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Let’s talk about periodic abstinence.

Updated: Mar 16, 2019


You keep saying abstinence, but I’m not Catholic. So condoms are fine, right?”


“Is withdrawal abstinence?”


“Why would married people consider something that doesn’t allow sex whenever they want?”


Over the past month, I’ve become acutely aware of my anxiety around answering these questions.


You see, I have an incredible opportunity with my NFP practice. Because it’s natural and my mom is a hippie midwife, I get inquiries from women simply seeking a hormone-free family planning option. Nothing to do with religion. In fact, many are specifically NON-religious. They are just looking for an option with zero hormones, metals, devices, etc.


But with that comes the giant elephant in the room. Or, in my case, in the videochat conference room.


Abstinence.


I hate talking about periodic abstinence. Seriously. I’m an NFP teacher who gets knots in her stomach when the questions come up.


Why? Uh. Because I like to have sex with my husband. (My apologies to my mother-in-law if she somehow discovers I have a blog and reads this.)

Abstinence isn’t fun. There! From the mouth of an NFP instructor and advocate. I said it. If you want to have sex with your spouse, choosing a discipline that requires you to not partake in that activity for a set amount of days each month is not the ideal selling point.


So how do I actually answer the questions?


Quickly.

...and quite professionally because nurses perfect the art of a poker face.


"We don’t know the efficacy of condoms focused solely on the fertile days of the cycle. The stated efficacy is over the whole month— of which we know most of it isn’t fertile anyway."


"No, withdrawal isn’t abstinence."


“Marriage isn’t exactly supposed to be a sex free-for-all....”


I always end it with “I’m not here to judge your choices. I’m giving you as much information as I can so you can make your own decision.“


Yet the question hangs. In those few seconds of silence before I get awkward and start rambling about how they can contact me with any questions and everyone logs off, the question remains:


Why is abstinence the expectation within NFP?


Does the Catholic Church just hate fun that much?


No.


There are theological reasons, and they are sound. I’m not a theologian, and my attempt at explaining these reasons has stalled this post by 3 weeks because I couldn‘t articulate it in a way I wanted published. Theology of the Body for beginners is a good place to start, if you’re looking for those answers.


Instead, I’m going to share why periodic abstinence has been a great thing for my marriage, despite its difficulties.


Although plenty of people will write about how beautiful and SPICE-y their periodic abstinence is in their marriage, I am here as a voice for the barely-surviving, sometimes-one-of-us-sleeps-on-the-couch side of this issue.


Note: SPICE is an NFP acronym for holistic intimacy. It’s legit. And super important. And all too often used as a way to minimize frustrations couples are having.


I believe in periodic abstinence with NFP even though I often hate it. Because it has helped to change my marriage for the better.

I strongly dislike kale. And drinking water instead of a fourth cup of coffee. And going to the dentist. And flossing (which may contribute to my fear of the dentist). And exercising instead of Netflix binging.


Of course there’s a part of me that wants to indulge every urge I have whenever I want with zero concern for the consequences. And that part is lazy and selfish and never actually makes me happy or healthy (but does allow me to binge Stranger Things in one day).

We aren’t happiest or healthiest when we give in to every whim and desire we have.

Telling ourselves “no” occasionally— to the second slice of cake, to the Netflix binge, to the eighth cup of coffee— is necessary for optimal health.


Wait.. am I saying sex between a husband and wife is somehow the same as a Netflix binge or eating an entire pizza?


No. Sex is both fun and bonding— and a major part of the sacrament of marriage. It’s not shameful or dirty, despite the ineffective chastity talks many of us heard in the early 00’s.


It is easy, though, to become controlled by sexual desires. Then we begin to see other people as a means to an end, a way to fulfill an urge. To scratch an itch, if you will. I have {100% honest} heard a sexual encounter described that way.


I didn’t get married to become someone’s convenient way to “scratch an itch.” I wanted so much more than that! I DESERVED so much more than that.

The abstinence days of NFP allow us to keep any urges in check. We should be the masters of our desires, not the other way around.


Kale + water + floss + exercise PLUS NFP have an important component in common.


Discipline.


We celebrate discipline over diet.

Discipline over exercise.

Discipline over education.

Discipline over mastering a new skill.

I am a nurse, my cousins have played D1 collegiate sports, and I am married to an engineer who went to the United States Air Force Academy and completed military pilot training. As I saw discipline lead to greatness in every other aspect of my life, I began to believe that discipline over sexual urges could also be beneficial.


Discipline is not synonymous with prude.


You can have a rockin‘ sex life with NFP!


...stop rolling your eyes.


I haved personally lived with both a contraceptive-mindset and an NFP-mindset in my marriage. I have worked with a number of couples foregoing contraception for a variety of reasons to embrace the discipline of NFP. It is not easy. It is almost certainly frustrating at times. #breastfeedingtransition


For my marriage, a majority of the frustration came from having selfishness brought to light and subsequently having to deal with it. As those sinful areas were exposed and addressed, the joy and peace in my marriage grew. Intimacy flourished as we stopped avoiding self-sacrifice and learned to love authentically.

The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is use. -Pope John Paul II

People are not designed to be used. It’s so common that we almost don’t recognize it anymore, but that doesn’t make using one another okay or optimal for relationships.


