of the relationship (called “SPICE” in Creighton). It’s based on very sound reasoning: discovering all aspects of your spouse will make sex better (when you can have it). One thing to note here: in a healthy loving marriage, particularly a new one, this focus can escalate the desire for sex, causing frustration and conflict. 

If this is the case, it is ok. Things that deepen your relationship with your spouse naturally want to find their ultimate expression in sex. Understand that is good, and to be patient as you learn this discipline. If frustrations result, I recommend doing things separately sometimes, either alone or even with friends. Cultivating the personality that your spouse fell in love with is also good for your marriage. 

Just being honest.

Even after all I have learned, I still have moments where I think, Really Catholic Church, we’re really never allowed to use even a condom? No matter the situation?

Because I’m human. This teaching is not easy.

A part of walking this life of faith means having doubts. It means falling back on faithfulness in those moments when the warm fuzzies have disappeared.

If I’m honest, I get what the Church is saying here. The question the entire body of Church teaching answers is this: how can two selfish sinners have the best sex life possible? And the answer is, they will have to pick up their cross. Abstinence is just one of them.

*This post was featured in the Theology of Home daily collection, January 2020