Sunday, July 8, 2012

Guest Post on Natural Family Planning: A Husband's Perspective


Welcome back to an informal NFP series where I hope to shed a little light on the subject and offer support to the planners of the natural family variety. Lest I ever punish you with my own ramblings on the topic, I've coerced yet another generous writer to share his thoughts on the matter.
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Natural Family Planning: A Husband’s Perspective
by Michael Hahn

The Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception has been in the news a lot recently, leading a number of people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, to take to public fora and offer their opinions on it, both for and against.

Especially in Catholic circles, but increasingly among Protestant Christians as well, discussions of this sort often trade on assumptions concerning the barbarism, or the beauty, of what is seen as the “Catholic alternative” to contraception, natural family planning (NFP).

Not being a moral theologian, I’m sure I can’t give a proper account of how exactly contraception and NFP differ from a moral standpoint—and thankfully, many others have weighed in on precisely this point. Nonetheless, as a husband, father, and sometime “practitioner” of NFP who takes seriously the reality of this difference (even if I can’t explain it), I’d like to think that there’s still something that I can add, based on my own experience of NFP, and its unique challenges and rewards. I know that everyone’s experience is different, so I don’t pretend to speak for others—neither for men in general, nor for married couples, nor even for my own wife, whose perspective as a woman remains irreducibly other than my own. Yet even if my experience isn’t at all universal, the standards of Christian living we should be aiming for are.


NFP: Promise vs. Reality

Right off the bat I should admit that I have generally had one of two ideas of what NFP looks like. The first is a bright, soft-focused mental picture of marital bliss, where husband and wife are in harmony with each other, with nature, and with God. There may be kids, too, and if so, they are always beautiful and well behaved. This is what the cover of pretty much any piece of NFP literature that I’ve seen will look like, and it’s certainly what I had in mind before getting married.

The second idea is more or less the exact opposite of the first: think dark and poorly lit, with husband and wife each feeling frustrated, resentful, and very much alone. Maybe they’re fighting again, or perhaps just sitting in a tense silence that is broken only by the baby’s cries from the other room. I’m not saying this is how things look like in our home, at least not exactly, but this is the sort of foreboding way that I’ve tended to regard NFP since getting married. Were I to state it in a quasi-mathematical form, my thinking could be summed up as: NFP = no sex = tension and disharmony.

I’ve of course read that NFP tracking methods can be used when a couple is trying to achieve pregnancy, which would undoubtedly alter my equation above. But since my own experience of it has been mainly in the context of pregnancy avoidance, and since a woman’s “signs” can often be more like “mixed signals,” I’m going to let the first part of it stand: NFP = no sex (for the most part).

As I see it, if there’s a problem with the math involved in my way of thinking about NFP, it’s most likely in the second part of my equation: no sex = tension and disharmony. And it’s on this point that I find the Catholic Church’s teaching especially helpful.

There’s a nice euphemism used for “no sex” in the various resources I’ve seen on the Church’s teaching on human sexuality, namely, “continence,” which is more or less just a fancy word for self-control. And in my experience, the tension and disharmony that I tend to equate with continence is due mainly to a lack of real self-control on my part—since it’s not a habit I’ve sufficiently cultivated, it usually feels pretty unnatural to me.


What’s So “Natural” About It, Anyway?

On the one hand, it makes sense that practicing continence might seem unnatural, since coming together as man and wife is an essential and natural part of the sacrament of marriage. On the other hand, there are many instances when prudence might dictate that my wife and I are not at a place where we can welcome new members of the family, and that we therefore shouldn’t “issue invitations” by engaging in an act that by its very nature is ordered toward procreation.

Continence or NFP isn’t “natural,” then, as if it were essential to marriage, and yet it is natural insofar as its exercise recognizes and affirms the divinely inscribed nature of sex between husband and wife. But damn if it isn’t still really hard.

Why is it so hard? Well for starters, there’s that basic problem of a lack of self-control that seems to plague most all of us since the fall of Adam and Eve. This makes it so that gaining virtues of self-control and relinquishing selfish attitudes is really hard work. And in the context of practicing NFP, this hard work usually includes a whole lot more of the communication, cooperation, and self-sacrifice that married life already requires.

But it’s precisely because continence is so linked to the tasks proper to marriage that I find these extra efforts to be worthwhile. See, the promise of NFP isn’t that it will automatically work wonders for your marriage or sex life. Rather, it’s that, when properly used, it can become a fruitful means of progress in the lifelong task of fulfilling our vows of complete mutual self-gift that we spouses make on our wedding days.

