When NFP is Too Hard–Sexual Frustration and the Catholic Couple

Over at CatholicVote, Tom Hoopes posted a very funny and, frankly, brave piece about the man’s experience of Natural Family Planning.  

While its a funny read, there is truth behind it and he points out the real challenge that NFP can be for couples.  The fact is, for all its genuine benefits (and they truly are many), NFP is (as Pope Paul VI once called it) an “ascetic practice.”  It is, as BXVI wrote in Deus Caritas Est, the path of “renunciation, purification, and healing” that ultimate allows eros to “rise in ecstacy toward the divine, to lead us beyond ourselves.”

I have a chapter in Holy Sex! called When NFP is Too Hard.  It takes an honest look at the challenges of NFP and offers many tried and tested interventions I have employed with clients who were struggling with these issues in their marriage.

The actual chapter is much more in-depth, but the following is an excerpt from that chapter in Holy Sex! that I wrote for the Couple to Couple League’s magazine, Family Foundations.  It was divided into two parts.  The first part of the article, which is not reprinted here, dealt with the seriousness of the problem of sexual frustration and the different ways sexual frustration can affect marriage.  That’s important information but its too much to put in a blog post.  It is in the book if you’re interested.  Part II of the article, which I’ve excerpted below, focuses on 4 things a couple can do to use the frustration they experience with NFP as a catalyst for deeper intimacy.   As I note, there are more ideas in Holy Sex!  but here are some ideas to get you started if NFP is more of a challenge than you expected it to be.

1.  The Couple That Prays Together

To do NFP well, and especially to receive the grace and develop the strength to handle periodic abstinence well, a couple must be praying together constantly.  I am constantly amazed how many couples—even NFP practicing couples who have been taught about the importance of prayer—simply do not pray together.  Almost as bad, I have met too many couples who pray in a very perfunctory manner that does not actually bring their real life, joys, and pains before the Lord.  If you are not praying with your spouse, especially about your sexual life together, then it will be too easy to forget that the main reason that you are abstaining on a given month is not because you don’t want more children right now (this is supposed to have very little to do with your will), but because God has asked you to take some time off from your sexual relationship to grow in particular virtues as a couple, or as a family, or as a person.  Only through constant prayer and seeking God’s will for both your life and your life as a couple will you be able to discern the specific reasons God is asking you to abstain for a specific period of time.  The frustration of periodic abstinence is always easier to bear when you can see the fruit God will bring out of it, and when you can cry to him—together–when it seems too hard.


2. Talk Openly, Honestly, and Without Blaming.

Couples who handle periodic abstinence better than others make the time to talk regularly (at least several times a week) with each other, not just about what things need to be accomplished and what is going on their children’s lives, but also about their emotional and spiritual health and where they think God is leading them as individuals and as a couple.  They also talk openly, without blaming the other or becoming defensive, about their personal struggles with sexual frustration and the pain that is a natural part of growing into the people God is calling them to be.  These latter conversations take the form of personal statements such as, “I know God has asked us to take this time off, but sometimes it hurts so much when I just want to be with you…”  And not statements like, “You’re always saying ‘no’ to me.  Why can’t you just loosen up!”  Or, “Why do you have to be so legalistic about this?  Can’t we just use a condom this time?”


3.  Be Affectionate

Couples who do poorly handling the frustration of periodic abstinence tend to almost completely avoid sharing any kinds of affection with each other unless it is going to lead to sex.  These couples will say things like, “I can’t hug you in Phase Two, because if I do, then I get too crazy.”   Or, as one acquaintance of mine put it, “I can work late for the next couple of weeks because we’re in phase two, so its not like we can do anything anyway.”  Such avoidance of real, non-sexual intimacy points directly to a truly immature view of sexuality that is more about self-indulgence than it is about self-giving.

By contrast, couples who handle the frustration of periodic abstinence better than others are always as affectionate as they can be throughout all the phases of their cycle.  These couples know that hugs, kisses, cuddling, and even “making out” doesn’t have to end in sex, and in fact, can be a real aphrodisiac when it doesn’t.  Here’s a fact you probably aren’t aware of.  When a couple enters sex therapy (even secular sex therapy with all its perverse baggage) one of the first things the therapist will do is tell the couple to stop having sex for a while so that they can work on increasing the non-sexual affection that creates the safe, loving, and nurturing environment necessary for a vital sexual relationship to flourish.  Couples who handle periodic abstinence better than others follow the counterintuitive rule that the more affectionate they are (despite having been led by God to abstain for a time), the easier the abstinence will be.

