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Troubles with NFP: Part 1

January 7, 2010

Several months ago I wrote a post in honor of National NFP Awareness. One of the commenters, Brett from Vox-Nova, asked me to discuss the issues which arise when couples who are sold all the praises of NFP wind up experiencing great difficulties in putting it into practice. They often struggle to discern fertility and become weighed down by guilt as if they were doing something wrong. Some couples who are using NFP out of obedience and do not understand Church teaching on the issue may be tempted to reject Church teachings over their difficulties and abandon NFP. Brett is “convinced we need to do some serious ministry to those who struggle with NFP.” I concur, and now that I have a few spare moments I hope to offer my own reflections based in part on personal experiences and on those of friends and acquaintances.

It seems there are two separate but related issues. There are some couples who have been told of the benefits of NFP but have never of the sacrifices it requires and the difficulties that practicing it often entails. There are other couples who experience extraordinary difficulties, difficulties which far surpass the “normal” challenges of NFP, in their attempts to practice NFP responsibly. [Certainly there may be overlap among these two groups]. I shall address the second group more fully in Part 2 of this post.

What is primarily at issue for the former group is not that NFP can be difficult, but that it is sometimes taught and advertised as an economical, natural, Church-approved method of family planning and as a cure-all for all marital problems. After hearing this pie-in-the-sky version of NFP, couples may become resentful when NFP does not automatically eliminate all their marital woes but rather presents them with real challenges in the realm of self-control and continence. While these challenges may be opportunities to make sacrifices and to exercise discipline and patience, because they were led to believe that practicing NFP is quite easy, they are left feeling alone in their struggles and at fault for them. Such couples, especially those who may not be entirely convinced of the truth of Church teaching on sexuality and contraception may abandon NFP and assume the Church is wrong on this issue.

For my wife and I this was not an issue because we were not personally exposed to the “NFP through rose-colored glasses” which is sometimes taught to couples. Moreover, through our own study of theology and NFP we realized that NFP, like marriage, would not always be easy. Therefore, when we had difficulty determining fertility and thus faced extended periods of abstinence, we were not surprised or resentful and were never tempted to question the efficacy of NFP or the truth of Church doctrine. Nevertheless, I do not doubt that there exists a significant amount of poor teaching, misleading catechesis, and insufficient support networks which can lead to much disappointment, guilt, and confusion. Thus we must ask ourselves how are we to minister to couples who had been misled?

Generally speaking the answer is simple: we must demand proper and complete NFP training, but doing so effectively is not so simple. Couples who have chosen to practice NFP must be willing to talk somewhat openly about their experiences so as to raise awareness of NFP among those who have not yet given it serious consideration. Furthermore, our openness may provide opportunities for couples who use NFP to vent their frustrations. When that happens, we ought not feel as if they are attacking NFP or Humanae Vitae; rather, we must truly listen to their concerns and complaints and try to find ways to help them. Also, if we can determine from whom they received the misleading information, we ought to be willing to charitably confront them and to inform them that some couples whom they have taught received an incomplete perception of NFP. However, we should keep in mind that those teaching NFP are offering a valuable and important service and are intending to help those seeking to learn NFP. Therefore we ought to attempt to help them discern where they have gone wrong in order to prevent any future failures to teach NFP in its depth.

Additionally, it is important for any of us would-be ministers to remember and to remind others of the proper place and role of NFP in the marital and spiritual life. NFP is not a cure-all for all marital woes. It will not automatically eliminate the possibility of divorce nor will it guarantee sexual fulfillment. Instead, NFP should be thought of as a school of virtue. While on the surface it is merely a morally licit means to responsible family planning, when viewed in its depth the sacrifices, communication, discipline, and patience it requires offers couples countless opportunities for growth in holiness and virtue. But these opportunities are lost if couples are led to believe that NFP is some sort of highway to a happy marriage. It is absolutely vital to remember that NFP does require sacrifices, and it is precisely these sacrifices which make it a school of virtue. Anyone who has been led to believe otherwise has been scandalously deceived and set up for much anguish. Therefore we must promote and emphasize proper education and catechesis which sets accurate expectations. Doing so ought to greatly alleviate the vast majority of the guilt and disenchantment with which Brett is concerned.

