Abstinence and Self-Control

The honest practice of regulation of birth demands first of all that husband and wife acquire and possess solid convictions concerning the true values of life and of the family, and that they tend towards securing perfect self-mastery. … [T]his discipline which is proper to the purity of married couples,, far from harming conjugal love, rather confers on it a higher human value. It demands continual effort yet, thanks to its beneficent influence, husband and wife fully develop their personalities, being enriched with spiritual values. Such discipline bestows upon the family life fruits of serenity and peace, and facilitates the solution of other problems; it favors attention for one’s partner; helps both parties to drive out selfishness, the enemy of true love; and deepens their sense of responsibility.

Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae #21

Jen: When I got married (as a virgin) to my husband (also a virgin), I had the silly notion that we’d finally be able to have all the sex! Whenever we wanted! It would be great! But it turns out there are a million reasons why a couple might have to abstain, and they may have nothing to do with avoiding a pregnancy. For example, Logan and I cannot have sex when I’m pregnant because of my incompetent cervix. And while obviously that makes a difficult pregnancy even more difficult, God used that time to show us how to care for each other in different ways. Intimacy is not all about sex!

Since we can’t have sex when I’m pregnant, that complicates our NFP situation even more. Because while it does give us motivation to avoid a pregnancy, it also means we have to abstain in order to do so. Talk about a double-edged sword! Because what if we were abstaining a lot (due to my irregular cycles, thanks to PCOS) and happened to get pregnant anyway? Then we’d have to abstain even longer due to pregnancy. But turns out that abstinence won’t kill you. In fact, it was during the period of trying to avoid a pregnancy that my marriage grew the most! Because not only did we have to learn how to be intimate in ways that didn’t require sex, we were also making that sacrifice together for the greater good of our marriage and family. We never fully understood self-sacrificial love until we learned how to die to ourselves in every area of our marriage, the bedroom included.

Mary: Jen, how beautiful!! And what a testament to authentic, married love! As you know, Chris and I are infertile and because we knew we were at risk for this going into marriage (yet another benefit of early learning fertility awareness!), we have rarely abstained from sex for the purpose of avoiding a pregnancy. And while I can’t imagine how difficult it is to abstain regularly when the desire is strong, I can also tell you that sex “without restriction” is not top on the list of things to hope for in a marriage. If not careful, it is easy to fall into it becoming a routine that often lacks excitement. Extra effort must be taken to choose your spouse during each renewal of vows.

Chris comforting Mary in the hospital after surgery

We have had to abstain for other reasons, such as frequent physical pain and for several weeks after each of my eleven surgeries. But the way Chris has loved and served me selflessly during these times has been a greater source of growth in intimacy than anything. These experiences have repetitively brought new life into our marriage.

Emily: Ah, yes Mary! Abstinence is an opportunity for spouses to sacrifice for the good of each other, and that is where love grows.

As much as I hate it, I have to admit that abstinence has helped me maintain a healthy relationship with sex. As you said, it’s not a free-for-all in marriage. And for Catholics, really nothing is a free-for-all because we champion the virtue of temperance. Everything, even good things, should be used in moderation. We go through 40 days of fasting and abstinence during Lent to maintain healthy relationships with good things like food, technology and so on, and to understand the necessity of sacrifice in tuning up our spiritual ears. We can even see secular culture picking upon on the principle with the fads of dopamine fasting, and “dry January.” There’s something reasonably sound about periodic abstinence beyond just religious strictures. 

There are all kinds of reasons that a couple will go through periods of abstinence that have nothing to do with family planning. Travel, illness, or caring for family members can take sex off the table for a time, whether or not a couple is trying to conceive. Those dry spells then become a response of love, respecting the needs of each other in that time to take care of the task at hand.

No matter the reason though, abstinence is not easy. It requires heroic virtue and sacrifice, a discipline that usually requires time to develop, more time for some couples than others. The problem is few people who I encountered early in my NFP days were willing to be honest about that fact, telling us we’d never have to experience periods of abstinence longer than a week (so so colossally false!). Some even went so far as to suggest that if abstinence was difficult, it meant that you didn’t love your spouse. Yikes! What really happens when abstinence is hard is that my selfish nature is popping up. That’s what’s supposed to happen in marriage. It’s supposed to show me where I’m selfish so I can root it out and grow in love. 

