Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

A recent comment from a secular fertility awareness advocate discussed the difference between secular Fertility Awareness (FAM), where the couples can do what they please during the fertile period, including using barrier methods and alternatives to intercourse, vs. Natural Family Planning (NFP), where abstinence and taking a chance on pregnancy are the only options.

Her post implied that FAM was superior because couples had more options. I can’t say I disagree with her. For most couples, FAM is the better option.

Nevertheless, I still believe that only NFP is fully living the complete truth about our sexuality.

Why I like Fertility Awareness

I am big fan of fertility awareness. Women are infertile most of the time, so why not learn her body to take advantage of natural infertility? Why bombard her body with hormones every day when pregnancy can only occur for a limited time out of every cycle?

natural-family-planning

Philosophically, fertility is NOT a disease. Giving healthy (fertile) women medicine to create an unhealthy condition (infertility) is a really bad idea. Anthropologically, a society that promotes this behavior is saying that there is something pathologically wrong with women’s bodies as they are made. Is it any wonder why so many women in our society have body image disorders?

Fertility awareness works through self-knowledge and self-control. Knowledge is power and self-control is a virtue. Switching to a fertility awareness based method has improved our sex lives and the rest of our marriage.

Fertility awareness is common sense family planning.

Why I like Natural Family Planning

As for Natural Family Planning, which involves complete abstinence during the fertile period, there are some things I really like about it.

natural-family-planning-poster-2012-470x364

I agree with the philosophy behind natural family planning. No, it’s not because I am afraid of going to hell for using a condom or think that the best sex advice comes from a celibate man.

I agree with this philosophy because it speaks about the nature of sex. Sex is designed to be unitive and procreative. It is designed for making love and making babies. Not every sex act leads to conception, in fact, frequently conception is impossible. The problem is with actively removing the procreative element from sex. Because when you remove the procreative element, you change sex, meaning that also lose much of the unitive element as well.

In cases of natural infertility, such as during pregnancy and postpartum, after menopause, and during the infertile part of the cycle, sex is as it is: Nothing is removed from sex and nothing is changed.

Barrier methods are just that: Barriers. We have found that they are psychologically contradictory, trying to come together as one while wondering if the barrier between you will fail. Furthermore, our experience is that nothing else, however mutually enjoyable, is quite the same as intercourse. Nothing is as intimate and nothing brings you together in quite the same way. We have found that these “other forms of sex” are “sexual junk food” compared to the “feast” of intercourse.

On the positive side, remaining abstinent challenges you to be creative at showing your love in your marriage outside the bedroom. Plus, couples have to decide every month whether they will pursue new life or abstain, which is an important conversation to have.

NFP also makes you be “All In” with the method. If you know that your sex life is entirely dependent on being good at the method, it pushes you to be a lot better at the method. It gives you a reason to find those extra days (and days you may have not considered before) as well as fix minor health issues that can extend the period of abstinence.

Both FAM and NFP respect a woman’s body and her health and allow the couple to have “all natural” sex for most of the cycle, but NFP also incorporates the discipline of marital chastity as part of the method. NFP is far more of a lifestyle choice than FAM.

Why I hate Natural Family Planning

Yeah, I get all of that.

But that doesn’t mean that this is easy.

So, here is yet another “Why I hate Natural Family Planning” post. Here are the reasons why:

Natural Family Planning isn’t fair

Some people find natural family planning to be a wonderful experience, even with the abstinence. But often times this is due to factors beyond the couples’ control. Some women have “textbook cycles” with regular periods and clear and obvious signs of fertility. Some women have short periods of fertility and relatively long periods of infertility. Some women have light menstrual periods, which reduces the abstinence there.

Some couples have less serious reasons to avoid pregnancy, which means both less abstinence (more comfortable with risk) and less stress.

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Unfortunately, not all couples have things so easy.

Some women have unfavorable cycles. Some women have symptoms that appear to be long periods of possible fertility. Long, heavy menstrual periods may create a second time of abstinence. Sometimes these two times of abstinence may merge together to form one long block. Short cycles may leave few days available for sexual intimacy.

