Busted Halo

Most dating and relationships books, columns and shows won’t go near issues of faith. Author, professor and speaker Dr. Christine B. Whelan assumes faith has some role, and tackles even the toughest questions.

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December 8th, 2008

Opening the Floodgates

Readers share their experiences with and reactions to NFP


So a few weeks ago I began a series on Natural Family Planning (NFP) to start an open and honest discussion about the what, why and how of NFP. The response has been tremendous: Nearly 150 of you replied to the online survey and many submitted in-depth, heartfelt comments about your personal experiences.

According to our BustedHalo survey, 76 percent of readers said they plan to practice—or already do practice—natural family planning. Wait… hold up, I said to myself as I looked at the data: These results caught my eye instantly.

Since numbers from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops tell us that fewer than 4 percent of married Catholics report using NFP methods to plan and space pregnancies, clearly my column got forwarded around to some NFP groups, who wanted to share positive NFP stories with a wider audience.

And I think that’s terrific; there’s a weird divide in the Catholic Church between the more conservative and more liberal among us, and I hope this column can be a safe place for all views. That said, the demographer in me must note that the data I’m reporting here are skewed. But since more liberal young-adult Catholics don’t discuss NFP often, I’m opening the floodgates.

Below are some personal stories and comments that readers shared in the past few weeks—with both the positive and negatives of NFP. And running alongside my piece is a personal story of NFP from a college friend of mine, Mary Alice Teti. She explains the “why” of NFP—and why fertility awareness is central to her faith. I encourage you to read her thoughtful essay. And if you want to test your NFP knowledge, take this short quiz to see how you stack up on the Church’s teachings.

Converting to NFP

Jeff and his wife, Michelle, married at 26. She was on the Pill when they got married. Early on in their marriage, they decided to learn more about their faith and attended an NFP seminar.

“At first we were in the ‘who are you to tell me what to do’ demographic, especially in my bedroom! But as we grew in knowledge we learned contracepting was sinful and we had to stop,” he writes.

There’s a weird divide in the Catholic Church between the more conservative and more liberal among us, and I hope this column can be a safe place for all views.

Six months into their marriage, they threw away the birth control pills—and then abstained from sex for three months while Michelle figured out her cycle. “We played A LOT of Scrabble,” Jeff writes, but it was worth it: “NFP has incredibly blessed our marriage in so many ways besides fertility awareness. We have two boys, 4 and 1 and a half and have successfully used NFP to achieve and postpone pregnancy.”

Like Jeff, 86 percent of respondents said they had a favorable opinion of NFP. And when asked to choose from a selection of (mostly negative) comments about NFP — “It’s great for some people, but not for me”; “It’s too complicated”; “It’s not practical for our modern lives” — 71 percent chose the positive statement that NFP is “a wonderful way to space out births and plan a family.”

Jeff and Michelle are now NFP instructors. And indeed, some 84 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the Church should require a course in NFP during marriage preparation programs.

Can guys get on board, too?

But for the majority of young Catholics, the issue isn’t yet resolved. Kathi, 25, says she’s been planning to start NFP for at least a year. She’d been taking birth control pills, but after she married “it just seemed unnecessary,” she writes. “I felt more guilty about being on the pill than I did about having sex with my husband before we were married.”

Her husband supported her decision to stop taking birth control pills and she did, with the intention of starting NFP. But her husband wasn’t excited about all the charting and abstaining, and the two began to use condoms instead. “Your article said that men get excited about it. Are you serious?” she asked me.

Fair point, Kathi. Some men get into all the charting and planning—like solving a little mystery each cycle—while others are less interested. This, to me, is one of the challenges of NFP: Both spouses need to be on board.

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The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
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  • George

    The Lord God has spoken, and He said that we shouldn’t idolize His creation. Natural family planning is a result of the adoration of His creation over His word. The Lord our God spoke through St. Paul that we should marry to avoid burning in lust. Natural family planning requires you to burn in lust some times. God gave relief, and people who subtract from the word of God in the name of His creation are asking you to burn in lust while married in direct opposition to His plan. Rebel against this man made doctrine, your Lord God commands you to obey Him for your own good. Do not drink from the cup of the poisoned well, or you shall be poisoned.

  • Jonathan

    My wife (of one month!) and I are practicing NFP. It’s been challenging however, as our 6-months of charting seem to indicate that we need to abstain for about 20 days of a 30-day cycle. =(

    Any suggestions for shortening Phase II of the Sympto-Thermal method?