Selling half-truths like I got does so much damage because couples enter into this practice with a completely false set of expectations. Instead of being prepared for reality, many have been set up with lies, and as a result many couples may run to birth control because it delivers all the sex you want with none of the babies. 

Mary: This is such a good point, illustrating just one of the many unfortunate side effects of misrepresenting NFP. 

Jen: You always hear the phrase “quality over quantity” when it comes to friendships, and I think the same applies to sex. Despite the difficulty of abstaining, our sex life was never better until we had to abstain. We didn’t take the marital act for granted, because we didn’t know when our next opportunity would come! Plus, working on other areas of your marriage will naturally spill into your sex life. A great marriage makes for a great sex life.

Emily: Oh my gosh, yes Jen – quality over quantity! I love your honest witness sharing how you and Logan have experienced going through long periods of abstinence and how, by the grace of God provided to you through your marriage, your marriage has grown so much deeper. 

I would like to highlight briefly the fact that men are always fertile, while women are only fertile for a specific window of a cycle. One of the things that I really struggled with when I was first married, specifically around abstinence, was the fact that I felt like the gatekeeper of our sex life. It was emphasized in NFP training that it was my fertile window that was determining when we could or couldn’t have sex, and I developed so much guilt over it. I was also influenced partially from cultural pressures about how men are insatiable sex fiends, partially from the fact that I was told in marriage prep that we would only have to abstain for a week at most, when in fact a week is less than the bare minimum. Those messages and white lies led me to feel like it was my duty to make sure we were having as much sex as possible, and the reality of abstinence nearly broke me. This was lightyears from the idyllic marriage and sex life I was promised in pre-cana!

No one really talks about how the reason we say husbands and wives “share fertility” is not based on whether a husband keeps the chart, but on the fact that men are always fertile. The fertile window is based on the combinations of the man’s and woman’s fertility. Once I realized that the only reason why we don’t chart men’s fertility is because they’re always fertile, a lightbulb went off, but by then I had some damage to undo.

Bottom line though, it is next to impossible to abstain for the amount of time that you have to abstain – typically anywhere from nine days to two weeks or more during the fertile window – in a purely selfish manner.

Jen: That’s the beauty of NFP—you can’t be selfish! If you’re using NFP to avoid a pregnancy for the wrong reasons, you’re probably going to cave or be willing to “take chances.” Abstaining during those times actually made us realize how selfish we were. We wanted to have sex even though we knew we shouldn’t, and we were definitely tempted to say “screw it” on more than one occasion. But instead of satisfying our sexual desires in the moment, we sacrificed for each other and for our family.

A couple years ago, we were having lots of conversations about whether or not we should start being open to another baby. This one particular night, I was potentially fertile, and we both were still not sure if we were ready for another crazy pregnancy. But something (or Somebody, I should probably say) prompted us to pray about it together. So for about 20 minutes (seriously, 20 minutes!), we prayed about it together. And at the end of those 20 minutes, we both honestly felt God telling us to renew our vows and that it would all be fine. Although we both felt like that marital act would not result in a baby, we also knew that if it did, God would take care of us. And that beautiful moment of trust and surrender in our marriage would not have been possible without NFP.

Jen and Logan with their three boys and dog

Mary: I love seeing the unexpected beauty that has blossomed in both of your marriages by stepping into your crosses of abstinence, but I also recognize individual growth. I think that some depths of intimacy are only born from the suffering that we accept versus suffering we fight against. And choosing self-control can be a vehicle to that growth in many ways. 

The funny thing is that self-control is generally valued in our culture, unless it comes to consensual sex. This virtue comes into play in regards to diet, finances, gossip, others’ belongings, and more, but things tend to get a bit more fuzzy when it comes to sex within marriage. Getting married doesn’t drain sexual self-control of its value! It can be another opportunity to say “yes” to God and to growing closer in other important areas of intimacy with our spouses. 

The ironic thing is that an underutilization of sexual self-control is something that birth control users and couples who don’t believe NFP should be used have in common. At the same time, as an infertile couple, we have not had much of a need for it. This may sound strange, but it is something I have longed for. The ability to have sex on a day of fertility and conceive a child is an amazing yet distant concept to me, like a reality that only exists in fairytales. Although I am grateful for our particular crosses, I can appreciate the need to abstain not only because it means pregnancy is possible, but because I know the unique source of growth it can be.