In short, for me as a husband, NFP serves as a reminder of what I signed up for when I said “I do.”

It’s a reminder that there are in fact many ways to love my wife with my body, and that sometimes this bodily love means not coming together sexually, but instead expressing my love for her by exercising self-control, channeling my affection instead toward acts of service, toward words of affirmation, toward praying for her, and toward speaking with her at greater length than we might otherwise be accustomed to. These expressions of love are different than making love, to be sure, but they need not be any less physical—or better, any less integral. These expressions are meant to communicate that, because our bodies are not our own, and because our bodily union is capable of producing new life, we are called to be attentive to where the other one is at the moment—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.


Overcoming Selfishness

Marriage is a work in progress, and the fact is that my wife and I every day fall far short of the total mutual self-gift in Christ that we vowed at our wedding. This falling short is, frankly, discouraging, and it can at times be a source of deep pain. But it never absolves us from our commitment to strive, each day, to love one another just a little bit more than we might feel like at the moment.

There are indeed times when the practice of NFP is the principal area of this struggle in our marriage, when it seems that all one (or both) of us can think about is how we feel like making love, but can’t, because we’ve previously come to the decision that we ought not invite new life into our home and family, whether for financial, physical, or emotional reasons. This is when the “bargaining” usually begins: “There’s not that high of a probability of conception, so maybe we can risk it, right?”

If there’s any truth to the suspicions of a “contraceptive mentality” for couples using NFP, I feel quite sure that you’ll find it here. And yet the mentality isn’t really “contraceptive” per se, but simply selfish. And it’s precisely this selfishness, in all its various forms, that God intends the sacrament of marriage to gradually uproot. Moreover, this selfishness can cut both ways: I can be selfish in my reasons for avoiding sex so that we can avoid pregnancy, but I can also be selfish in my reasons for having sex, and for that matter, in my reasons for trying to achieve pregnancy as well.

NFP is a challenge, then, not just because it means you can’t have sex whenever you want (though that can be a real downer). Even more, though, it’s a challenge because it’s part of a much larger set of commitments—both to God and to the wife and children he’s so generously given as a part of my specific vocation as a Christian. Thus, for me, the biggest challenge of NFP—but also its greatest promise—is that its proper practice means saying yes to God, to my wife, and to my children, which often means saying no to myself, at least for the moment.


Some Practical Advice

Whether it’s NFP, marriage, or the Christian life in general, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Some may be called, at particular points in time, to practice continence for the sake of spacing children, and others may not. For those who do practice NFP, or are thinking of doing so, here are a few practical considerations that I have found helpful.

·      Pray, both individually and as a couple. God is the one who has joined you and your spouse, and who desires your holiness and the wellbeing of your marriage and family. Frequent conversation with God in prayer is essential for discerning the concrete ways in which we are to respond to his call to love him and one another.
·      Pick the right time to talk. Though spouses should talk openly (and frequently) about their goals and hopes and fears for the marriage and family, this should be done at a time when the two of you aren’t particularly inclined to be “in the mood,” since this will surely impact your deliberation about what God wants for your family at the present.
·      Try to stay on the same page. A frequent complaint among men about NFP is that wives seem to use it as an excuse to withhold themselves from their husbands. Assuming that this is not actually the case, a husband can avoid cultivating unwarranted suspicions by remaining abreast of his wife’s signs and where she is in her cycle. This need not entail checking signs or charting together, but simply means maintaining mutual responsibility for fertility awareness.
·      Stick to the plan, at least for now. When the two of you have come to a decision—whether it’s to pursue conception, avoid it, or just let the chips fall where they may—do your best to stick to it, together: It’s no good if a couple says that they’ve opted to avoid conception this cycle but then one (or both) of the spouses wants to start fooling around, since this does nothing but ratchet up the stress level (and perhaps set the stage for a new darling little one). If you and your spouse have come to a prudent decision previously, it is no doubt for good cause, and the prayer, conversation, and discernment that went into that decision shouldn’t simply be tossed out because one’s hormones have given you the sudden urge to “take a chance.” Likewise, if conception or a laissez-faire attitude are the chosen course, it isn’t good or helpful to return to sources of anxiety when an appropriate time has arisen for the two of you to be intimate. Unless some new piece of data has emerged that would have changed the original process of discussion and discernment, just stick with the plan, trusting in one another, and trusting in God.
·      Stay chaste. Whether or not you and your spouse have opted to practice continence and to abstain from sex for the time being, remember that you are called to purity of intention and action, both individually and as a couple. Regardless of the frustrations that continence may involve, recourse to pornography and/or masturbation is never permissible, nor is it ok to pursue sexual pleasure with each other (frottage, heavy petting, oral sex, etc.) as a substitute for, or outside the context of, procreative sex. Moreover, even if certain other physical expressions of affection aren’t sinful, they may still prove to be imprudent or unhelpful to your present course of action (or inaction, as the case may be). Again, on this last point, communicating with each other is key.
·      Remain flexible. Circumstances change, and what was the right decision for one month ago might not be the right decision for today. Keep an open heart to what God is asking of you and your spouse, and how you can best respond to his call to holiness and love.