26 Comments
  1. brettsalkeld permalink
    January 9, 2010 11:51 am

    Hi Josh,
    Thank you for your thoughtful response. I think your instinct to divide this problem in two is wise. These are certainly different issues (with overlap, as you mention), and it would be dangerous to present the solution to the first problem as if it covered the second. In my marriage, for instance, we have been educated to the hilt on this and still cannot discern fertility, so “better education” simply wouldn’t help in our situation. I look forward, then, to your thoughts on those couples with what you call “extraordinary difficulties.” I often wonder if this is what the drafters of HV had in mind when they mentioned “heroic sacrifices.”

  2. brettsalkeld permalink
    January 9, 2010 12:02 pm

    Now, for my comments specific to this post. I hope you will allow for some nitpicking. It is done in the spirit that we must demand the absolute best in our formation on this issue or the lives of couples and the Church’s credibility will suffer. I will be thorough, but I want to be clear, off the hop, that I think your basic approach is correct: for people whose difficulties with NFP are not “extraordinary” the best thing we can do is better education. And not simply better education in fertility determination, but better education in the idea of NFP as discipleship that may cost.

    I would suggest that the challenges are broader ranging than simply self-control and continence. I remember, before I was married, hearing Janet Smith tell an audience that if a couple can refrain from sex before marriage, NFP will be a breeze. This was not the case for us at all. Being both fully convinced of the gravity of pre-marital sex, it was never a serious temptation for us. I can honestly say that we never came close to slipping up in that area. Now, I’m sure Smith is correct that those who did struggle in this area would find NFP even more difficult, but the restraint and self-control needed to avoid pre-marital sex had little bearing on our sex life after marriage. It did nothing to remove the anxiety from intercourse. Knowing that pregnancy is not an option really detracts from intercourse, to the point where the usual decision is simply not to have it. After years of waiting for one another, a sex life that is sparse and anxiety-filled is a great burden, even if “restraint” as such is not.

  3. brettsalkeld permalink
    January 9, 2010 12:07 pm

    I would also caution against the idea that these couples “assume” the Church is wrong. (And yes, here I am nitpicking.) Most of them, in fact, assume the Church is right. What comes after years of struggle is not the assumption, but the discernment, that the Church is wrong. I am not saying that such discernment is correct, but I think it is important to recognize that many people spend years reading and studying and trying to obey and still conclude that they cannot defend Church teaching in this area or its continued use in their marital life.

    This is a tragedy. In our culture, though, where objection to artificial birth control is so counter-intuitive, it is bound to happen occasionally. My hope is that the Church can do things to minimize these situations. Better education is a good start, but also essential will be effective pastoral support. Open and honest NFP support groups in parishes, for instance, would be a great help.

  4. brettsalkeld permalink
    January 9, 2010 12:11 pm

    I think your call to be open, to allow couples to vent, and to do so without seeing it as an attack on the Church is spot-on. One of the most difficult things these couples face is the suspicion (real or perceived) that they are being unfaithful. Anyone in this day and age who is using NFP is trying to be faithful. I think that is a given. So, when they struggle, we need to listen.

  5. brettsalkeld permalink
    January 9, 2010 12:15 pm

    One of the most difficult things I have encountered in our search for better fertility discernment is an unhealthy competition among several groups that provide the valuable service of NFP education. (In my home province of Saskatchewan this has apparently become quite vicious as of late.) Each groups hears horror stories from people who tried the other group first. Then it becomes, “Group X is setting people up to fail.” Of course when the failures happen at home, they are easy enough to explain away. Both the couple’s lack of control and God’s will are perfect foils here.

    Calling out groups that have failed people in this area is an extremely difficult task. We must be charitable, but clear. I am not sure of the best way to do this. Maybe one thing we need to teach people is that NFP is taught by humans and so frustration with teachers may be part of the cross we are called to bear.

  6. brettsalkeld permalink
    January 9, 2010 12:20 pm

    As to your last paragraph: AMEN!

    The comment about NFP not being a guarantee of sexual fulfillment is especially apt. Sexual fulfillment means and requires many things. The faithful practice of NFP can provide some of those, but it is far from automatic. Much else is required. That, perhaps, is another post.