4.  Sex is Part of the Larger Whole.

The simple fact is, if you experience NFP as “ruining your marriage” you have bigger  problems than NFP.  In fact, I would argue that your problems with NFP are simply symbolic of your struggles to communicate effectively, pray together effectively, or share (non-sexual) intimacy.  Although it will always be a challenge to some degree or another, the couple who successfully negotiates the challenges of periodic abstinence is the couple that recognizes clearly sex as the tip of the larger iceberg representing their daily communication, spiritual, and intimate life.  Such couples do not think of their sexual  relationship as a thing that can or should stand on its own.  They genuinely see sex as an expression of the deep prayer life, solid communication, common intimacy, and uncommon partnership that they celebrate in their daily lives together, and because of this, they do not take these elements for granted.  Because they are already excellent partners in these areas, being partners in the pursuit of continence, self-control, and true love comes much more naturally.

It is always easier to kill the messenger than it is to heed the message.  If NFP is challenging you and your marriage, good.  It’s doing what it is supposed to do.  Have courage and do the work it is calling you to do, and know that as a reward for your struggle, you will become a healthier, more godly person, and have a more intimate and godly marriage.


If you need more help, pick up a copy of Holy Sex: A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving or contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute at 740-266-6461 to learn more about faithful, professional marriage, family, and individual counseling by telephone.


About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit www.CatholicCounselors.com.

  • http://allpartoflifesrichpageant.blogspot.com James

    My only criticism is that this article seems geared toward the “normal” 7-10 days or so of periodic abstinence in a normal cycle.

    Many couples who are struggling with NFP are not struggling with periodic abstinence, but with indefinite abstinence often caused by breastfeeding or medical issues. Frequently, this is also accompanied by ambiguous signs of fertility so the couple may have fears of an unplanned pregnancy when they have serious reasons to avoid one.

    It’s one thing if the couple wants to break out the condoms after four days. It’s another if they want to after four weeks…or four months!

    • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg

      Thanks for your comments. The good news is that better technology like Lady-Comp and better training (like CCL’s return of fertility and peri-menopause classes) are doing a lot to make these problems a thing of the past. The more couples that commit to NFP the more resources there will be for finding effective solutions to these issues once and for all.

    • Rowena

      The points that Dr. Popcak makes in this article hold true as my husband and I see the beauty and truth in using the Creighton Model System in our marriage and in prayerfully planning our family. Using NFP can be challenging, and it takes A LOT of work because you have to work together as a couple as you discern what God asks of you. However, God gives you the graces in each moment as we follow His will, right?
      There are ways to monitor times of fertility and infertility with anovulatory states such as breastfeeding or medical states where there may be a continuous mucus discharge such as with a cervical ectropion. The Creighton Model works with women’s cycles throughout their lifetimes and in whatever states they may be in. For your consideration, please see http://www.creightonmodel.com, http://www.fertilitycare.org, and http://www.naprotechnology.com.

      • pgh mama

        My husband and I used a self-taught symptothermal method, but it was challenging for us postpartum and we were looking into Creighton before we got pregnant with #2. We practiced ecological breastfeeding, which I have found intensely rewarding although I know it is difficult for many moms to practice it, especially if they need to work outside of the home. But after my cycles returned when our first child was 14 months old, my charts were very, very hard to interpret. We did not have a serious reason to avoid, so it didn’t matter so much, but I think after #2 is born we will look into learning Creighton just so we can have a clearer picture of what’s going on if we need it.

        • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg

          As I mentioned above, LadyComp and CCL’s Return of Fertility classes may be of some use to you. Check it out.

      • http://allpartoflifesrichpageant.blogspot.com James

        “The Creighton Model works with women’s cycles throughout their lifetimes and in whatever states they may be in.”

        Except for my wife. She is one of the small number of women who cannot use Creighton successfully. After over two years of working with an FCP, she still couldn’t tell her fertility.

        Instead, we use a combination of Billings and Symptothermal, which works well for us. Our Billings teacher had the exact same problems with Creighton as my wife did and was invaluable at helping her understand how her body works.

        But even Billings isn’t enough. Temping is vital for us as she has trouble with false peaks (and with Creighton, lots of false positives). Not seeing a temperature shift keeps us on guard for a possible return of fertility.

        To summarize: Different methods may work for different women. There is no “one size fits all”. One good rule is that if you can’t figure out your fertility in three cycles and haven’t gotten a diagnosis or referral for a medical problem, then another method may work better for you.

    • SD

      Except Ladycomp is very expensive (almost $500), and fertility monitors don’t work for some women with certain medical conditions (like PCOS, which I have.)

      I have spent ten years trying to get NFP to work for me, and the result has been three pregnancies, all surprises. I have tried medications, diet, fertility monitors, and having an erosion on my cervix frozen. I have been going to an NFP-only practice for many years. We took a CCL class before we got married and I met with the teacher several times. I’m now learning Creighton. We love our kids to death, but we need a reliable way of spacing children. For some women, NFP just doesn’t work very well.

      • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg

        Clearly you have been through a great deal. I’m so sorry for all of the hardship you’ve had to endure. I’m sure God appreciates your faithfulness through all these trials. That said, I’m glad Creighton is giving you the help you need to practice NFP more effectively. They are wonderful people. Because your situation seems more complicated, if you haven’t done so, I would recommend a consultation with the Pope Paul VI Institute (www.PopePaulVI.com) or at least a referral to a qualified NaPro physician in your area. Likewise, I completely agree that Lady Comp is expensive. That said, having been through so many expensive medical tests and procedures I’m sure you’d agree that getting the best information possible could help you avoid more medical hardship and expense in the future. It’s hard to put a price tag on that. At any rate, I cannot know your situation or all that you have been through. I was mostly thinking out loud and I’m sure you’ve thought of all of this and more already. I wish you all the best in your search for faithful answers and I’ve added you and your family to our M2L prayer list. I hope that you’ll become part of the Faith on the Couch family of regular readers and if there is anything beyond prayer that I can do to support you, please do not hesitate to reach out. I wish you God’s peace. –Dr.P

        • SD

          Thank you for your prayers. Greg. I wasn’t expecting such a long response! I really appreciate it. I *think* I now may have found a way to make NFP work with minimal abstinence, but we’ll see. The doctor I see is a Napro-trained doctor.

          The situation is further complicated by the fact that my husband is not willing to continue using NFP because of how ineffective it has been. I have heard that it is not a sin to have relations with your spouse if they are the one contracepting, as long as your ultimate goal is to try to convince them to use NFP. So that is where we are now.

          My husband was a devout Catholic when I married him, but is now pretty much agnostic. Fortunately he still goes to church with us, though he doesn’t go to communion, and he is OK with raising the kids Catholic.

          Anyway, I know this is a lot for a blog comment. :-p Thank you for your prayers.

      • http://allpartoflifesrichpageant.blogspot.com James

        We took the old (pre-2008) CCL class and it was awful. The materials were bad, the science was dated, and the teachers weren’t able to answer many of our questions.

        We also had a terrible time with Creighton. Not so much our FCP, but some of FertilityCare’s practices. I think FertilityCare likes to put couples in boxes, such as “If you aren’t trying to avoid, then you are trying to conceive” so that they can a “standardized” set of solutions.

        I find a big problem with Catholic NFP promotion is that some promoters don’t take the science as seriously as they should. There can be an attitude of “You should be open to life, so you really don’t need to know all this”, which is very harmful and frustrating to some couples. Plus, there is a lot of NFP tribalism, where each method thinks it is the One True Way, when some women may need to mix-and-match. For example, our Creighton FCP should have probably referred us out or have us temp, but she didn’t do either.

        The best NFP resource we found was the secular book Taking Charge of Your Fertility. It is very frank and very detailed. The Billings (WOOMB) research is excellent as well. In this field, you kind of have to be. Unfortunately, some Catholics take modesty about sexual matters a bit too far and don’t give couples the information they need to use the method successfully.

  • Andrew O’Brien

    I’m very thankful for this. As one who promotes NFP and believes strongly it is “the right way” to do things, it is sometimes difficult to find people who are willing to discuss the challenges associated with it. We who see the benefits of NFP and promote it need to be honest about the challenges in order to help couples through them. A one sided, “This is the solution to all your problems and its the best thing ever” approach to spreading the good news about NFP has proven itself to be inadequate as a pastoral solution, at least in my experience with couples.

  • pacang

    I agree with many points of the article, except the affection part. I suppose some people can be affectionate to the point of cuddling or making out and just go to sleep right after. For other people though (my wife and I included), affection when the wife is fertile (the time of the month she wants sex the most) is kind of tricky.

    I don’t want to disagree with an expert, but maybe it’s a case of B causing A rather A causing B? Dr. Greg posits that couples who handle the frustration of abstinence remain affectionate to the point of making out. But what if what helps them to deal with the frustration and remain affectionate isn’t so much the affection itself, but the naturally lower libido that they have to begin with?

    Allow me to give an example to illustrate: As a married couple, we are expected to be affectionate yet not have sex to avoid pregnancy. Would this same advise be given to, say, an unmarried couple trying to remain chaste before their wedding? Can we say to that couple: “Go ahead, it’s ok. Stay in a dark, comfortable room just by yourselves, cuddle, make out. But STOP there, ok.”?

    No we can’t say that. That would be an occasion of sin of lust for that unmarried couple. Yet we expect the married couple to go into the same situation seven to ten days straight and not have sex? It won’t be an occasion of sin of lust for the married couple, but the goal here is the same for both cases: the avoidance of sex, at least for the time being.

    As for me and the dear wife, the most we do when she’s fertile is talk, hold hands, a quick kiss on the lips. Hugging, maybe. Cuddling and making out, unfortunately, no.