Michael Hahn is married to the lovely Ana and has three children (two ex utero and one in utero). They reside in Indiana, where Michael is pursuing a PhD in the history of Christianity.



29 comments:

  1. Thank you, thank you for this post!! I've been struggling with these same feelings the last few months. I'm still nursing my 9 month old and have no idea what's going on and the signs have been confusing to say the least. We're being "safe" which means nothing until I can figure things out. This has led to so much stress. I'd love if someone out there could shed some light or discuss NFP and breast feeding! I feel so alone as few people I know nurse this long and if they do usually use contraception.

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    1. Have you looked at the Marquette Method using the clear blue easy fertility monitor? It has worked wonders for friends who are trying to figure out what is going on while nursing. They have special protocols for what to do if your period hasn't even come back yet. http://nfp.marquette.edu/sc_breastfeed_monitor.php

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    2. No, I've never heard of it and definitely plan on checking that out as I have not gotten a cycle back yet. Thank you!!

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    3. Yes, do try the monitor. It is so reassuring when the other signs are weird or non-existent (I'm breastfeeding a 10-month-old). There is also an outstanding forum on the Marquette site where you can ask questions of an RN, NFP-only OB/GYN, and a bioethicist.

      There is a one-time cost for the monitor, and the cost of test sticks is higher when you're not cycling yet (because you have to test more often), but it is worth it, in my opinion, even when you're on a tight budget.

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  2. Love this! There are so many women talking about NFP (or women like me who won't shut up about NFP) yet we rarely hear a guy's take on it! Sharing!

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  3. Ok. In case you are keeping count of how many women are forwarding this on to their husbands, you can count me in as one.

    Thanks for the awesome post!

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    1. Don't forget me. I just can't keep my mouth shut about this from my hubby. I really enjoyed reading the entire article. Thanks a lot!

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  4. Gotta love that Hahn family!

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  5. Completely excellent. Thank you.

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  6. Marjorie, have a gander at Creighton MOdel. Works great with breastfeeding (says me who is currently breastfeeding baby 3). I also like red raspberry leaf tea and (newly) partridge berry and ladies mantle to help correct some of the over-abundance of discharge that might appear on my chart right now. :) La Leche LEague actually has some info on their site as well.

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    1. This is my third too. I've never made it this far with breast feeding, so it's new to me. I will check out that info, thanks!

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  7. Michael Hahn? As in son of Kimberley and Scott? Awesome post - love his wife's blog, too. We have been NFP-ing for almost 14 years and are huge advocates! And yes, we have successfully spaced children when it was (prayerfully) called for in our family. And our youngest is now 7.

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    1. I recently lost my faith. I am starting to blog about my experiences and thoughts at http://catholicismontherocks.blogspot.com/

      Looking for conversation on faith. I have been a devout Catholic, Theology Degree from Steubenville, 5 kids, homeschool, Mass, etc....

      I would be interested in others point of view.

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  8. Grace, do you mind if I re-blog this on my Great Sexpectations blog? Of course, I will give credit where credit is due.

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  9. Mike check!

    (Sorry, I couldn't resist. *Fantastic* post. Bookmarking this one to use as a resource.)

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  10. Great post! I love when you get the guy's point of view. I didn't realize this was that "Hahn." Awesome. BTW, I second the Creighton. It was a huge help meeting with my teacher and using "yellow stickers" to get a handle on my crazy long cycles after baby #4.

