Ah, the elusive image on an NFP pamphlet. A couple, hand in hand, either gazing into each other's eyes as the sun sets on them standing in a field of golden wheat. Or maybe they're laughing as a rainbow forms over them and butterflies flutter with the waves of their marital passion.
THIS is the promise of NFP, right? Practice it, and you'll have a less than a 5% divorce rate. Practice it, and you'll have excellent communication and strength in your marriage. It's just the BEST THING EVER! according to the lead couples at your marriage prep weekend.
And then it's not. And you look a lot more like this than those pamphlets.
"What are we doing wrong?!" You find yourself thinking. "It isn't supposed to be like this."
Although I've only been an instructor for about a year, I am hereby apologizing for any other NFP instructor in your life who sold you NFP rather than teaching it to you.
Before I say much more, I want to affirmatively acknowledge that there are awesome health benefits. The American Academy of Pediatrics says a menstrual cycle should be considered a fourth vital sign for girls because it reveals THAT MUCH about her health status. NFP also provides an opportunity in marriage for self sacrifice, communication skills, and strength. An opportunity does not equal magic pixie dust, though. It takes work.
The problem with placing our NFP practice on the foundation of health benefits or marital benefits is that those are not guaranteed. They can also be fleeting. You can have a really challenging medical problem so it takes time, effort, patience, money, etc. to sort it out. You can be in a challenging season of marriage where you're barely surviving and don't see great communication or strength building. If these situations last too long, you become weary. With weariness comes two options: push through and continue NFP begrudgingly because "the Church says so." Or ditch NFP all together and go a different route (i.e. contraception). I chose the latter for about 10 years. That's a different post for a different day.
If health and marital benefits are *great* effects of NFP, what is the proper foundation?
If you are practicing NFP for religious reasons, you likely have some Biblical truths guiding your life. Ok, let's look at what Jesus calls the greatest commandment in Matthew 22, verse 37.
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’
I'm pretty sure I got that verse as a piece of wall decor for my wedding, but it needs to be more prevalent in our lives than just a phrase for home goods. HOW do we love God with all that we are?
It hit me when we were baptizing our sweet baby Jude (on the feast of St. Jude!) He was becoming an adopted child of God. And we were promising to reject Satan, all his evil works, all his empty promises. In fact, we repeat those baptismal promises every Easter!
That is the core of loving God; rejecting that which is not of Him. Rejecting sin.
Two consistent components of NFP are: needing to plan a pregnancy (either achieve or avoid) and rejecting a sin against sexuality (contraception, certain infertility treatments, etc.)-- out of a love for God and rejecting that which is not of Him.
I propose this scenario to couples who learn NFP from me.
"Imagine NFP doesn't exist. And you need to avoid pregnancy, and you reject contraception (out of love for God). What do you do?"
"Abstain.... all. the. time."
Usually there are a few sideways glances. I repeat it just for dramatic effect. Then I introduce the idea of NFP. "Now you know which days you are fertile, and you can confidently use the other days of the month for intimacy."
As I wrote in my first post of this series on fertility as a cross, this is where the Church is guiding us. Despite getting a false reputation for being anti-sex, the Church doesn't want married couples constantly abstaining for months on end. Sex is an incredible gift! Nor does the Church teach that couples need to be constantly trying to have as many babies as possible. That's actually objectifying the sexual act in a way that does not accurately reflect God's original design.
My prayer for all of my clients and readers is that you find NFP to bear much fruit in your life. Please share your witness with others! However, when you have a season that comes down to nothing more than "we need to avoid pregnancy, and we reject the sin of contraception because we love God and reject that which is not of him (sin). But otherwise this is really hard for us right now." That's ok. You are not alone. I hope that season passes quickly for you. You aren't a failure at NFP or a bad Catholic couple. Jesus saved us through a crucifixion, not by skipping through a meadow.
I like to think about people who run marathons. I am not that person. I will run if being chased. Maybe. If I feel particularly ready to meet Jesus that day, I might decide death is better than running. I'm only being slightly hyperbolic. I digress...
My friends who run marathons are honest about the work that goes in to it. They are proud of their accomplishments and the rewards. Runners high is a real thing, but most runners will admit to days when their legs feel like bricks being pulled through wet concrete.
Running is a discipline. NFP is a discipline. Disciplines take work. It doesn't diminish the value of the discipline to admit to and recognize the work involved.
In the case of NFP, when you feel no other benefits, you can rest in the peace of knowing that you are loving God with all that you have and rejecting sin out of that love for Him, just as we are commanded to do. I don't expect that to make it much easier. Certain seasons are downright awful (hey, breastfeeding postpartum transition, I'm looking RIGHT AT YOU!). You are not alone. Have peace in the knowledge that at least one other Catholic wife out there isn't laughing her way through Scrabble dates during her fertile window. Solidarity, sister!