Jen: Mary, I love how you (as an infertile woman) see how abstinence in marriage can bring forth much fruit, despite not experiencing it yourself. It’s just so funny (well, funny…but not funny) how people value abstaining from other things and not sex. Yes, sex is beautiful and amazing and how life goes on. But to have what we want whenever we want is not a good thing, even when it’s a good thing like sex. We talk so much about sacrificial love and laying down your life for your spouse…but why do people not include sex in that? Yes, abstinence is hard. Yes, it’s easier to just have sex instead of using self-control. But sometimes sacrificial love will look like not having sex, even when we really want it.

Emily: I feel like the sexual free-for-all – whether in Catholic marriages or secular relationships – has its root in a perversion of the verses from Paul’s letters where he says wives should submit to husbands and that spouses should not deprive each other. (Nevermind the parts where he also says that husbands should love their wives like Christ loves the Church, aka by dying, but I digress.) It’s frustrating because that perversion can only result when those verses are taken out of the context of all of Scripture and the command to love, making the emphasis egocentric and profoundly unloving. 

Emily and Nick’s nuptiual mass, celebrated ad orientum

Both spouses vow to each other: I give myself totally and freely to you, and in return, I accept you totally and freely. Sacrifice is something I can only ever demand of myself, never another person. My desires do not supersede my husband’s needs, nor do his desires supersede my needs. We are commanded by virtue of our vows to cultivate a loving ebb and flow between the desires and needs of each other. And Mary, even though you have not had to navigate abstinence for avoiding pregnancy like me and Jen, you and your husband have still had to make that same type of sacrifice – of laying your lives down for each other and abstaining from sex for periods of time out of love for one another. 

Mary: I think the key to what you are saying, Emily, is the action of doing whatever “out of love for one another.” Isn’t that the sole reason we should do anything? The question many may have is “how is abstaining from sex within marriage considered an act of love?” And the response is “whenever the good of the other/the family calls us to.” It isn’t about us. The only aspect of self to consider is that of controlling and denying self for the sake of growing in love, our ultimate purpose. 

As I recover from surgery, my husband has graciously and without complaint temporarily absorbed most of my normal duties and helps me to stand, walk, shower, etc. while he continues to work from home. It is a lot to take on, but it is a sincere gift of love. We are also unable to have sex for several weeks. The reason for our abstinence has nothing to do with procreation, but love for one another. When a couple abstains because they have discerned that their individual or family disposition wouldn’t be able to give a pregnancy/new child the attention it deserves, it is out of love for one another. 

Emily: 100%! Following the birth of our second NFP surprise, I needed time to heal physically, emotionally and spiritually, and my husband too in different ways. We needed to know that we could use a method of fertility awareness to delay a pregnancy, and we needed to find a new living situation. In that time, we had to adhere absolutely to the rules of our method to avoid intercourse during the prescribed fertile window. It was not easy! Especially as I became more and more open to adding another little one. There were some particularly long windows that definitely made us think, would a kid really be bad right now? But ultimately we knew that the pleasure and release we would feel in those moments would be profoundly unloving and short-sighted towards each other and our kids.  

I’m fully aware that other couples in our shoes would have a totally different response. But that’s the beauty of this whole system! It allows you to take in your unique situation in its entirety in real time and make an informed, loving and generous decision. 

Mary: Those are the perfect three words to sum up fertility awareness! It informs us not only of our fertile window, but of our health, and facilitates open communication with God. It provides us with regular opportunities to love, whether that means denying ourselves or accepting the particular cross God has given us, or both. It asks us to be generous in regards to the gift of our desires, our time, and our opinions of others. 

Emily: And saying all of the things we’ve covered in each conversation boldly shouldn’t be uncharted territory, but in our experience, it has been. The sad thing is that nothing we have said is new, it’s just that the Church has had a communication problem on these subjects for years. 

We prayed so hard that this whole project would fuel a deeper understanding and acceptance of the beauty of Church teaching on sex and marriage. And I know we will continue to pray that what we have shared will be an encouragement and affirmation for others who are trying to or want to live radically faithful in this way to God’s plan for our marriages and families. Our work is just getting started!