Especially in Catholic circles, but increasingly among Protestant Christians as well, discussions of this sort often trade on assumptions concerning the barbarism, or the beauty, of what is seen as the “Catholic alternative” to contraception, natural family planning (NFP).
Not being a moral theologian, I’m sure I can’t give a proper account of how exactly contraception and NFP differ from a moral standpoint—and thankfully, many others have weighed in on precisely this point. Nonetheless, as a husband, father, and sometime “practitioner” of NFP who takes seriously the reality of this difference (even if I can’t explain it), I’d like to think that there’s still something that I can add, based on my own experience of NFP, and its unique challenges and rewards. I know that everyone’s experience is different, so I don’t pretend to speak for others—neither for men in general, nor for married couples, nor even for my own wife, whose perspective as a woman remains irreducibly other than my own. Yet even if my experience isn’t at all universal, the standards of Christian living we should be aiming for are.
NFP: Promise vs. Reality
Right off the bat I should admit that I have generally had one of two ideas of what NFP looks like. The first is a bright, soft-focused mental picture of marital bliss, where husband and wife are in harmony with each other, with nature, and with God. There may be kids, too, and if so, they are always beautiful and well behaved. This is what the cover of pretty much any piece of NFP literature that I’ve seen will look like, and it’s certainly what I had in mind before getting married.
The second idea is more or less the exact opposite of the first: think dark and poorly lit, with husband and wife each feeling frustrated, resentful, and very much alone. Maybe they’re fighting again, or perhaps just sitting in a tense silence that is broken only by the baby’s cries from the other room. I’m not saying this is how things look like in our home, at least not exactly, but this is the sort of foreboding way that I’ve tended to regard NFP since getting married. Were I to state it in a quasi-mathematical form, my thinking could be summed up as: NFP = no sex = tension and disharmony.
I’ve of course read that NFP tracking methods can be used when a couple is trying to achieve pregnancy, which would undoubtedly alter my equation above. But since my own experience of it has been mainly in the context of pregnancy avoidance, and since a woman’s “signs” can often be more like “mixed signals,” I’m going to let the first part of it stand: NFP = no sex (for the most part).
As I see it, if there’s a problem with the math involved in my way of thinking about NFP, it’s most likely in the second part of my equation: no sex = tension and disharmony. And it’s on this point that I find the Catholic Church’s teaching especially helpful.
There’s a nice euphemism used for “no sex” in the various resources I’ve seen on the Church’s teaching on human sexuality, namely, “continence,” which is more or less just a fancy word for self-control. And in my experience, the tension and disharmony that I tend to equate with continence is due mainly to a lack of real self-control on my part—since it’s not a habit I’ve sufficiently cultivated, it usually feels pretty unnatural to me.
What’s So “Natural” About It, Anyway?
On the one hand, it makes sense that practicing continence might seem unnatural, since coming together as man and wife is an essential and natural part of the sacrament of marriage. On the other hand, there are many instances when prudence might dictate that my wife and I are not at a place where we can welcome new members of the family, and that we therefore shouldn’t “issue invitations” by engaging in an act that by its very nature is ordered toward procreation.
Continence or NFP isn’t “natural,” then, as if it were essential to marriage, and yet it is natural insofar as its exercise recognizes and affirms the divinely inscribed nature of sex between husband and wife. But damn if it isn’t still really hard.
Why is it so hard? Well for starters, there’s that basic problem of a lack of self-control that seems to plague most all of us since the fall of Adam and Eve. This makes it so that gaining virtues of self-control and relinquishing selfish attitudes is really hard work. And in the context of practicing NFP, this hard work usually includes a whole lot more of the communication, cooperation, and self-sacrifice that married life already requires.
But it’s precisely because continence is so linked to the tasks proper to marriage that I find these extra efforts to be worthwhile. See, the promise of NFP isn’t that it will automatically work wonders for your marriage or sex life. Rather, it’s that, when properly used, it can become a fruitful means of progress in the lifelong task of fulfilling our vows of complete mutual self-gift that we spouses make on our wedding days.
In short, for me as a husband, NFP serves as a reminder of what I signed up for when I said “I do.”
It’s a reminder that there are in fact many ways to love my wife with my body, and that sometimes this bodily love means not coming together sexually, but instead expressing my love for her by exercising self-control, channeling my affection instead toward acts of service, toward words of affirmation, toward praying for her, and toward speaking with her at greater length than we might otherwise be accustomed to. These expressions of love are different than making love, to be sure, but they need not be any less physical—or better, any less integral. These expressions are meant to communicate that, because our bodies are not our own, and because our bodily union is capable of producing new life, we are called to be attentive to where the other one is at the moment—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Marriage is a work in progress, and the fact is that my wife and I every day fall far short of the total mutual self-gift in Christ that we vowed at our wedding. This falling short is, frankly, discouraging, and it can at times be a source of deep pain. But it never absolves us from our commitment to strive, each day, to love one another just a little bit more than we might feel like at the moment.
