On complaining honestly about NFP (and other crosses)

On complaining honestly about NFP (and other crosses) July 24, 2015
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Want to complain about NFP? Far be it from me to stop you! You could even go ahead and write a whole book about how hard NFP can be, and see where that gets you. (Psst, it’s still on sale! $5 paperback, $2.99 eb0ok)
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Couples who are struggling are very grateful to hear that they’re not the only ones who hate NFP. There’s nothing worse than feeling like, not only are you having a miserable time, but you’re the only ones who aren’t lovin’ every minute of it.
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Happily, the conversation about NFP has been slowly, steadily becoming more realistic, and fewer NFP promoters are resorting to sunshine-‘n’-buttercups tactics as they sell NFP. Instead, we’re seeing more frank and honest discussions of the what NFP can (but won’t necessarily automatically) do for your marriage. (See a great reading list at the end of this post.) Honesty may  not be the most immediately attractive approach, but in the long run, it’s more helpful.
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However! There’s such a thing as too much honesty — or, rather, there’s such a thing as misleading honesty, honesty that is one-sided, incomplete, or even dishonest.
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Here are a few of the things I try to achieve when I talk about NFP, along with just being honest:
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1. NO CROSS-COMPARING.
I try not to make it seem like only couples who struggle are couples who are doing it right. I used to do this, and I’m sorry about that!  It’s kind of like the “real women have curves” sloganeering. Well, I’m a real woman, and I have curves; but I have skinny friends, and they are real women, too. Let’s not overcompensate and end up insulting people who simply have a different cross from our own.
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If those of us who really struggle with NFP are going to plead for or demand more sympathy and understanding from people who find it a light cross at worst, we should extend the same courtesy to people who are bearing up well under the cross of NFP. We shouldn’t imply, even jokingly, that couples who like NFP are probably just some kind of low-drive tea bags in the bedroom. Comparing crosses, and taking jabs at people with other crosses than your own, is a shitty game. Talk about missing the point.
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2. NO FALSE HOPES
I try to make it clear that, while Catholics can certainly improve the way they deliver the Church’s teaching about sexuality, the Church is not going to change her teaching about sexualityIt’s one thing to say, “I feel comforted when someone in the Church recognizes that this is a hard teaching.” It’s quite another to say, “I feel comforted to think that the Church is getting closer to fixing this unreasonable demand she makes on us.” Certain things are simply not in flux.
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If we’d like an acknowledgement from the bishops or from the local marriage prep teacher that NFP is sometimes nothing but a cross for couples, then I agree with you. NFP is “challenging” in the same way that unmedicated childbirth gives you “discomfort.”  But let’s not encourage people to hope for some kind of change in the Church’s teaching. I know that as long as I was hoping for that, I was unable to look suffering in the face. Which is a bad thing.
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Which brings me to my third point:
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3. NO INSISTING ON HUMAN STANDARDS 
When we are avoiding or postponing pregnancy, we don’t use NFP primarily because of its magical marriage-building properties! We use NFP because it allows us to have sex sometimes instead of never. We’d be smart to pursue any benefits that we can, but they are not why we reject contraception. We reject contraception primarily because it is immoral, and we can thank the Holy Spirit if rejecting contraception also brings us various goods, like better physical health or better relationships with our spouses and with God.
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NFP is not necessarily going to “hurt so good,” with measurable payoffs for the ordeal. It might just plain hurt, without any discernible benefits or rewards, because of original sin. When we preach solely about the rewards of NFP — even hard-to-achieve spiritual rewards — and never talk about our duty to reject sin, we imply that suffering is only worthwhile when it has some immediate and obvious purpose, goal, or benefit, such as “marriage building,” or making couples happy or fulfilled, or giving life, or making our spiritual life more fulfilling. Is this what suffering is really like, though?
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Not that I’ve noticed. When Jesus was on the cross, I’m pretty sure that everyone around Him experienced His sacrifice as nothing but a cruel, senseless, loss. He had only been in public ministry for a few years, and now it was ending already, and they were all losing a teacher, a savior, a friend, a son — not to mention that they were seeing Him in pain and disgrace, and were all in danger of being arrested just for knowing Him. Plenty of people saw what was happening and ran away and lost their faith. There was nothing happy or fulfilling life-giving in sight with that sacrifice. I am quite sure it seemed senseless and intolerable — probably, if we listen to His words, even to Christ Himself.
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Oh my gosh, what a downer, right? But really, it’s a trap to use human standards (“Is this making me happy? Is this making life better? Does everyone around me agree that this makes sense? Does it seem like I’m making progress?”) to make judgments about what kind of suffering is tolerable. When we do this, then really serious suffering, the kind that doesn’t make sense, will seem like a sign that something is wrong — that something has to change, that we deserve a pass of some kind (see point #2).
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If we look at a crucifix, suffering may or may not make sense, but at least we can’t claim that God couldn’t possibly expect us to choose that path just because of religion.  Look to Him. Look at Him. See Him hanging there, abandoned. Sometimes there is no answer — not for you, not right now. That’s not a good reason to stop.
Don’t get me wrong: I believe in redemptive suffering. It’s just that I no longer expect it to feel redemptive.
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***
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For further reading, do yourself a favor and check out the invaluable Jen Fitz’s series:
What Is the Point of Pointless Suffering?
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I want to be Jen Fitz when I grow up!
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And also don’t miss Greg Popcak’s helpful advice specifically about NFP in his series from this year:
and a good reminder to those of us with big families that hyperfertility is a cross, but it’s not the only cross, so watch your words.
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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Sheila C.

