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.