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  11. Yes, abstinence causes frustration, the couples should be sure that sin caused by the frustration, or the sin of disregarding properly discerned serious reasons in their call to responsible parenthood, or avoiding your spouse to avoid "sin", isn't greater than the sin of pursuing sexual pleasure with each other outside of intercourse. (Such activities are masturbation, CCC 2353, which is "disordered", not contraception, CCC 2370, which is "intrinsically evil".)

    The purpose of chastity in marriage is not to avoid certain sexual activities, but to grow in friendship in the marriage. If the abstinence is straining the friendship and causing you to commit OTHER sins, then couples may need to re-evaluate.

    I have written about sin in marriage:

    http://realcatholicloveandsex.blogspot.com/2012/06/honeymoon-series-part-9-nfp-on-your.html

    I am also currently writing a series about chastity in marriage this week:

    http://realcatholicloveandsex.blogspot.com/2012/07/how-to-be-master-of-your-domain-part-1.html


    The ONE RULE is not the BASE of Catholic sexual morality, it is the APEX. Your formerly Presbyterian parents misunderstood this aspect of Catholic sexual teaching, as did John Kippley, from whom they learned it. They hold a view that intercourse in marriage is a generally acceptable outlet for the ordinary sexual urge for and downplays the obligation to responsible parenthood, both of which have been explicitly repudiated by John Paul II.

    This incorrect believe can break couples and run them away from the Church and it nearly broke us.

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    1. More on my point.

      http://www.szansaspotkania.net/index.php?page=15729

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    2. Hi Wayward Son,

      Thanks for reading, and for your comments. If I understand you correctly, you're saying that I'm wrong to assert the immorality of pursuing sexual pleasure with each other as a substitute for, or outside the context of, procreative sex, and that the activities I mentioned (e.g., frottage, heavy petting, oral sex, etc.), as well as mutual masturbation, are not gravely immoral, or at least shouldn't be so harshly disparaged.

      If this is your position, then I'm afraid I must respectfully disagree with you. I am deeply sympathetic to the need to avoid "breaking" couples, as you say, but at the same time I am unable to see how counseling spouses to masturbate each other, for example, is at all in keeping with God's design for marriage and for human sexuality. It may well be the case that, at the individual level, the immaturity of the spouses or some other factor mitigates the gravity of the sin in question, but surely this is something for a confessor to determine, and cannot be dispensed willy-nilly over the internet.

      On the one hand, the church's ideal is certainly not scrupulosity, but on the other, neither is purity as unattainable as you seem to fear in the articles you've linked to. Thankfully, the church takes a long view of things, so that even if we happen to be consistently failing at the present, we may nonetheless still hope--and strive--for greater virtue in the future. Frequent recourse to the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist is absolutely essential, at least in my experience, for if there is anything out there greater than my own selfishness and disorder, surely it is the mercy and love of Christ that is offered in the ministry of his church.

      Carry on, and don't you cry no more.

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    3. Indeed, the Church does take the long view of things, as do I.


      I do not think that chastity is unattainable at all. But it is only attainable with God's help. (Pius XII said as much.) And it must be pursued the correct way.

      The purpose of chastity is not to avoid certain sexual acts, it is to allow the spouses to control themselves and grow in friendship. If spouses have to separate to avoid sexual sin, then they are failing at chastity, even if they do not touch each other.

      I agree that such sexual activities are sinful, but they are not the worst sins in the world.

      THIS IS THE POSITION OF THE CHURCH. As the new youth Catechism, YouCat states, "The Church does not demonize masturbation, nor does she trivialize it." YouCat focuses on selfish sexuality, but this phrase applies even more to marital sexuality as well. The "big boy" Catechism also mentions mitigating factors. I attempt to be no more and no less pastoral about mentioning mitigating factors than the Church is herself. If I am dispensing them "willy-nilly" over the internet, then so is the Vatican.

      YouCat was approved by Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote the introduction. I think that Joseph Ratzinger knows the faith better than me, you, or anyone else.

      I also want couples to be aware of all the OTHER sins that they may be committing in trying to avoid certain sexual acts. In the pursuit of chastity, couples should not commit five sins to avoid one.

      I agree completely that the sacraments are necessary and that we must recognize our own disorder and that the love and mercy of Christ are necessary.

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    4. I'm glad to see that you agree with so much of what I've said.

      You'll note that, in the original post, I didn't "rank" various sins according to their gravity, nor did I demonize any particular sort of person. I simply tried to lay out some basic parameters for striving for chastity (and surviving continence) within married life.