Some women have ambiguous and difficult interpret signs of fertility. They may need to try multiple methods before finding one that explains how they work. This involves more classes, more time, more cost, more study, not to mention increased abstinence (or increased risk of pregnancy). Some women have health problems that are causing their cycle disorders. While the fertility charting is an excellent tool for diagnosis and many women have been able to find effective treatment as a result, sometimes it can take some time to resolve these issues. And sometimes the couple may not have the resources to pursue treatment.

Some couples may have very serious reasons to avoid a pregnancy, leading them to use the method in a more conservative way, just to be sure.

NFP advocates often talk about the beauty of a woman’s body. But when charts show not beauty, but dysfunction, it can be very difficult to accept. NFP advocates often talk about the beauty of our sexuality. But when periods of abstinence are long, “safe days” few and far between, and you crave even any bit of sexual intimacy with each other, no matter how imperfect, such talk feels like a cruel joke.

Then there are problems caused by our lifestyles. It is hard to live by the cycle of the woman’s body when you kept apart by work-related travel or similar issues. A couple that would struggle to get time alone without worrying about fertility has to struggle that much harder.

What I hate about NFP is that two couples of equal virtue and equally strong marriages may have radically different experiences with NFP based on factors beyond their control. This isn’t fair and I hate that this isn’t fair.

Natural Family Planning requires the commitment of both partners

There is no way around it, NFP requires the commitment of both partners. NFP pioneer Dr. Evelyn Billings has stated that without cooperation of both partners, NFP is impossible. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have stated, quite clearly, that the virtue of marital chastity that is key to practicing NFP is a joint effort.

But if you’re spouse isn’t on board, you aren’t going anywhere.

What do you mean you're fertile?

Of course, FAM also requires the cooperation of both partners, but the commitment is considerably lower. If he doesn’t want to abstain, he can use a condom. If she wants an orgasm during ovulation, that doesn’t require intercourse.

Some people take the view can the spouse that wants to abstain should abstain and tell the uncooperative spouse to (literally) go f— themselves. But this is no way to have a marriage. It only leads to division and resentment with the uncooperative spouse using their sexuality outside of the marriage.

But sadly, there isn’t really any good solution. Something has got to give.

What I hate about NFP is that no matter how much one spouse believes in it, an uncooperative spouse can prevent them from trying it.

Natural Family Planning requires relational maturity.

In the post Three Things I Secretly Hate About NFP, Rae Jericho writes that NFP requires self-control and maturity and the couples who could benefit the most from NFP often were short on both. This is a fantastic post, go read it.

NFP requires relational maturity. It requires couples to develop their intimacy beyond sex. Because sex is a great way to “patch up” a relationship. It’s a quick fix. Yes, couples can overly depend on it, but sometimes couples just need the closeness, the release, and the happy hormones to get them through a rough spot. NFP requires that couples either find another way to get through the rough spot or accept that having sex may lead to making a baby. Children are wonderful, but they are generally not the solution to marital problems. Developing the relational tools to get through rough spots without sex is very liberating and empowering, but it’s also very difficult and it does take time.

couple-in-bed-embarrassed

It doesn’t help that NFP is hardest when couples are young with high fertility and raging hormones.

NFP also requires couples to be good at sex. Counter-intuitively, high libido couples may have an easier time of NFP than low libido couples. High libido couples can “make the most” of the infertile period, making the period of abstinence a “welcome break” instead of a deprivation (unless, of course, there are extended periods of abstinence). Low libido couples have a surprisingly more difficult time. Anecdotally, many women say they are most interested in sex during ovulation. A common complain among women who “hate NFP” is that they could only have sex when they weren’t interested.

Couples absolutely can learn to enjoy sex during the infertile period, but for inexperienced couples this may take time and effort. Men have to take an extra effort to learn how to please their wives. They have to learn how to get her interested when her hormones could care less. It means taking his time to get her body in the mood for sex on the night when he is READY. TO. GO. NOW. For inexperienced couples, practicing NFP can make the sexual learning curve that much steeper.

