One of the great mysteries of NFP literature is the claim that natural family planning is “marriage building.” It sounds good, but it can be notoriously difficult to pin down what this elusive phrase means.
In some cases the term gets defined in ways that simply aren’t accurate. Couples are promised that NFP will improve communication (studies suggest that actually it’s the other way around — good communication is functionally a necessity in order to practice NFP in the first place). Or they’re told that it’s 95% effective in keeping couples from divorce — a spurious statistic that seems to have been invented out of thin air by a NFP advocates.
But then if you actually talk to couples who are using NFP, many of them seem to describe something that seems anything but “marriage building.” Frustration. Fights about sex. Bad sex. Pity sex. Resentment. Loss of intimacy. Intense sexual guilt. And in some cases, porn and even infidelity.
One of the big difficulties, I think, is that the benefits of NFP cannot be reaped simply by following the rules. The “marriage building” effects of NFP are related to mutual growth in the virtue of chastity, a virtue which, the Catechism reminds us, “has laws of growth which progress through stages marked by imperfection and too often by sin. ‘Man . . . day by day builds himself up through his many free decisions; and so he knows, loves, and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth.'” (CCC 2343)
I think a big part of the reason why couples run into so many problems is that there is almost no guidance available on how to practice this kind of slow, step by step growth in marriage. The way that gradualism is generally presented with respect to the sexual sins is problematic: we’re told the bottom line is that basically anything that you might do to deal with sexual frustration while you’re learning to practice periodic continence is a mortal sin. Now, this isn’t actually true. It fails to adequately distinguish between grave matter and mortal sin. The latter requires “full consent of the will” which can be mitigated by factors like “affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability.” (CCC 2352) But since NFP is rarely practiced except by the most die-hard purity advocates the culture surrounding it tends to be extremely intolerant of ordinary human weakness.
This means that most people feel like they have a simple choice: either they can just dismiss the teaching as backwards and out of touch, or they can feel constantly guilty and conflicted about their sex lives.
With other areas of life, on the other hand, we feel like we have a certain amount of leeway that allows us to try different methods in order avoid sin and build virtue – because most of the evils that we are tempted to commit are venial sins.
So say you have problems with calumny, detraction and rash judgment. You gossip, you spread rumours, you just can’t resist the urge to click and share that salacious post on social media, and you find yourself assuming the worst of people – especially those you perceive as enemies or inferiors. You know it’s a problem. So how are you going to deal with it?
You might, if you don’t intend to get very far, do nothing except pray and go to confession a lot. But a good confessor or spiritual director will ask you not just “Do you intend to amend your behaviour?” but also “What is your plan for doing so?”
And your plan might be any number of things. You might decide that you’re currently powerless to prevent your mouth from running, but that you could start by cultivating a habit of stopping and thinking before you press “post” or “send” on-line.
You may conclude that it’s futile to be constantly uprooting every little uncharitable utterance, and instead try to shade out the sin by growing the corresponding virtue – perhaps by putting aside some time before Mass to stop and think about the people you’ve spoken ill of, and to ask the Holy Spirit to help you interpret their behaviour more charitably.
You might discern that your negative judgments of others are really a way of outsourcing your own feelings of guilt for some other habitual vice, and decide that you’re going to focus your emotional and spiritual energies on resolving the root problem – hoping that once you no longer feel bad about yourself the need to dump on others will naturally whither on the vine.
Or you might realize that actually you only gossip occasionally, and that while it is a bad thing there are other, more pernicious and pervasive vices that you really need to get under control – so you’re not going to put that much effort in dealing with the gossip problem just right now.With almost all areas of the moral life, we feel like we can make these determinations. We acknowledge the law as a moral norm to be pursued, and then we come up with a plan to move gradually towards perfection… rather than trying to be perfect all at once, repeatedly failing, and feeling like crap about it. We feel that it’s legitimate for our pastors, confessors and spiritual directors to tell us “Right now, you’re a little over-obsessed with this one particular sin. In this area, you need to cut yourself some slack and accept that God is merciful. Now, let’s deal with this other problem…” But when it comes to sex, we are scandalized by the idea that people (including ourselves) may have to progress slowly, by degrees.
In marriage, this is further complicated by the fact that you have two people who have to navigate these issues together. There is no other area of life where couples must confront the need for mutual, co-operative spiritual growth as directly and intimately as in the bedroom. This, I think, is the crux of understanding why NFP is marriage-building. It’s not that the practice itself builds marriages: a couple who uses NFP is not necessarily going to have a better, holier or more chaste marriage than a couple who are able to just make love naturally and take what comes (whether because they married late, or because of naturally low fertility, or because they don’t happen to have serious reasons not to just keep having kids.) Nor is NFP guaranteed to make your marriage happier and more fulfilling (or the sex more toe-curling) than if you used artificial birth control.
Rather, the practice of chastity, in whatever form it happens to take, builds marriages because it forces couples to share not only their financial lives, and their domestic lives, and their emotional lives, but also their moral lives. The demands made by the Church’s teaching bring an ethical dimension to the unity of the couple. In the practice of conjugal chastity, the husband and wife can’t pretend that they are autonomous moral agents functioning solely on the basis of individual imperatives using nothing except the private resources of the self. You have to admit your moral poverty, your ethical fragility: that in a lot of ways your own ability to be a good, virtuous and holy human being is dependent on the choices, strengths, virtues and weaknesses of others. You can’t do it self.
You have to discern together, accompany one another, bear each other’s faults and imperfections and errors, support each other, respect each other, forgive each other – and you have to do so without having the comfortable safety of a clear boundary line where your responsibilities begin and the other person’s end. You have to share in each others weaknesses, and you have to learn how to give your own strength as a gift to another, rather than using it as an opportunity to take pride in being pure, virtuous and above the crowd.
Now, this is clearly a very difficult kind of marriage-building. We’re not talking about something that builds a marriage the way that a modern development firm builds a new commercial complex – one day, the site is barren. The next, wham! a Walmart. This is more like building a medieval cathedral, where construction may not be complete within a lifetime and where there’s a significant chance that parts of the structure will occasionally collapse on top of the workers.
In other words, NFP can build a marriage up morally and spiritually, but like any serious spiritual undertaking it involves certain risks and it has be undertaken carefully and prudently, with compassion for one another’s weaknesses and a view to the long-haul.
(Just a brief note: I suspect that someone is going to say that the lack of clear boundaries is a recipe for codependency. This is absolutely among the potential pitfalls of building a common life, and in particular of sharing ethical responsibilities in common. I’ll try to get around to discussing that problem in a later blog entry — for the moment, suffice it to say that I’m not suggesting that there is a problem with establishing boundaries, detaching with love, or refusing to take responsibility for the choices of a spouse who is addictive, narcissistic or abusive. Those are particular cases that would need several thousand words of their own, and they lay outside of the scope of this post.)
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