    • George

      This is a false doctrine. God blessed you with a wife, and your wife with a husband, satisfy each other and praise Him. His blessing brings love and is from love. Natural family planning is a man made doctrine, and as you can already see, it is a curse. Whenever man tries to be God everything goes wrong.

  • Mark

    I think a year without sex can improve a relationship. My wife lost interest in sex, and I decided to stop asking her for it for a year. We are seven months in now, and it has started to become a positive experience as I seek other ways to reach out to her and connect with her. Though inevitably it has been very hard for me at times, it has gotten much easier in recent months (see http://365dayswithoutsex.blogspot.com )

    But just last night I read of a couple who did the opposite. For the husband’s 40th birthday, the wife “gave” him a present of sex once a day every day for a year. They are Christians, and their faith was part of her rationale. She ended up writing a book about it, and apparently the whole thing deeply improved their relationship.

    So a year without sex… or a year with sex every day — either one can help. Maybe it’s just about bringing more emotional attention and energy to your relationship.

    • George

      St. Paul warned us to only deny sex to each other upon mutual consent and for short periods of time. Your situation however you wish to count the blessing, flat out sucks. Your relationship is in some serious trouble my friend. Your wife lost interest in sex, and in fulfilling her duty to keep you out of sin. At some point you will burn in sin, unless God has somehow given you a miracle to keep you from burning in sin.

  • Jeannie

    Here’s the thing — why does “growing in holiness” equal “abstaining from sex in marriage”? Commenters here just repeat these and similar statements, but have never explained the basis for this premise (as I asked in my earlier posts). Has anyone thought it through, or thought through the implications that seem to underly the hierarchy’s teaching on sexuality — that without procreation as a sort of justification, sex is wrong? How does the difficulty of NFP help us “grow in virtue”? Because we’re not having sex, which “defiles” us? Why is choosing to abstain from sex “noble”? Is the Lord benefitting from our “nobility” in some way? How does He expect us to benefit from going a year without sex? Why would He give us a sex drive and then expect us not to use it? Is it equally noble to go a year without eating food that tastes good, or go a year without kissing our child? Didn’t Jesus say “The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath”? What did He mean? Could it be that the 96% of married Catholics who aren’t practicing NFP have already done the critical thinking on this issue? PS to Teri — why try to have sex when you’re already pregnant? What would be the purpose of sex at this juncture?

    • George

      You raise a good point. The answer is most likely these people don’t even see that what they are saying regarding sex is against God’s spoken word. St. Paul already said that it is better to be married than to burn in lust. I guess these people think blue balls don’t count as burning in lust. Whoever thinks they are holy, like the pharisees, will be the last in the line to Heaven. We are all stained, much more so the ones that think they are holy.

  • Teri

    I think that what everyone who does battle with Church teaching needs to remember is this: we are supposed to be seeking holiness, not convenience, not “what works for us”, not our own version of what is “responsible”.

    Yes, NFP can be difficult. Anything that helps us grow in virtue is difficult, otherwise we wouldn’t need virtue to sustain it.

    My husband and I have gone for almost a year without having sex (I’ll explain it below). We’re extremely close, and let me tell you, I am thankful everyday for my husband, who is very appropriately named for St. Joseph.

    I’m sorry for anyone who’s had to abstain for long periods of time and found that it had a negative effect on their marriage. However, if having sex is that necessary to the health of your marriage, you may have been headed for trouble anyway. My grandmother-in-law has shared with us kids that “you get to an age where stuff just doesn’t work anymore” and you need to have more than sex as the main point of connection in your marriage.

    My husband and I found NFP to be extremely effective before we had our son, who is now 7 months old. I was a youth minister and my husband was working 80 hours a week or so. Not a good situation into which to bring a child, especially as it’s hard to find daycares that are open until 10pm every night. NFP worked great: we didn’t conceive until we were in a position to do so (about a year and a half), and then it only took us a couple of cycles to conceive (don’t forget that NFP works both for postponing and for achieving pregnancy!)

    Then it got tough for us. When I was about five months along, it became just impossible for us to have sex: my giant abdomen got in the way, it hurt, etc. Then, after giving birth to a 9 lb. baby, it was a looong time before I was healed enough to have sex, and my husband was afraid to hurt me. Then, I was breastfeeding but my son was sleeping through the night and I just couldn’t figure out if I was fertile. My period just came back and we’re hoping that our time to abstain is almost over.