  7. Veronica permalink
    January 11, 2010 11:03 am

    IS there a program out there for spiritually supporting couples and families in NFP?
    If there isn’t, what would everyone (who reads this) like to see in such a program? How would it be made? It would have to meet the needs of people who study Theology such as Joshua B and regular folk who don’t know much but know they want to do what the Church teaches…

    thoughts?

  8. January 11, 2010 10:09 pm

    Brett,

    Thanks for the thoughtful response. Generally speaking, I think you are pretty much dead on in your response. The nitpicking is welcomed and helpful. I’m not good with details.

    A few thoughts:

    – I think you make a very good point about self-restraint not being the primary issue…I was going to expand on this, but I don’t think I can say it better than you did.

    – In our home parish I have not experienced or heard of any in-fighting among the different NFP groups. I know the Family Life Apostolate teaches sympto-thermal via Northwest Family Services, but other groups, like Couple-to-Couple are taught through certain parishes, etc. I hope that that is not a wide-ranging problem, but it reflects the political mood of the day in which are allegiances are often not ultimately with Christ, Love, and Truth.

  9. January 11, 2010 10:11 pm

    V,

    Thanks for reading and engaging. I don’t have any brilliant or insightful answers to your questions at this time, but provided the group is committed to the Truth, it should not need to do anything different or extra for theologians than it would for anyone else.

    It should probably be led by someone who can explain why the Church teaches what it teaches in matters of sexuality, but that person need not have a PhD.

  10. January 11, 2010 11:40 pm

    V,

    Maybe a model like LLL would work well. Then knowledge and expertise should really come from other couples who have been there. That solidarity and support is what is really needed imo.

  11. Ann permalink
    January 12, 2010 12:02 pm

    Solidarity and support are the reason The Couple to Couple League has had a membership system since it was founded in 1971. Learner couples are not left hanging; they receive ongoing assistence with the method when needed and the Family Foundations magazine, which has long addressed the hard issues of practicing NFP. (Too often, though, couples do not reach out for help.) Usually, the best help for struggling couples is hearing the experience of others. Here’s once example from 2005: http://ccli.org/resources/magazine/replies.php. You can also now find them on Facebook to seek out support from other NFP users.

    Josh is absolutely correct when he says NFP is a school of virtue. When you practice NFP you have made a decision to follow Christ, which is usually guaranteed to be a hard road to follow. But the most common experience is that the Lord’s graces flow when hearts are sincere, and couples gradually grow in the practice of becoming a gift to each other. Then they notice the burdens lessening, or they gain new perspectives that help them cope.

  12. brettsalkeld permalink
    January 12, 2010 12:35 pm

    Ann,
    I haven’t read every response to the letter you linked to, but I must say that it is fascinating reading. Some of the responses I read were a little heartless, but most were very caring and supportive. I am glad to see this kind of work done in another forum. Hopefully more and more couples find this kind of support in the places where they learn NFP.

  13. Veronica permalink
    January 12, 2010 5:24 pm

    I’ve been thinking about the pastoral model of NFP support since this was posted, and a format similar to La Leche League (LLL) would be pretty good, as Joshua B suggested. The flaw of the LLL model would be that they usually start with questions, and then ask hints from other mothers as how to solve a problem, and then go into a topic for the day that serves to reinforce behaviors and ideas that support breastfeeding.

    Each couple doing NFP has issues with fertility that vary from being hyperfertile to subfertile, and the issues with NFP may be more spiritual, and marriage based. The clinical physiology part of NFP doesn’t seem like enough, one can go to their teacher for that part.

    What about something like a bible study, theology study, focusing on: spirituality, scripture, marital relationship, and clinical physiology. Is that complete? What is missing?

  14. mlrb permalink
    January 14, 2010 4:28 pm

    “I remember, before I was married, hearing Janet Smith tell an audience that if a couple can refrain from sex before marriage, NFP will be a breeze.”

    Janet Smith is single. I was learning NFP from a single woman and she criticized me for being “cynical” when I mentioned the difficulties of being chaste while practicing NFP. I told her, as a single woman, you have no clue what you are talking about. It is almost absurd to envision two people, lying in bed, allowed to finally have sex, and not being able to to if they are too taxed with work/child/health issues. Seriously?

    I found NFP easy to use until I gave birth to my daughter and my hormones went out of whack. After that, it was a serious challenge.

