Recognizing the Suffering of Abstinence

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By Hannah Graham

This topic is one that has been on my heart for a long time but I have always approached it with a great amount of hesitation.  Not because of the subject matter, nor the various approaches, but because it is such a personal experience to the couple practicing natural family planning.  Despite what I may say, NFP’s effects are unique to each couple that uses it. There can be commonalities, certainly, but the way it impacts a marriage (for better or for worse, depending on the day) is particular to the couple.

That being said, it is time to be more transparent about the difficulties of natural family planning and begin to reform the ways we speak about it as members of the Church. 

NFP is the ordered, beautiful way to approach family planning as it truly does foster an openness to life, a selfless attitude towards sexualtiy, and an awareness of a woman’s body and her fertility.  This makes it important to advocate since many people, Catholic or otherwise, are underexposed to the real goodness it offers, particularly because modern culture is so saturated with birth control.

However, in an effort to promote NFP within Catholic circles the rhetoric surrounding its use and effects tends to take on an overly optimistic tone towards the difficulties natural family planning can come with.  Because of this, many couples who learn about NFP and go on to practice it are met with unexpected challenges and hardships. Firstly, the abstinence required is often regarded as temporary or easy and doesn’t account for either complications in cycles or the cross it can be for couples.  Secondly, there is a tendency to paint NFP as a kind of birth control, as primarily a means of planning children rather than emphasizing the necessity of being open to life and the discernment that requires. While it is vital that as Catholics we advocate for the benefits of natural family planning, as it truly is the most healthy and holy way to remain open to children, we should not hide the difficulties couples may encounter as this can foster resentment, instead we should inform and prepare them so they may embrace both the joys and sufferings NFP may come with.

Depending on the method and the particular woman’s cycle, using natural family planning requires multiple days of abstinence.   This is to be expected and is, generally, one of the main premises of NFP as this is how a couple can avoid or achieve pregnancy (abstaining is often encouraged for certain days when trying to increase the chances of achieving as well).  When explaining this essential factor of abstinence, however, there seems to be an exceedingly positive approach in the Catholic narrative surrounding NFP. It’s not uncommon to hear sentiments like, “You’ll experience a honeymoon effect when you’re able to resume having intercourse”, “You only have to abstain a short amount of time in a cycle, around a week or so”, or “The days of abstinence will increase your love for each other because you’re sacrificing for one another”.  While this may be the case for some couples, I have heard much more often from couples practicing NFP that these remarks are much more complicated when lived out.  

My first encounters of NFP were through pamphlets at my local parish, theology classes, and marriage preparation.  All of these encounters presented natural family planning briefly and optimistically. Even the NFP courses we took in our diocese were only oriented towards the technical, not the spiritual or emotional.  While this is not a bad way to talk about NFP, it is not entirely truthful either. It led me to believe using NFP in my husband and I’s marriage would generally be easy to practice and, consequently, foster greater love for each other, whether we used it to achieve or avoid pregnancy.  What we found after getting married was that natural family planning can be very difficult and complicated. My cycles were usually very long, the honeymoon effect was offset by changing drives, and there were more days of abstinence than expected (don’t get me started on postpartum cycles).   Although we want to use natural family planning and firmly believe in both its logic and process, there are days when the discipline it requires can be exhausting.

It is true that the necessity of abstinence requires a couple to learn to be intimate in ways other than sex, something particularly unique to natural family planning.  This is a beautiful process that teaches them to love each other with more intention and particularity outside of the bedroom. That being said, growing in emotional, spiritual, and intellectual intimacy with one’s spouse often increases physical attraction as well.  While learning non-sexual ways of being close does help when faced with abstinence, nothing can actually replace the intimacy of sex which is so vital and good in a marriage. While our love for each other did grow by mutually sacrificing our desires, living it out day to day was and is frustrating; I believe this could have been helped if we had been told that, like marriage, natural family planning can be simultaneously gratifying and demanding.  The reality remains that abstinence is difficult no matter how it is presented. If a woman’s cycle is long or irregular, if she’s ill or stressed, and even if she and her husband are learning or switching methods there will likely be more days of abstinence than anyone would like to admit. Regardless of what’s prompting abstinence, it can be difficult to accept if there was a lack of transparency when it was introduced to the couple.

In order to change these misinformed expectations, we have to stop talking about NFP only in contrast to birth control; rather, we must present it as a demanding calling of marriage, one that is full of both joy and sorrow.   It is understandable that it is presented so positively to couples, but if there isn’t an honest conversation about the high calling that natural family planning is then it will simply perpetuate a mentality that separates sex from babies and give off an impression of ease, resulting in probably more frustration for the couple than necessary.

This is not to say NFP is too difficult or can’t be done.  Abstaining is totally possible and a reality that many, many couples live but it demands a spirit of sacrifice.  Sacrificing intimacy between spouses can only be done out of selfless love, a love for God’s will over your own, however his will is understood through discernment.  Through natural family planning, couples are learning to love as Christ did by taking up their cross for the sake of another good. 

The ability to sacrifice, however, requires an understanding of the cost and the discipline to willingly give up what an individual desires. If natural family planning is repeatedly romanticized, couples who practice it will only begrudgingly face the sacrifices it comes with. Instead, Pope Saint John Paul II reminds us to sacrifice out of love, “Since the Cross of Christ is the sign of love and salvation, we should not be surprised that all true love requires sacrifice. Do not be afraid, then, when love makes demands” (Address to the Young People of Auckland). Rather than talking about NFP in light of birth control, we should talk about it in light of love, transparent with couples that this kind of love involves openness and sacrifice. Beginning natural family planning with this attitude will make self denial a little easier and gratification seem sweeter; little by little, surrendering marriages to the call of holiness.