    I really like this, thanks.

    I have a question, though. Why does God require us to do things this way if it’s not any better than the other way? It’s not like it actually hurts him if someone uses a condom. I like to think God requires things of us for our benefit, or for *somebody’s* benefit, but if no one actually benefits, why are we doing this? Is he just making us jump through hoops, or what?

    • Sophia Sadek

      There is a significant difference between a mandate from Rome and something that comes from a higher source. In other words, all we need to do is figure out what belongs to Caesar (a ban on contraceptives) and what belongs to a higher power (freedom from Roman domination).

  • Anita Monino

    I only menstruate 3 times a year. Stein-Leventhal syndrome. Found out after surgery to correct hemorraging ovary, and hospitalization until peritonitis and anemia were cured. Without pharmaceutical control, this life-threatening emergency can occur repeatedly, ad naseum. Does it really matter if the treatment regimen is a complicated special order of synthetic hormones or simply readily available OC’s?

    • Sheila C.

      The Catholic Church is fine with birth control pills to cure an illness, it’s just that the intent can’t be contraceptive. Do you see the difference?

  • Blobee

    This came to mind as I read this piece. I recalled someone mentioning on a blog about a time when she was going through something anguishing, and she was praying (complaining) to God about it, and then in her imagination saw herself kneeling at the foot of the cross with Jesus hanging above her, as she looked up at Him and said, “Oh, what I am going through is SO HARD!”
    Her point, and the lesson, was certainly clear to me.

  • KarenJo12

    I’m trying to understand this, and at least part of my problem is that I’m a Presbyterian and we reject the idea of redemptive suffering, but the only way I read your third point is “God wants everyone to be miserable.” Please, can you provide some alternative reading? Sometimes we suffer because live stinks, but don’t we have a duty to try to alleviate suffering? Jesus says “my yoke is easy and my burden is light,” and rebukes the Pharisees for lading me with burdens grievous to be borne and then refusing to help. How is this any different from the Pharisees?

    • Rebecca Fuentes

      We have a duty to relieve suffering if the means of relieving it is moral. Artificial birth control isn’t moral because it intentionally separates sex from its procreative potential, just as fornication is immoral because it separates sex from the unitive purpose that is intended only for marriage.
      If my family is suffering because of poverty, I don’t get to rob a bank to alleviate that suffering. I don’t get to go sell illegal and harmful drugs to alleviate that suffering either, or start picking pockets or shoplifting. I can take a second job, or apply for government aid, or ask people for help.

      • KarenJo12

        So even though NFP makes many — possibly most or all at some point — of those who practice it thoroughly miserable, it’s the only moral option. Please tell me again how something that destroys people is moral? I’ve read enough by NFP users, including those who abandoned it, to know that, far from being a blessing, it is most often a source of agony. How is it moral to insist that people endure the most abject misery?

        • Anna

          I don’t know that it does make many, most, or all those who use it miserable at some point. I mean, certainly there’s a learning curve for many in our culture who think of sex as purely recreational, scratching an itch for themselves rather than a person-al act imbued with meaning for both spouses. And if you’ve been raised with porn, sexual relief whenever you want it, and the idea that no one can possibly resist that urge, it will be hard to change the mindset. (I am NOT saying that’s why everyone who struggles does so, just that stats are bad, porn-wise, so that effect isn’t negligible.) But CCL’s publication, and their teaching couples all over the world, give a lot of evidence for NFP being a source of growth and joy. And the Faith and Family forums were full of people who had had issues with NFP until they found a method that fit them, or addressed medical issues that were making NFP way harder than it needed to be.

          The internet tends to amplify things a lot; useful for those who’ve felt isolated in their struggles, but less so when it leads to more suspicion on the part of others.* While there are certainly people who experience NFP as nothing but cross without seeing the redemption (that was Simcha’s last point: not that there’s no point in suffering, just that it’s not inflicted by God and we won’t always see the redemptive part on this side of heaven. All the Jen Fitz links are excellent about this too.), I don’t think it’s nearly everyone or even most. I could be wrong; I’ve wondered too if it’s possibly regional, i.e. some environmental factor or something since around here, people either seem to be doing okay with NFP, or are using it to deal with fertility problems, whereas Melinda Selmys said she doesn’t know anyone for whom NFP is smooth sailing. At any rate, the damage done by contraception is real, but it seems the easy way out for some people. But then, euthanasia seems the easy way to avoid the abject misery of ALS, cancer, depression, etc. and that’s not okay either. Humanae Vitae and Theology of the Body (or ToB for Beginners by Christopher West, if the original talks are kind of TL;DR, like this comment, ahem) are good resources for the Church’s reasons against contraception. It’s truly not because “suffering is redemptive and we want you to have more of it!” 🙂

          *e.g. I frequently encounter those on the internet who scorn those
          with large families, and those who are super-judgy about those with
          small families. IRL… I’ve only had two people say something negative about the number of kids I had (and one had the grace to immediately apologize for his “more than two is awful!” speech once he realized I had three), and none being rude about how few we had
          during the years we were hoping to have even one or two – but internet comments keep me on my toes fighting the suspicion that everyone I meet must be judging me from one direction or the other. I’ve had the same experience with NFP; many online people with troubles, but none that I know of IRL with “NFP is impossible misery” and it’s a conversation that does come up in my circles. Anyway, I think it’s unwise to believe that people who are positive about NFP are unicorns or liars.

