Yesterday, I talked about how NFP functions as an ascetic practice, and why that can be a very good thing for marriage. Today, I want to talk about how it can be dangerous when NFP is used during times of marital crisis, or when avoiding pregnancy is a grave necessity.
When NFP apologists are explaining why it is good, one of the analogies that often gets drawn is that analogy to dieting. They explain that using artificial contraception is like binging and purging, whereas using NFP is like maintaining a healthy weight through diet, exercise and self control. It’s a good analogy – but it has certain consequences that are often overlooked. One of these is a recognition that overeating and bulimia are not the only eating disorders: there’s also anorexia.
A lot of advocates for NFP will imply that since healthy sexuality is always ordered directly towards procreation, if a couple has to engage in complete abstinence over a long period of time in order to avoid pregnancy for grave reasons, then that is what is healthy. There’s a subtle incoherence, however, in this position: if procreation is really the only valid, healthy reason to be having sex then NFP is nonsense. Why are we even trying to come up with a system that will allow couples avoiding pregnancy to enjoy marital intimacy during the infertile period unless there are other valid reasons why sex is important to marriage?
Sex does not merely provide a couple with offspring, it also feeds the marriage. In fact, sex is so important to marriage that even if a couple marries after they are beyond their fertile years they have to get a special dispensation from the Vatican if they don’t intend to be sexually active – and such dispensations are granted only rarely, and with a certain reluctance.
Because sex is not only procreative, it is also unitive. We all know that the procreative aspect of sex has real, measurable, physical effects that are inscribed into the body as part of the spousal meaning of our Creation male and female. But the word “unitive” is sufficiently vague that many people seem to miss the fact that the unitive aspect of sex is just as physical, just as natural, and just as concrete as the procreative aspect. Obviously both of these dimensions of sexuality also have a supernatural component – but since it is the physical side of unitive sex that is often ignored or even sneered at in Catholic writings, I’m going to focus on that.
When we say that sex is “unitive” we mean that it helps to unite a couple and it helps them to remain united throughout their married life. We are incarnational beings: we’re not intended to undertake the very difficult task of remaining faithful, loving, devoted and committed to one another by force of will and reason alone. Christianity is not Stoicism. We do not disdain the body and its natural functions, but rather celebrate these as a manifestation of God’s goodly providence and as a source of natural grace. Occasionally a marriage may enjoy a special supernatural charism that allows it to transcend the merely natural order – Mary and Joseph for example – but this is about as common as the charism of being able to live solely on the Eucharist without taking any other food.
So how does sex contribute to the unity of a couple in the natural order? First of all, we need to divest ourselves of an overly spiritualized notion of the unitive aspect of sex. We all know that procreation, even though it can be described in very elevated and beautiful terms, none the less involves a great deal of awkwardness, discomfort, humiliating weakness, and various kinds of embarrassing goo. There are few events that combine profound spiritual meaning with gross bodily messiness quite so perfectly as giving birth. So we need to understand that the mechanisms of unitive sex also have a bodily dimension that folks with a bit of a Jansenist streak might find distasteful.
Sex contributes to marital unity by creating bonds of natural affection through the release of oxytocin (a biochemical that contributes both to sexual bonding and to mother-child bonding, amongst other things). It helps couples to relax in one another’s presence, and provides direct and concrete help in managing the sometimes intense stresses involved in family life – particularly in large families where the stress and chaos is often constant. Sex physically and emotionally rewards spouses for coming together and enjoying one another. It conditions both the body and the psyche to see the other person as a source of pleasure, which helps tremendously in defusing and deflating marital conflicts or feelings of ill-will. The role of sex in helping couples to endure the trials of marriage, and to go on loving one another year after year, is so important that many marriage counsellors see the cessation of sexual intimacy as one of the largest red flags that a couple is heading towards divorce.
These natural helps are inscribed on the body and its physical functions, and they are just as much a part of God’s plan for human sexuality as the creative complementarity of ova and sperm. Couples who disdain the physical aspects of unitive sex do so at their own peril.
Now, as I pointed out in my last post, with any natural good, fasting for a time, in moderation, can have positive results. We recognize, however, that excessively prolongued fasts can be injurious to a person’s health. We also recognize that there are conditions where fasting at all cannot be recommended: even on days when the faithful are required to fast, such as Good Friday, the Church makes exceptions for those who might find even mild fasting excessively onerous: pregnant women, for example, or those who are sick.
When it comes to fasting from sex, however, no such provisions are made. There is little discussion of the very damaging effects that long-term abstinence can have on a marriage. There is no recognition that practicing even mild or occasional abstinence might be disastrous for a couple whose marriage is ailing. No one validates the immense frustrations and resentments that can build up in marriage when a wife has to report, over and over, that the period of abstinence has been extended, nor have I seen much acknowledgement of the ways in which women come to despise their bodies and feel guilty about their fertility when their inability to chart starts tearing their marriage apart. Nor do I see a lot of responsible approaches to the very real and sometimes traumatizing stresses of repeated unplanned pregnancies when NFP just doesn’t work.
Instead, couples are told that their desire for the reasonable amount of healthy sexual intimacy necessary to keep their marriage alive is “lustful.” In the pursuit of an almost impossible ideal of chastity, marriages are literally starved – sometimes to death. It’s not unlike the situation in the beauty industry where dangerously thin girls are shamed for putting a teaspoon of light salad dressing on their lettuce because it will make them “fat.”
So, how can we fix this? What can we do to take NFP as it is currently practiced and transform it from an often inhumane system of sexual legalism into the life-giving practice that it is supposed to be?
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