Natural Family Planning requires spiritual maturity.

Nearly all the couples who choose NFP over FAM do it for religious or spiritual reasons. Unfortunately, without a well-developed and mature spirituality, NFP is a great way to make you and your spouse “lose your religion“.

The couple needs to have the spiritual maturity to be able to stick with the method, despite the difficulties. It is the spiritual maturity not to blame NFP for the problems in marriage, but life circumstances, cycle disorders, work schedules, or our own flawed human nature for the frustration. It requires accepting that sometimes you can’t always get what you really want, no matter how badly you want it.

But the couple also needs to have the spiritual maturity to properly understand what God requires of us. Catholics believe that God does not ask us for more than we are capable of. Because of our flawed human nature, sometimes the best we can do is an imperfect response to God’s commands. Our own efforts to improve ourselves are doomed to failure; it is only through the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit that we can change. Or, as St. Augustine said, “God does not command impossibilities, but by commanding admonishes you do what you can and to pray for what you cannot, and aids you that you may be able.”

People get in trouble when they view chastity as a series of rules that are to be obeyed under fear of hellfire. They try to do too much at once. Because they are not capable of what they are trying to do, even if they follow the rules, the problems come out in other areas of their lives. They burn out and give up.

When Humanae Vitae was released in 1968, the Archdiocese of Washington released a pamphlet defending the controversial encyclical. Most of the pamphlet defended the logic of the encyclical and urged couples convinced that “rhythm doesn’t work” to learn “modern rhythm” (i.e. early symptothermal methods of  fertility awareness) which is “extremely effective—more effective than most methods of contraception”.

But an interesting section urged couples who were struggling to try their best. It reminded readers that couples who tried and failed, even failed repeatedly, had not necessarily turned their backs on God. It was a recognition of the difficulties of Catholic teaching on the subject and that even good Catholic couples committed to “rhythm” would occasionally use a contraceptive.

Put another way, the pamphlet recognizes that what amounts to FAM would be the best that many couples could do. But it also leaves room for relational growth and spiritual development.

Basically, I hate NFP because although NFP is a way of gaining maturity, it requires a great deal of maturity to do it successfully and the young married couples who need it often don’t have it.

NFP vs. FAM

I would recommend FAM to nearly anyone. It’s far easier than it used to be. Need help tracking multiple symptoms? There’s an app for that (Android, too). Want something simple? Try Billings. (Online classes available.) Have cycle issues? Creighton Model FertilityCare has a good track record in treating them (Billings, too). Edit: So does Justisse Healthworks for Women. (Thanks, Laura.) Want to just pee on a stick and let the computer do the rest and are willing to pay for the convenience? You would probably like Marquette. Breastfeeding? Marquette is great. So is Billings.

Then the couple can decide how best to use the fertile days. That requires talking about sex, values, family planning, and all those wonderful topics that couples don’t always talk about, but should.

Which leads to happy sexytime.

As for NFP, I do recommend it, but only for couples who are well aware of what they are getting into. NFP can be very rewarding, but it can also be very frustrating, which can be very dangerous if the couple is not prepared to handle it.

Couples need to be committed to it, not out of fear of hellfire, or in an effort to earn “heaven points”, or to prove that they are a “good Catholic”, but because they have a very specific, dare I say—very Catholic view of sexuality. They need to believe that nothing will truly satisfy other than sexual intercourse as nature intended and that they would rather abstain than settle for less. Because if couples believe, as most couples do, that sexual enjoyment between a couple is good in itself and any link to procreation is unimportant or undesirable, then choosing NFP over FAM really doesn’t make much sense.

This is why I get frustrated with people overselling NFP or scaring people into it. Because NFP is not always easy, and NFP has it’s own dangers and pitfalls.

This is also why I prefer the “FAM way” of promoting the methods: It is far more respectful of the couple’s autonomy, personal beliefs, and individual situation. It also focuses exclusively on the science and leaves spiritual advising and moral instruction to those better qualified to do it.

