Troubles with NFP: Part 2
In Part 1 I reflected on the disillusionment and frustration suffered by those who, through misinformation, thought that NFP would require little sacrifice. Here I shall more closely consider a second, probably smaller group of people who, we shall assume, have an adequate perception of all that NFP entails, but have encountered extra-ordinary issues with discerning or charting fertility, problems which are often biological in nature. These issues can place great strain on their marriage and may require different types of ministry. How can we offer support to those who must exert incredible effort in order to properly practice NFP while remaining faithful to what they have discerned to be responsible and prudent family planning?
Before attempting to answer our question we ought to more clearly describe these extra-ordinary issues. Some couples, through no fault of their own, have great difficulty discerning fertility. The difficulties which we are referencing are not those caused by couples who are not yet competent at reading symptoms and charting properly, but those caused by apparent biological anomalies which cause the woman’s cycle to function differently that one would normally expect. This makes it very difficult, sometimes nearly impossible, to determine the fertile period of the cycle ahead of time. Therefore, these couples, if they have discerned they have good reasons for postponing conception, must abstain for significantly longer periods than would be necessary for most couples practicing NFP. (Or, conversely if they are trying to conceive they may have great difficulty determining the time of optimal fertility.) While the shorter periods of abstinence which are part of the sacrifices which ought to be lovingly made by all NFP couples can help the couple learn to communicate their love through a variety of expressions and can teach them to appreciate the spousal act more fully than do many couples who use contraceptives, longer periods of abstinence can cause tension between spouses who lovingly and selflessly want to renew their wedding vows with their bodies but are unable to do so without forsaking prudence. Certainly compassionate Christians can recognize that such couples may often be in need of ministry and support. How might we be Christ for them?
Putting our intent to help into practice will not be easy. One major hurdle which must be overcome is the apparent shame which surrounds discussion of problems of a sexual nature. We must first work to overcome the stigma of discussing sexuality as it relates to real marriage relationships. Although JPII’s Theology of the Body, among other things, has helped Catholics to make important and impressive steps in thinking and talking about sexuality without feeling ashamed of having done so, there still seems to be some unspoken standard within some parishes and among certain types of Christians which discourages open discussion of certain (sexual) problems with others. While some issues are more private than others and therefore ought to be discussed with more modesty, Catholic couples whose marriages are suffering due to NFP difficulties ought to feel free to turn to other couples, fellow members of the Church, for help.
As the Church, the Body of Christ, we have a responsibility to help alleviate in any (moral) way we can any unnecessary stress being placed on the marriage. Couples who are unable to share in the spousal self-gift due to difficulties with NFP ought to have some support structure within the Church to turn to for help, advice, and guidance. Through relationships with other couples who have lived through the difficulties and sacrifices which are part and parcel of every marriage, couples who are presently suffering through difficulties can gain confidence in the knowledge that they are not alone and are not at fault. In this regard, the Couple-to-Couple League seems to have an exemplary model for training couples in NFP. Although I am not personally very familiar with CCL or their presentation of content, it seems that their system of couples being trained by couples has the inherent potential to set up effective and needed support systems for couples who may face extended periods of abstinence due to ambiguities in the signs of fertility. Alternatively, parishes could set up support groups for NFP couples. However, care must taken to make sure these groups are truly interested in ministering and refrain from making judgments, attempting to convert couples to their method of NFP, etc. Regardless of how the ministry is offered, prayer and solidarity are powerful gifts which can help alleviate the angst which often accompanies the suffering and sacrifice experienced by many of these couples.
I neither presume to know what causes the difficulty discerning fertility which places such stress on some NFP couples, nor whether all of these difficulties can be fixed. But resources do exist which can help couples determine the causes of and potential solutions to their problems with practicing NFP. If you are having trouble discerning when you are fertile, either for the purposes of consummation and conception or abstention to postpone conception, you may consider contacting a trained NFP instructor about your options and considering the potentially problem-causing factors described below. Sometimes switching to a different method of NFP will help clarify your symptoms. Additionally, nutrition can play an important role in the strength of signs of fertility. A more balanced diet which includes the essential vitamins and nutrients could help decrease the difficulties. Finally, some women have hormonal imbalances which can disrupt the cycle and may make determining the fertile period nearly impossible. In such situations natural hormone supplements can be used (and are often needed on a temporary basis) to help the body to start functioning more properly. Experts in the Creighton model, which utilizes morally acceptable technologies to assist in the practice of NFP, may be especially helpful for those having difficulty conceiving.
If you or someone you know has experienced some of the difficulties discussed here and are aware of effective and helpful ministries or have ideas for them. Please share your story.