Is Abstinence Hard on a Marriage?

Is Abstinence Hard on a Marriage? July 6, 2015

NFP Awareness Week is around the corner, and in certain quarters bloggers are already expressing painful awareness.  The topic is abstinence, lots of abstinence, and just how miserable that can make a pair of persons.  Big question: Do extended periods of abstinence harm a marriage?

To a certain extent it’s a moot point, and we’ll come back to that in several ways. As a recap, here’s Church teaching on sex, marriage, and abstinence in a nutshell:

  1. Sex is for making babies.  It does other good things too, but since it’s primary purpose is making babies, we reserve it for marriage, since marriage is the institution that binds a man and woman to any children that are the fruit of their union.  It’s best for children to be raised in a stable, happy, permanent relationship with their own mother and father, and marriage provides that, if you do it right.
  2. As a married couple, the normal thing is to have sex when the two you wish (taking proper care to see that the dinner guests have gone home, etc.), and if that happens to result in a baby, hurray!
  3. But the Church observes that although marriage is ordered towards the bearing and rearing of children, you might have some reason that another pregnancy is a very bad idea.  In which case, you are not required to have sex.  We aren’t animals.  We can use self control to set aside our immediate desires when we have some good reason to do so, and we’re allowed to do so.  (But, as St. Paul reminds us, don’t go getting all holier-than-thou on your spouse in some kind of abstinence contest.  You’re married.  Sex is a holy thing for married people.)
  4. Furthermore, it turns out that it is often possible for a couple to pinpoint certain times when they are unlikely to conceive even if they did have sex.  And assorted popes, all of them celibate, have NOT dug their heels in and said in a fit of spite, “If I can’t have sex, you can’t either!”  Rather, they’ve said, “Sheesh, you’re married.  Enjoy what you can when you can.”  And thus it is perfectly licit to take measures to note when you are and are not likely to conceive, and then act on that information depending on whether you are trying to conceive or not.

This last thing is called NFP – “Natural Family Planning.”  It means you pay attention to your body, sometimes very close attention, and make decisions about whether to have sex with full knowledge of how likely you are to conceive.

If you use NFP to try to conceive, it’s the alternative to “Let’s just hope we get lucky.”  If you use NFP to try to avoid a pregnancy, it’s the alternative to abstaining all the time.  As many married people and not a few popes will remind you, abstaining all the time is not what you want to do if you don’t have to.

There are people out there who worry that someone, somewhere, is abstaining too much.   They are afraid that you might not like sex enough, and that therefore if you have to push off the big night for a few weeks, you’ll find that such a pleasant and easy prospect that you’ll fail to procreate sufficiently.  Maybe that’s true.  Maybe you don’t like sex enough.   When I read articles by these people, what I should probably do is stop laughing hysterically and pray that they will learn to like sex more, so that they won’t suspect everyone else of being in their shoes.

If you are reading this article, you are probably worried that you are abstaining too much.  Specifically, you might be worried that if you have a serious reason to avoid a pregnancy, and that therefore you are abstaining very, very much, this might make something fall off.  Like your marriage.  You don’t want that falling off.

So can that happen? Can the amount of abstinence be so much that it hurts your marriage?

Well, unwanted abstinence is a form of suffering.

Suffering is hard.  That’s why we call it “suffering” and not “look at us happy people frolicking in a field of flowers.”  If you really wanted to frolic in the flowers with your clothes on, you wouldn’t have ever gotten around to getting married in the first place.  You’d still be just having picnics and stuff.

Furthermore, abstinence during marriage poses difficulties that celibate people don’t face.

If you are not married, you aren’t expected to share a bed with someone you find sexually attractive.  This makes it easier to abstain.  Indeed, if you find yourself attracted to someone to whom you are not married and to whom you should not be married, the smartest thing to do is put as much distance as possible between you and that person.

In contrast, when you’re married and abstaining, you still need to live in close quarters with your spouse.  The two of you will still want to experience physical touch, just like all the other humans do.  You will furthermore need to do all kinds of extremely attractive things for your spouse, like cleaning the kitchen, and talking to each other, and keeping up your personal hygiene.  You can’t just go into Repulsive Mode.

So what can you do to make unwanted abstinence into a thing that doesn’t destroy your marriage?

#1 Be a person who doesn’t throw a temper-tantrum at the universe because suffering has come your way. It’s going to come your way.  It’s okay to be pained, sorrowful, daunted, any of that.  You don’t have to enjoy suffering (it’s not really official suffering if you do).   But there’s a difference between, “this is difficult and pray to God it will pass soon,” and “this is difficult and therefore I hate everybody, especially my spouse.”  Let it hurt, and pray to God it will pass soon.

#2 Be committed to having sex with your spouse whenever you can.  Whether that’s once a month or once a decade, jump on it.  Got two days in row?  Make hay while the sun shines.  What are you?  One of those people who likes abstinence?!  C’mon.  You’re married.  Live a little.

#3 If you can’t have sex, get yourself good and tired.  This is why so many Catholic colleges excel at sports.   For most couples, the reason you are abstaining will also be a reason one or both of you are too tired to stand up straight.  But in the unlikely event you have a deadly-but-energizing illness, so many children the chores are all done for you, a kind of desperate poverty that involves massive amounts of leisure time, or some other insufficiently-fatiguing reason not to seek a pregnancy just now, take up a sport, go on a walking tour, dig holes in the yard, whatever it takes.

Smashing things is a good sport.



Tip#1 – Learn from a real live human.

Tip #2: If at first you don’t succeed, learn another method.

Tip #3: Learn it before you need it.


The theme for Natural Family Planning Week 2015 is
This couple is happy because they know that if they just spend the fertile period climbing separate mountain ranges, they won’t have any difficulty abstaining.


Poster courtesy of the USCCB, which makes downloadable versions in English and Spanish available for educational use.

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