So, do I recommend NFP or FAM? It depends on what you believe, what you value, and what you and your spouse can handle in your marriage. It depends on how much you want to put into it and how committed you are to doing so.

Do you have experience with any of these methods? Did you find that FAM worked better in your marriage, or was the sacrifice required for NFP worth the effort?

9 thoughts on “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

  1. This was really insightful. Having not actually practiced fam or nfp (in the married sense) I think “what could possibly be so difficult? It’s gotta beat this now.” So it’s nice to hear a realistic, but still optimistic take. Thanks!

    • That’s great that you are tracking before marriage. It’s a lot easier to practice it “in the married sense” when you already know your body.

      Sometimes single people (including priests and religious) don’t realize how much more difficult abstinence can be when you are already married. You know how much you enjoy it and the person you love and want to enjoy it with is right there.

      Plus, you are supposed to be coming together, you are supposed to be one, so strategies for singles who are trying to remain abstinent, such as sleeping apart, really aren’t a good idea when you are married. Such strategies could starve a marriage for intimacy.

  2. I’ve read a bit of your writing both on Rae’s blog, and on Real Catholic Love and Sex, and it is this philosophy that initially piqued my interest.When I was a young single person, I figured there was no in-between, it was either contraception or nfp (with a good dash of providentialism when nfp didn’t work out). Now I’ve been married for only a couple of years, but in that short amount of time both my husband and I have seen that the reality of married life is often messy particularly when it comes to matters of love, sex, and babyraising. We are slowly coming to see our efforts to live by the Church’s teaching as a gradual, and continual effort, rather than a one time all or nothing choice. After our first child was born, we attempted to use nfp for the first time, mostly failing because when I was fertile and we started to get a little frisky we almost felt we had an obligation to continue to full intercourse because otherwise we would probably do something sinful. We weren’t that serious about waiting to have another baby and after a few months we officially tried to get pregnant and we had our second child. He is now a year old and we are using nfp again, only this time our reasons for postponing another baby are much more serious and we are determined to get a larger space. Something else is different this time also, we are taking a less legalistic approach. We aren’t having sex during fertile times just because we ‘got started.’ We are not always completely chaste during the fertile period, but when we fail, we strive to try again but don’t beat ourselves up about it. We are realizing we need to remain close to each other even when I am fertile. We strive to stay completely abstinent, we know that is the ideal and we agree with it, but we will not sacrifice our unity as spouses and avoid each others’ company during the fertile time to avoid possibly sinning with each other.

    I grew up in a very stringent Catholic household, and my husband and I went to one of those very orthodox colleges. Following the letter of the law on the Church’s teaching on contraception and nfp seemed to be considered the hallmark of a ‘real’ Catholic, anything else was thought to be cafeteria Catholicism and they might as well just get out of the Church already. Yet most of the couples we are friends with have really struggled with NFP, unplanned close together pregnancies, and in most cases, both. My husband and I are only 26, and most of our friends are around the same age, and there is often an air of foreboding when the topic turns to family planning. We are all wondering if we can do this our whole lives (well for the next 20-25 year anyway).

    It is in light of these struggles that my husband and I have taken a somewhat more relaxed approach this time around, and it has helped tremendously. For us it has helped to remember that we must strive to remain close to each other during the fertile time even when sometimes we don’t live out chastity perfectly. But we’ve both done some studying on our own (what actually started the discussion was that post on Real Catholic Love and Sex talking about this exact issue. Thank you for that!), and talked to trusted priests and it seems the actual church teaching and it’s shepherds are far less legalistic than most of the nfp preaching Catholic lay-people. But once in a while we get anxious because in our very Catholic circles things like this are MORTAL SIN and cause for serious concern in a marriage. I really hope and pray God doesn’t see it in such a black and white way.

    I think that the all or nothing approach that seems to be present when teaching nfp is not going to be a good thing for my generation. I think it will lead to a lot of us abandoning it. A little bit of FAM thrown in their could do wonders, along with a bit more understanding of the difficulty of abstaining from one’s spouse.