At its core, NFP is designed to treat a couple as two whole unique individuals who are working together for a common goal. It calls forth authentic sacrificial love of the whole person, which is foreign in a world that reduces people to body parts and disregards the inherent dignity of each human being as soon as someone is a burden, inconvenient, or not giving us what we desire.


When I finally asked myself “what has me most hesitant about abstaining for 10-14 days?” I faced a reality that I’ve since heard over and over from other women.

Spoiler alert. The answer ISN’T: “I just can’t keep my hands off my husband. Like at all. Ever. I might die over those two weeks if I can’t be physically intimate with him.” Oh how I wish it was. I wish the answer for me and the other women who’ve confided in me was some version of wanting to jump our husbands the second they walked in the door.


Unfortunately, the answer is almost always much less about her desires.


My husband isn’t going to be happy about it.”

“He will get mad if we go more than a week.”


Every single time, my heart sinks. We are not talking about mere disappointment. It IS disappointing when you want intimacy in a specific way and have to wait. That disappointment conveys an element of desire and connection. What breaks my heart is hearing of anger and resentment from having to wait a few days for sex.


As a result of the anger/resentment/guilt trip, a woman is hesitant to commit to something she believes is better for her health and her body because it will require her husband to see her as more than someone he is entitled to have sex with every few days.


I’m not man-hating here. I adore my husband and am raising 3 young men. {Aren‘t they cute?!}

I will take up arms any day against those who want to crush men in the name of female empowerment (but that’s another post for another day). Rather, I have become acutely aware of how male formation has been hijacked and needs to be course-corrected ASAP.

From the time they were young, men have been told they are unable to control their sexual urges. To deny themselves for a period of time is “repressive and unfair.” It’s such B.S., and it’s also the reality of how many young men learn about their sexuality.

The average age of pornography exposure is 8. Pornography teaches that women are nothing more than body parts to be used for sexual pleasure.

Women are taught in order to have a say in all this mess, we must take control of how we are sexually used. Or maybe even use men sexually to meet our own needs for affirmation and feelings of love.

It’s a hot freaking mess.


And the irony infuriates me. NFP is criticized for being sexually repressive to women. Yet my experience has been that women are ok with the idea of timing sex a bit differently throughout the month to gain the health knowledge and hormone-free benefit. When there is hesitation, it is typically around their husbands.


To be fair, it can be real or perceived. A man may have excellent control over his desires. But given the messages his wife heard growing up or her own sexual trauma, she doesn’t believe a man can really be okay with telling himself no. We ALL need a reality check when it comes to authentic love.

Love is to will the good of another. -St. Thomas Aquinas

Imagine a marriage where someone sees you as a whole person. And is totally okay with just being around you— without having sex— for two weeks. They just enjoy your company, and who you are as a person.


This should not be a fantasy for a marriage. I did not describe a Nicholas Sparks novel in that paragraph. I described love. Authentic love.


Abstinence from NFP opened the door for me to regularly see authentic sacrificial love in my marriage. But it didn’t come easily. A lot of selfishness had to be checked at the door first.


Self-sacrifice and selfishness can’t coexist. Only one of these belongs in an authentically loving marriage. NFP inherently requires sacrifice so it will bring to light selfishness and sexual sins that need to be dealt with.

It’s painful as hell. And scary. And worth it. Because it makes room for love.


Authentic Love.


When I was 4 months postpartum with our baby Jude, I was about two months in on taking Zoloft. Postpartum anxiety is real, it can manifest as rage, and it’s hella scary. Oh, and it can kill libido. We are talking ZERO desire.

I was lamenting to my husband and apologizing for my lack of desire. I debated discontinuing the medication— even though it had done wonders for my anxiety. I was a happy mom and LOVING it.


My sweet husband looked at me with the most genuine smile. “I would rather never have sex again than have you hurting the way you were in the initial weeks with the baby before the medicine. YOU are so much more important than that.”


He loved me. He saw me. As a whole person. Of course he didn’t WANT to go months or potentially years with minimal sex, nor did I! But he was willing to make a sacrifice for my health. Because he loves me— all of me. Authentically. Not for his own gain.

So...back to the original issue. Why would I tell a non-Catholic to consider embracing the abstinence piece of NFP?


Sure, there‘s the big ol’ question mark when it comes to efficacy of condoms only in the fertile window. And withdrawal.... that’s even riskier.


But mostly because we all desire authentic love. For ourselves and each other. Yet we live in a world turned upside down in its understanding of what true love looks like. We say love is a fleeting feeling rather than a choice, and it’s all about what I get from the relationship. We use people and allow ourselves to be used in the name of sexual freedom. And it’s all toxic to marriage.


Learning to live with periodic abstinence with NFP {without resentment} helped us change the trajectory of our marriage. It forced us to deal with the issues holding us back from fully loving each other in a sacrificial way. It’s never easy to go from “fine” to “great!” There is no silver bullet, magical solution. It takes work, prayer, sacrifice, patience, a sense of humor, and love.


Rest assured, though, when you know in the depth of your heart that your spouse loves ALL of you and does not desire to use you (emotionally, physically, financially, etc.) there is joy. And peace. And a marriage that is GREAT and filled with authentic love. And pretty fantastic {periodic} sex.

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