    I think that we would vanquish many of the problems in our society if people stopped seeing sex as a need or a right.

    I would still encourage people to use NFP, even though we’ve found it difficult. If we can do it, anyone can, by God’s grace.

  • Greg

    My wife and I are very faithful Catholics and were gung-ho about NFP when we first got married. However given some medical conditions that my wife has that make her fertility signs extremely difficult to read we routinely had to abstain for several months at a time and only very short intervals where we could actually be together sexually. This put an incredible strain on our marriage. I won’t go into all the details, but given the dynamics of our relationship I actually think this did lasting harm from which we are still recovering a number of years later. Through a lot of prayer, discernment and consultation with faithful, trusted confidants we came to the decision to give up NFP and to start using contraception. We now have three kids and may well have more- we are definitely not anti-child. But NFP was not what was best for us, and I’m convinced that this is true for others as well. Sexual relationships are complicated (emotionally, spiritually, and sometimes physically). Unfortunately, in many ways our Church does not recognize this complexity in some of its teachings on sexual matters. It saddens me and my wife to feel condemned by our church for choosing what was best for our marriage.

  • Alphonsus

    “But actually my point was that people also use NFP to have sex when a woman isn‚Äôt fertile. So how is that particular sex act open to children? And if one says the marriage has to be open to children, not every sex act, then the same result obtains with condom use, as Audrey pointed out earlier. NFP v. condoms; ‘natural v. artifical’ ‚Äì it‚Äôs a distinction without a difference.”

    The problem with contraception isn’t the goal (i.e. prudent planning of how many children one can responsibly have) but the method. Using contraception only makes sense if the couple is assuming that the woman is ovulating and they want to alter a sexual act which would otherwise result in pregnancy. Choosing, for noble reasons, to abstain during fertile periods is not the same as trying to engage in otherwise fertile sexual acts while thwarting procreation.
    I guess it’s a little like this: dieting and bulimia are both ways to regulate one’s weight, but only the former respects the nature of the human person.

  • Jeannie

    Thanks, Claire. But actually my point was that people also use NFP to have sex when a woman isn’t fertile. So how is that particular sex act open to children? And if one says the marriage has to be open to children, not every sex act, then the same result obtains with condom use, as Audrey pointed out earlier. NFP v. condoms; “natural v. artifical” – it’s a distinction without a difference. This question never seems to get a serious answer, other than the suggestion that it’s somehow a God-intended thing for married people to abstain from sex in marriage. What would be the basis for such an idea?

  • Patrick

    So wait, does this mean that you can have sex for intimacy when the woman is not fertile in order to space out children? Or do you always have to abstain?

    • BNY_NRS

      Yes, you can have sex when not fertile. The point of NFP is to track a woman’s hormonal cycles in order to determine when she can conceive or not. It is acceptable by the church to have sex to strengthen your bond with your wife/hubby on non-fertile days (man, would we be overwhelmed with children if we were only allowed sex on fertile days!). What the church opposes in contraception is that it is an extreme/invasive way to prevent children. It is rejecting one of the purposes of sex, which is pro-creation (the other is creating a communal bond with your significant other).
      Birth control works against nature to prevent children. NFP is working with it. It is saying with your body “I don’t want children, but if God wants to grace me with one my body is open”. Contraception is closing the body for the possibility of children, and can become a slippery slope to abortion if one is conceived on accident (depending on the couple/situation of course). Plus I’m not sure how well a baby conceived on birth control would fare… it would be better to use NFP. Birth control tends to deplete the body of b-vitamins, which is needed for proper fetal development.

  • Claire

    Jeannie: You ask Jon the question, “How do you leave your marriage open to children if you only plan to have sex when it‚Äôs biologically impossible to conceive?” If a couple plans on having children, they will obviously have sex especially when the woman fertile. However, if the woman is fertile when it is not a good time to have children , they will abstain from sex. Hope this makes sense.

  • Kathryn

    When my husband and first married 12 years ago, I had that mindset of “how dare the Pope tell me what to do in my own bedroom.” Fast forward 12 years and we are faithful followers of NFP with 4 amazing children. NFP has blessed our marriage beyond what I imagined. Serena asked how you could be closer to your spouse without intimacy. I’ll offer this – physical intimacy is only one part of the equation – there are so many other levels – psychological, emotional, etc. NFP has allowed me to experience a greater love for my spouse, my children, myself and my faith.