        • Rebecca Fuentes

          There’s no short answer there–which is why so many articles have been written about it. I hazard a guess that more people write about the problems and misery than otherwise (there wouldn’t be much helpful in an article that said, “My spouse and I have a hard time keeping our hands off each other, but we have also mostly enjoyed using NFP, it’s been successful for us, and despite the frustration, it’s overall been great!”). <–That's about where my husband and I are, but I think a big key to being there is having both of us equally invested in it and the reasons for it, neither of us coming from a background of contraception and/or promiscuity or a background where either of these lifestyles were considered normal.
          I guess I have a hard time seeing JUST the periodic abstinence of NFP being the source of misery–often the root seems more to be a health issue that makes charting difficult or near-impossible (I won't grace you with a repeat of my frustration with the medical profession and their frequent lack of real solutions for women's reproductive health issues), a spouse who is grudging or out-right hostile, or the basic attitude that sex is a right–if not outside marriage, certainly inside it "I want it and I want it now, and I don't want to risk a baby." But when I think of misery in marriage, medical problems can cause that even without it affecting sex. So can not seeing eye-to-eye with a spouse over an important issue. Or feeling like you've got a right to something and you're not being given it.
          Martyrdom didn't exactly make people physically happy either, but none of us can argue that the misery of an ugly death didn't lead to something greater.

        • “The most abject misery”? Really? NFP? You need to tone it down a bit because that’s absurd.

  • Sophia Sadek

    I am curious if anyone has any information on the use of counter-fertility practices to augment natural family planning. For example, it usually takes a man several hours to recover fertility after an ejaculation. Is there any experience in the use of pre-intercourse ejaculation to augment the rhythm method?

    • Blobee

      Um, I don’t think “pre-intercourse ejaculation” is allowed. That’s called masturbation. I cannot address this knowledgeably, but I think it is considered wrong because it carries the same intent as withdrawing just before ejaculation, or using a condom.
      Sorry.

      • Sophia Sadek

        The intent of living life to its full is considered taboo.

        • Blobee

          Well then, why worry about NFP? Just go ahead and use birth control, since you don’t really care about the consequences of not following Church doctrine about sexuality. Unless of course you are only using NFP to avoid the chemicals in the Pill.
          Sorry, Catholics don’t have any advice on this topic. Look to secular sites for how to’s of this kind.

          • Sophia Sadek

            I am quite aware of the various techniques involved. I was just asking about experience. As for not following Church doctrine, few Catholics take it seriously.

          • Blobee

            Well, I think Simcha does (take Church doctrine seriously), hence her book on NFP. Anyway, whether you take Church doctrine seriously or not, looking for advice on what the author of this blog would consider sinful is probably not the best place to ask.

          • Sophia Sadek

            I was not interested in what anyone considers sinful. I was just asking about experience.

    • Monica

      Nobody uses the rhythm method.

  • Nick

    Thank you so much for your writing; it has been very helpful and comforting to me in my faith journey! Of course, I understand that adhering to the moral precepts of the Faith in this matter must be straining, and even seem like mockery, since so many others pay no heed to right and wrong and seem to receive so many blessings. I know it is not always helpful to answer a person’s pain by pointing out that of another (and please know that I do not mean to belittle this very difficult cross which so many bear for the sake of faithfulness to our Lord), however, I would invite those who struggle with the demands of NFP to consider another kind of suffering. Many young people in our culture, and those who are not so young, suffer from incredible and crushing loneliness, for the sake of their adherence to the law of Love. Many of these people have discerned a call to the vocation of marriage, yet find no one in their lives with whom they could fulfill this vocation as a faithful Christian. I have known people in this position who have searched for a spouse all their adult lives, who have passed their youth, and now live with the fact that they will likely never be mothers and fathers, never know married love, live the rest of their lives and die, alone, because they would not submit to sin for the sake of personal happiness. I know it does not make anyone’s pain go away to consider the people in this situation, but when the difficulties of NFP weigh on your spirit, please remember that there are many Catholic men and women out there who would gladly accept any suffering, for a chance at what you have. There are many who would joyfully surrender the rest of their lives for a single day in your position, a single day as a treasured lover, as a parent, a single day of feeling like their life has some meaning and worth.
    So…enough of my melodrama! Love your spouses and God bless!

  • kmk1916

    Thanks for this well balanced post. Love your books, and am planning to buy more to share with others. God bless you for using your amazing writing gifts for our benefit.