    I also take serious issue with the contention that if you use NFP all will be great in your marriage. Sin is sin and I have known more than one NFPing couple where one partner was left for another.

    I have also known couples where there marriage actually suffered because of NFP. They were not open to more kids at that time and decided to use birth control. They are still happily married.

    In my own marriage, it turns out, I was married to a perverse man and had no idea. We are now in the process of a divorce. I don’t blame NFP at all for his perversity. My point is that NFP is a method, but it is not an end in and of itself. And I am DEFINITELY skeptical when the proponents who rave about it, are not sexually active married folks.

  15. mlrb permalink
    January 14, 2010 4:44 pm

    I would also add, I have also become much more sympathetic to those couples who choose sterilization/birth control methods in order to save their marriage.

    At the same time, what we are talking about is virtue. And virtue is never obtained without some pain. On the other hand, if you choose to have as many kids as possible (and I have friends who choose that), are you less virtuous because you are free to have more sex than your NFPing friends?

  16. Ann permalink
    January 14, 2010 6:04 pm

    Veronica, while I don’t have first-hand information about this new program, I have heard good things about it and I know it covers issues related to NFP…Marriage Made for Heaven is a marriage enrichment program for Catholic couples http://www.exceptionalmarriages.com/shop/shopexd.asp?id=27

    mlrb, you make good points, but one comment makes me flinch a bit: “It is almost absurd to envision two people, lying in bed, allowed to finally have sex, and not being able to to if they are too taxed with work/child/health issues. Seriously?” (I apologize in advance if my remarks seem crass or insensitive, because I don’t mean to be, but…)

    I get riled up when people accuse NFP of not “allowing” them to have sex. Or accuse the Church, or their priest, etc., of not “allowing” them to have sex. Give me a break. If you are married, you are allowed to have sex. Period. NFP provides couples information about their state of fertility, and rules to help them make decisions about their actions, but it is the couples themselves who decide when and when not to have sex. When a couple has a serious reason to delay the next pregnancy, why do they often have so much trouble seeing the decision to forego relations in the fertile time as an act of love for their spouse?! Why is love so often narrowly defined as a sexual act?

    Let’s remember that there is deep meaning to the act of marital relations. It is meant to be a renewal of our marriage vows in which we promise to give ourselves completely to our beloved. When we marry, we are called to selfless love…we are to be concerned with what is best for our spouse. If a couple prayerfully decides that it is best to postpone a pregnancy for a time, whining or hassles due to abstinence are likely rooted in selfishness. I’m not saying the struggle won’t be there (it will; the sexual drive is part of our physical makeup), but usually couples are called to grow in love to overcome this struggle…not blame NFP.

    I also don’t mean to downplay the difficulty that this journey presents for many of us. But as several have said, growing in virtue is never easy. Speaking as a wife, let me be blunt: If my husband and I are in agreement that pregnancy is not what is best for me (or our family) at the moment, it’s not a loving response for him to then pester me or whine all through the fertile time. That’s a selfish response. Whining or pressuring me for sex (or other inappropriate behaviors during the fertile time) when that would not be best for me is inappropriate and smacks of using me for sexual release. And vice versa if I am the one pestering him about not wanting to abstain.

    We use objects, not people. And marriage is not a license to use your spouse sexually. Even within marriage, we are called to acts of marital love that mean what God designed them to mean. We have dignity given to us by God, and we should strive to not be slaves to our hormonal drives…even when we are married.

    I know this can be hard…I have been married 26 years and have used NFP throughout. I also am very involved in the NFP field and have talked with many, many NFP couples over the years. My experience has shown me that the couples who succeed with NFP are the ones who learn to accept these struggles, which then opens them to grow in love toward their spouse. Their hearts begin to change and their NFP struggles lessen. On the other hand, couples who continue to experience tension with NFP year after year after year tend to have relationship issues in the marriage that are not being addressed. One or both are not changing.

    If couples struggle with abstinence, by all means, they should be consult with their NFP teachers to ensure that they are not abstaining for longer than necessary. They should also be taking this struggle to the Lord in prayer, first to discern whether they perhaps are really being called to be open to life, but also to ask perhaps what the Lord is calling them to learn through this struggle.