  • Jeannie

    Here’s a few questions for Jon (or anyone like-minded, for that matter) — why does God bless abstaining from sex in your marriage? Is there something wrong with it (sex)? How do you become closer to your spouse by refraining from intimacy? How do you leave your marriage open to children if you only plan to have sex when it’s biologically impossible to conceive? Isn’t that a sin of omission? If you use NFP to “space” pregnancies, can’t you obtain the same results by using condoms (as Audrey pointed out)? And why would we be allowed to “space” children in the first place — doesn’t that leave God out of the equation? Aren’t people like the Duggars (evangelical Christians with 17 children) and Hasidic Jews the only ones who truly leave their marriages open to children?

  • Serena

    I’d be interested in seeing a discussion on Fertility Awareness and NFP. FA is considered the secular form of NFP. Women who practice FA do not use hormonal birth control but during the fertile period that can abstain or -and here is where the split from the Church-use barrier methods during the fertile period, or have non-procreative sex. There was a great article in US Catholic about 10 yrs. ago about this topic. I’ll post the citation when I find the copy I have.

  • Shea

    I also used NFP after I got married, and it was wonderful when I was “normal,” but getting into perimenopause, my cycle became erratic, and NFP was no longer a surefire birth control method. It helped me to track what was happening with my body, but it doesn’t tell me when I’m fertile any more (most likely because I’m NOT!). I can’t say that my husband helped with the charting or anything as I read he would. He wasn’t all that into it, but went along with it.

    I’ve had to start taking progestin pills because my cycle got so bad with the migraines and excessive bleeding, which were affecting my quality of life. After getting the pills, I saw that they’re primarily used for birth control. I’m not using them for birth control, but for hormone regulation. Does this make it wrong in the eyes of the Church? I’ll be interested to see what you learn about this, Dr. Whelan!

  • James

    I’m currently engaged and my fiancee and I are planning on using NFP once we’re married, and I have to say, of the two of us, I’m WAY more excited about it than she is. It thrills me that we can learn so much about a woman’s fertility. As for the burden being soley on the woman, I heartily disagree. I have no problem being the one who maintains/updates the charts and taking her temperature in morning – though that’ll have to wait until after we’re married and are actually sleeping together.

    And while it may suck to abstain for a few days, I’ve been waiting 26 years to have sex so I think I can handle a few extra days every month. True it’s not the easiest method, but so what? A little extra effort never killed anybody and NFP is just as effective as any birth control method out there.

  • A

    I ‘ve been married for 20 years ad have two amazing children. My husband and I work in emergency medicine and have brutal schedules in which we go for days without sharing our bed. If we used NFP for our world we could go for very, very long periods of time without the sex experience our commitment allows us.
    The births of both our children put my life at risk, and required a moderate degree of chemical resuscitation (of me) in the delivery room. Years ago, I just would have died. We decided he should have a vasectomy 13 years ago, without which I don’t think we could experience the intimacy we crave without the real fear of another complicated pregnancy.
    This is a very difficult decision for many working people as well as for those who have experienced complicated pregnancies and traumatic deliveries.
    We don’t need judgement or guilt for this thoughtful decision.

  • Jon

    I am married and was a virgin until marriage. I don’t know if the people who responded are married or not, but according to the Bible, fornication-premarital sex is a sin.

    As for NFP, it is a wonderful thing. It requires couples to talk about sex and talk about whether it would be a good time to have a child or not. It requires times of fasting (abstaining from sex). God blesses that and you become closer to God and to your spouse. When couples marry they take the vow to be open to children. When couples use contraception they are taking God out of it.

  • Audrey

    I agree with “Kristina”…sure, NFP made sense years ago, but what now? How are we to decide what is responsible and what isn’t?

    I also have one other question: should all birth-control be treated equally by the Church? Sure, birth-control pills prevent pregnancy after the fact, which is not in sync with the Church’s teachings, but are condoms just as bad? Is preventing fertilization in the first place through the use of condoms any different than NFP?

    I’m not disagreeing, I’m just curious.

  • Elizabeth

    I think it is good to have both sides represented but I am still waiting for legitimate concerns about NFP other than when the husband doesn’t really want to play a part in it.

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