    • Thank you so much! I’m glad I was able to help you out. You made my day. Kate had an earlier post on the blog that gave me the confidence to write it.

      I grew up in an observant, but very much post-Vatican II, Catholic household. I didn’t even know the Catholic Church was still against contraception until I went to college. We didn’t talk about sex at all in our house, other than “Don’t, until you are married.” So we got all this with no “filter” when we tried NFP earlier in our marriage. It was very confusing and frustrating because neither of us quite knew how to react to it. (I later found out my mother, a well-educated Catholic, would have been VERY helpful on these issues, but, once again, we didn’t talk about sex at all in our house.)

      Additionally, K is not Catholic. (She tried to be Catholic once, but it was more a matter of “wanting to believe” than actually believing.) For me to follow Catholic teaching to the letter would be very unloving and unfair to a spouse who does not believe the same things. We have spent a lot of time talking about it and come to something that works for us.

      I understand the philosophy and I agree with it. But I also know married couples need to be close. There is so much focus on the technical aspects of sex that the spiritual aspects are forgotten. An imperfect expression of closeness and love is not one of lust. Saying that it is one is very confusing, bordering on spiritually abusive.

      Then there is the problem of evangelical Protestant “Purity Culture” creeping into Catholic culture, but that’s another whole blog post.

      What I have noticed is that the more educated Catholics tend to be less legalistic on the subject. Many of the legalistic Catholics have an incorrect understanding of sin, grace, moral development, and spiritual growth and are hurting people with their ignorance. They also tend to skip the parts about the duty of responsible parenthood and that learning about fertility and charting well is a virtue in itself.

      I notice the material from the bishops and from the Vatican is considerably more moderate than the material from NFP and pro-life groups. They are far more concerned with hormonal/biological contraception and sterilization than the occasional condom or non-procreative activity. They have years of education in theology and pastoral training as well as the Sacrament of Holy Orders and sometimes people forget that.

      Rae is very well educated in the faith and has taught me quite a bit, which is why I love her blogs. We also have had the fortune of having an awesome NFP instructor couple who has solid scientific and pastoral training. Instead of criticizing us for what we were doing wrong, they were happy that we were even trying. They were able to explain a LOT and were able to explain it in a positive, non-judgmental way. Having a good support system makes all the difference.

      • Yeah, I think that married life and sexuality is much more well lived when the spiritual elements are kept in mind. Going at sex and love very technically is not a good recipe because it leaves emotion, passion, and all the spiritual elements out of it. Exactly like you said “An imperfect expression of closeness and love is not one of lust. ” Sometimes the way NFP groups talk about married chastity makes me feel like there isn’t a huge difference between before you are married and after you are married, accept that once in a while you get to have carefully calculated sex. The way NFP promoters make it sound married couples are always just barely containing horrible lust, and are always at risk of using each other. And I realize lust in marriage happens, I mean we are just humans, but being scared of it all the time does not seem helpful in becoming more united with each other. A married life together is about intertwining yourselves, your souls, your bodies. It is organic, and incredibly human.

        We try to make the focus of our marriage be to love each other fiercely, and through this love to catch glimpses of God’s love for us. The way we practiced NFP before, more legalistically, it was like we would white-knuckle it, trying to avoid each other, until we couldn’t handle being apart anymore. Now we try to remain as close as possible even when we are trying to abstain, and it has actually made us able to completely abstain for longer periods because we don’t feel deprived of all affection and intimacy.

        PS. Sorry about my typos, two little kids are not conducive to proof reading 🙂

  3. “A married life together is about intertwining yourselves, your souls, your bodies. It is organic, and incredibly human.”

    How true.

    “We try to make the focus of our marriage be to love each other fiercely, and through this love to catch glimpses of God’s love for us. ”

    Yes, I believe that’s what marriage is all about.

    And it’s not surprising the abstinence has been easier for you two. What you really crave is intimacy and you are getting intimacy. A physical reaction to genuine marital intimacy is not lust or using each other.

    I find it ironic that in equating physical intimacy with sex, these NFP promoters are making the exact same mistake as secular culture.

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