  17. mlrb permalink
    January 14, 2010 7:09 pm

    “Why is love so often narrowly defined as a sexual act?” Because this is what defines married love from unmarried love. I cannot have sex with my best guy friend. But sex is allowed in marriage and actually, I would argue defines it. We save sex for marriage because the end result are human beings and the best place to raise those humans is within marriage. But, I think it takes massive amounts of philosophy to get to the point where people argue that marriage is not just about sex. Of course not, but it is a major factor in it.

  18. Veronica permalink
    January 15, 2010 5:15 pm

    Ann, Thanks for the link!

    I was speaking with Ashley Marie, wife of Joshua B, today and we were talking about a pastoral model for it. I also spoke with CCL and the USCCB this week to see if they had any ideas.

    CCL has a magazine that is issued every other month (they are sending me one in the mail). The magazine features topics of interest and spiritual growth, as well as charting, for couples to reflect on.
    They also said that a good start would be to invite a speaker who teaches NFP to come talk (15-30 min) to a group of couples who use NFP/ are interested in NFP.

    I thought couples could work with each other for a short time on whatever the topic was and then get into a small group with other couples and talk about it. The Retourno retreat works like that and my husband and I enjoyed our experience with them.

    Ashley and I were also brainstorming rules that should be used such as, “don’t talk about clinical things your husband or wife may be uncomfortable with you telling the whole group.” but people would be welcome to discuss clinical things to whatever degree they felt comfortable and get advice from other couples, similar to La Leche League.

    I think that we are in a moment here, where there is a need that is not being met by “the Church” but WE are the Church, and if we don’t act, then we can’t complain. Discussing an issue is a great starting point, but people’s hearts are breaking over NFP issues. People feel their lives are hanging in the balance between contraceptives and having “too many” children (or children at a bad time). The people who are writing and responding to this blog obviously care about the issue, so please, lets continue the brainstorm about what to DO about it.

    • brettsalkeld permalink
      February 24, 2010 4:59 pm

      Veronica,
      I think that the best way to do this might be to start a group at a parish and just try things out. If you can get a few couples together who become comfortable sharing with each other, that is probably the best laboratory for figuring out a pastorally useful approach to this problem. If you and Ashley are in the same place, is there any chance you are close enough to start such a group at a parish or at the University?

  19. Linda Pinda permalink
    January 20, 2010 2:18 am

    Being open to God’s will has NEVER been easy in any walk of life.

    My husband and I struggle with many of the above mentioned issues.

    We are a textbook case of a couple that went the worldly route for many years. We “bought” all the world’s reasons for not having more children after our twins were born. My husband had a vascectomy.

    Those years during the period of voluntary sterility were the most difficult of our marriage. When we closed that door on God, we suffered the consequences of “going it alone”.

    After embracing the truths of our life-long faith, and having the vascectomy reversed, our lives changed beyond measure.

    We have always had a very strong sexual attraction and healthy sex life together. In fact, we are often asked why we still act like honeymooners after 25 years and 6 children. The answer is simple… “God”. When you invite Him into every corner of your life, including your intimacy and fertility, His response is boundless.

    Please understand… by societies standards, we are poor. I have arthritis so severe, I take weekly injections. I DO understand the stresses. I just truly believe that, for the most part, we take these stresses on ourselves uneccesarily.

    Sacrifice is great if it is placed appropriately. But when we “sacrifice” because we are more focussed on worldly standards and fears, rather than on living out our marriage vocations, and trusting in God, are they really sacrifices anymore?

    • Linda Pinda permalink
      January 20, 2010 2:24 am

      I would just like to add that I am in agreement mostly with this column in-as-much as the instruction does have to be more clear. And yes, support for married couples struggling for this as well as other issues is greatly needed.

      My husband and I have a wonderful spiritual director, who gives us much support, comfort, and guidance in our marriage, and our use of NFP. I would recommend that every couple should build such a relationship with a priest known to be faithful to church teaching and sympathetic to those living out the marriage vocation.

  20. August 15, 2010 5:22 pm

    Thank you for this. As a teacher of NFP, you have pointed out something I should be more aware of. While we don’t paint a 100% rosey picture to students, we should make more of an effort to share more challenges. However, until recently I hadn’t even experiences serious challenges, so with more experience to witness to, the better teachers we can become.

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