      While I understand that you would have preferred that I had cast something like mutual masturbation in a more positive light, that is not something that I can do in good conscience. Even if that or a comparable act might "weigh less" than some other sin, I'm unwilling to encourage anyone to go ahead and commit it, since I'm not aware of Catholic moral teaching being predicated on a "lesser of two evils" basis.

      Instead, my advice, to anyone, would be to pray every day, frequent the Eucharist, strive for purity and for holiness, and have recourse to God's mercy in confession whenever the inevitable falls in any area of life occur.

      Do that and there'll be peace when you are done.

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    5. "I'm not aware of Catholic moral teaching being predicated on a "lesser of two evils" basis."

      Here is the Catechism:

      The morality of human acts depends on:
      - the object chosen;
      - the end in view or the intention;
      - the circumstances of the action. CCC 1750

      Circumstances contribute to increasing or diminishing the moral goodness or evil of human acts (for example, the amount of a theft). They can also diminish or increase the agent's responsibility (such as acting out of a fear of death). Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil. CCC 1754

      One should always strive to do good, but sometimes circumstances are such where one must choose between multiple sinful courses of action. So yes, "lesser of two evils" is part of Catholic moral teaching, although rather indirectly stated. (You should certainly never choose the greater evil.) The act is still sinful and still evil, but the circumstances mitigate guilt. In law, this is analogous to the necessity and duress defenses as well as mitigating factors in sentencing.

      I think we are largely in agreement about the ultimate goal. This is the one sentence that I was particularly concerned about:

      "Regardless of the frustrations that continence may involve, recourse to pornography and/or masturbation is never permissible, nor is it ok to pursue sexual pleasure with each other (frottage, heavy petting, oral sex, etc.) as a substitute for, or outside the context of, procreative sex."

      It seems to imply that couples should avoid sexual pleasure that is non procreative sex no matter the impact that the frustrations with continence are causing in their personal life or their spiritual life. If this was not what you were saying, then I think this point needs to be made more clear. If not, then I strongly disagree with you.

      In my own case, when frustration causes me to sin, usually with impure thoughts, sometimes outside of my marriage. I also recognize that it may cause me to be short-tempered and uncharitable. I recognize I sin, but I also recognize that resolving my frustration through a loving encounter with my wife, although a sin, is less bad than continuing to sin in this way.

      Should I need to? No. Am I sinning? Yes. Should I do better? Yes. Am I choosing the least bad option under the circumstances? I believe so.

      (I also have a mixed marriage, which makes things even more complicated.)

      I DO agree completely (200%) that recourse to pornography or masturbation is NEVER permissible. In fact, I think you do not emphasize this enough and you seem to equate an evil and a selfish act outside of marriage, respectively, with what may be a loving, though disordered, act inside of marriage.

      I do agree that we should strive for chastity and holiness, but I want to be clear that we can not achieve them on our own merits, but can only accomplish them with God's help.

      (Chastity is the virtue of control of our passions. "Sexual purity" is only part of the virtue of chastity, and sometimes misunderstood to be an unattainable "state of being".)

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    6. Put another way, I think you downplay the sins of pornography, masturbation, and all the other numerous other sins that may come from sexual frustration by treating all sins as equally serious.

      But if I claim to be a wise man, it surely means that I don't know.

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    7. Thank you, Wayward Son, for sharing your concerns and for being so forthcoming with your own personal difficulties. All of us have our struggles, but some of these are more unique, and more uniquely challenging, than others.

      In a public forum such as this, I find that it is often best to speak in generalities, since the stickier specifics of individual situations are often best dealt with on a one-on-one basis, preferably in the privacy and sanctity of the confessional, and/or with a trusted spiritual director.

      I do hope that you are able to be as frank with your confessor as you have been here, and I likewise hope that he possesses the wisdom to provide you with guidance tailored to your particular needs.

      Good luck, and God bless.

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    8. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    9. This is why I post under a pseudonym with no identifying information. I want to be frank, but protect my family's privacy. (I AM a real person.) These issues ARE private, but couples ARE struggling with specific situations and are going to the internet for answers and not to priests and spiritual directors. They may get the wrong idea if they read only a flat set of rules. Thus my concern about your statement.

      Plus, many priests are misinformed, both too lenient and too harsh, so good QUALITY spiritual direction is important as well.

      I have discussed this with two priests.

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  12. Excellent post - and very well written. Thanks for sharing; I will share this with others.

    Married Male, 32 yrs.

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