Before I got married, when someone said Natural Family Planning, I thought of this:
After I got married, had a kid, and actually had to start to postpone pregnancy, when someone said NFP, I thought of this:
That is not an uncommon experience. NFP is billed as a magical system that helps unite a couple and foster deep communication, even during times of abstinence. The Couple to Couple League International’s website is full of words like “liberating”, “selfless”, “empowering”, “teamwork”, and “enriching”. Our peppy instructors seemed so in love, so confident, and so in sync with each other. NFP was clearly my ticket to marital bliss.
So why then, is practicing NFP actually so miserable?
Instead of fostering deeper communication, couples end up avoiding each other unless they are in an infertile phase, because the temptation is just too great otherwise. Better to take some time apart than lead each other to sin, or into a dangerous pregnancy.
Instead of a magical honeymoon phase every month when ovulation is finally observed and a count of three days past that, wives suddenly have no libido whatsoever and just want to be left alone, leaving her husband to turn elsewhere for comfort and release.
Instead of ten manageable days of abstinence per month, post-partum confusion or gynecological issues make it look closer to twenty-five days per month or a practically Josephite marriage.
Instead of prayerfully discerning whether to abstain this month, life circumstances make it glaringly obvious that a pregnancy is imprudent at best, dangerous at worst, sometimes indefinitely.
The frustration, arguments, frigidity, distrust, and temptation of using NFP is by no means the rare exception. This is not what we were promised! But nevertheless, we continue using NFP, cuz it beats the alternatives, right?
And when people complain, sometimes they are met with a sympathetic, “yeah, I know it sucks, don’t it?” but more often they are met with, “Offer it up.” Both accurate responses, I think. But neither one is particularly helpful.
It’s time to stop sugarcoating NFP. We need to start being honest about what it actually looks like in practice, and not just for the poster children.
We the few, the proud, the NFP users, will never give up and jump on the artificial birth control wagon, because we know our marriages are about more than just us. We know and trust that God has our best interests and our sanctification in mind when He gives us a commandment. But on a bad day, that is a poor comfort, and I don’t think God means for us to just mope about while doing His will. I think He means for us to serve Him with joy.
In a perfect world that would happen with the husband recording his wife’s symptoms, they would have lots of SPICE through phase 2, and after ten days of abstinence, they would reunite with a refreshed affection for one another. I believe there are couples like this, somewhere, and I hope to be one of those couples one day. Slowly but slowly, my husband and I are getting there. But I refuse to believe anyone can sustain that level of ease with NFP without major work, or that the above scenario is the only way that NFP can work well.
I want to start to talk about that work that it takes to turn NFP into this mythical marriage strengthening tool. I also want to talk about when NFP simply won’t work. I want to start to talk about how we as fellow wives and husbands, and as a Church as well, can be truly compassionate to couples who are struggling with what can be a huge burden.
To that end, I’m collecting a half dozen or so stories from NFP using couples. These aren’t likely stories that would make it into the Couple to Couple League’s promo materials. These are stories of couples who have struggled through some really difficult times of abstinence and difficult pregnancies. Some of these couples have figured out how to use NFP to bring them closer together. Some of them are still working on it. But these stories deserve to be heard.
I’ll be publishing one story a week, and also another post per week with some thoughts and research on how we can try to make NFP work better for ourselves and our marriages, but also for the marriages that will come after us.
For now, I’ll close you with an excerpt of the totally theoretical musings of an idealistic 19-year-old me, looking at marriage and NFP from a long way down the road:
Marriage is as close as we can possibly come to a physical representation of God’s love here on earth. Yet even with the protection of sacramental grace, it can be corrupted and destroyed. Selfishness can sink in. Disrespect for the other spouse can arise. This isn’t the way it is supposed to be. Ideally, marriage is respectful, it is selfless, it is LOVING, it is obedient to God and each other. So once that is fulfilled, then we can experience God’s love in the most incredible way. If you could pull off NFP, if you could have that respect for the other person, if you could be that obedient to God, if you could control yourself, could you imagine?
Nothing on earth can fully satisfy us. Deep inside, every human wants a full and complete union to the Love of God, which can only be attained in heaven. Yet, here on earth, the pure form of married love is as close as we can get. I cannot believe how generous Our God is with us. He gives us all of Himself in so many ways. Looking from a (very long) distance, I’m seeing how married love is going to be difficult to live faithfully, but more rewarding than any of us can possibly imagine.
I still agree with 19-year-old me. I think in most cases, NFP can be everything it’s promised. Just not the way it’s being billed now. So let’s be honest with discerning couples about what they are getting themselves into, and let’s help couples in the trenches play whatever hand they may have been dealt.
Read the next post in the series, the NFP story from “L & B” here.