There are indeed times when the practice of NFP is the principal area of this struggle in our marriage, when it seems that all one (or both) of us can think about is how we feel like making love, but can’t, because we’ve previously come to the decision that we ought not invite new life into our home and family, whether for financial, physical, or emotional reasons. This is when the “bargaining” usually begins: “There’s not that high of a probability of conception, so maybe we can risk it, right?”
If there’s any truth to the suspicions of a “contraceptive mentality” for couples using NFP, I feel quite sure that you’ll find it here. And yet the mentality isn’t really “contraceptive” per se, but simply selfish. And it’s precisely this selfishness, in all its various forms, that God intends the sacrament of marriage to gradually uproot. Moreover, this selfishness can cut both ways: I can be selfish in my reasons for avoiding sex so that we can avoid pregnancy, but I can also be selfish in my reasons for having sex, and for that matter, in my reasons for trying to achieve pregnancy as well.
NFP is a challenge, then, not just because it means you can’t have sex whenever you want (though that can be a real downer). Even more, though, it’s a challenge because it’s part of a much larger set of commitments—both to God and to the wife and children he’s so generously given as a part of my specific vocation as a Christian. Thus, for me, the biggest challenge of NFP—but also its greatest promise—is that its proper practice means saying yes to God, to my wife, and to my children, which often means saying no to myself, at least for the moment.
Some Practical Advice
Whether it’s NFP, marriage, or the Christian life in general, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Some may be called, at particular points in time, to practice continence for the sake of spacing children, and others may not. For those who do practice NFP, or are thinking of doing so, here are a few practical considerations that I have found helpful.
- · Pray, both individually and as a couple. God is the one who has joined you and your spouse, and who desires your holiness and the wellbeing of your marriage and family. Frequent conversation with God in prayer is essential for discerning the concrete ways in which we are to respond to his call to love him and one another.
- · Pick the right time to talk. Though spouses should talk openly (and frequently) about their goals and hopes and fears for the marriage and family, this should be done at a time when the two of you aren’t particularly inclined to be “in the mood,” since this will surely impact your deliberation about what God wants for your family at the present.
- · Try to stay on the same page. A frequent complaint among men about NFP is that wives seem to use it as an excuse to withhold themselves from their husbands. Assuming that this is not actually the case, a husband can avoid cultivating unwarranted suspicions by remaining abreast of his wife’s signs and where she is in her cycle. This need not entail checking signs or charting together, but simply means maintaining mutual responsibility for fertility awareness.
- · Stick to the plan, at least for now. When the two of you have come to a decision—whether it’s to pursue conception, avoid it, or just let the chips fall where they may—do your best to stick to it, together: It’s no good if a couple says that they’ve opted to avoid conception this cycle but then one (or both) of the spouses wants to start fooling around, since this does nothing but ratchet up the stress level (and perhaps set the stage for a new darling little one). If you and your spouse have come to a prudent decision previously, it is no doubt for good cause, and the prayer, conversation, and discernment that went into that decision shouldn’t simply be tossed out because one’s hormones have given you the sudden urge to “take a chance.” Likewise, if conception or a laissez-faire attitude are the chosen course, it isn’t good or helpful to return to sources of anxiety when an appropriate time has arisen for the two of you to be intimate. Unless some new piece of data has emerged that would have changed the original process of discussion and discernment, just stick with the plan, trusting in one another, and trusting in God.
- · Stay chaste. Whether or not you and your spouse have opted to practice continence and to abstain from sex for the time being, remember that you are called to purity of intention and action, both individually and as a couple. Regardless of the frustrations that continence may involve, recourse to pornography and/or masturbation is never permissible, nor is it ok to pursue sexual pleasure with each other (frottage, heavy petting, oral sex, etc.) as a substitute for, or outside the context of, procreative sex. Moreover, even if certain other physical expressions of affection aren’t sinful, they may still prove to be imprudent or unhelpful to your present course of action (or inaction, as the case may be). Again, on this last point, communicating with each other is key.
- · Remain flexible. Circumstances change, and what was the right decision for one month ago might not be the right decision for today. Keep an open heart to what God is asking of you and your spouse, and how you can best respond to his call to holiness and love.