February 9, 2017 // Perspective
Family planning with benefits
How fertility awareness-based methods can enrich marriage
Fertility awareness-based methods of family planning, commonly called Natural Family Planning or NFP, are those that teach couples to observe and interpret on a daily basis the biomarkers of fertility that naturally occur in a woman’s body. This awareness of their fertility enables couples to identify the days on which conception is most likely, should they desire to conceive a child, or in contrast, to refrain from sexual relations on the days when conception is possible, should they desire to avoid a pregnancy. International studies confirm that, when used correctly, NFP can have a success rate of 98-99 percent. But beyond being an effective method a family planning, fertility awareness-based methods can strengthen the love between spouses and benefit their marriage in three important areas.
NFP fosters communication and enhances emotional intimacy
The successful practice of NFP requires couples to communicate regularly and effectively, not only about details involved in using the method but also regarding the larger and deeper questions about what God is calling them to in their marriage. In a sense, the question comes up every cycle: Are we going to use the fertile period this month to try to conceive, or do we have a serious reason to postpone a pregnancy in our present circumstances? In addition, the periodic abstinence from genital intimacy, which is entailed if a couple is avoiding pregnancy, provides them with a monthly “push” to express their love for each other in other ways, which can enhance their emotional intimacy and deepen their friendship. As important and powerful a “love language” as sex is in marriage, it is not the only one, and NFP provides couples with ongoing opportunities to practice speaking their spouse’s primary love language. One husband confessed that the practice of NFP caused him to realize that his relationship with his wife needed work. “I discovered that I had placed more emphasis on genital intimacy than relational intimacy… Periodic genital continence reminds me that I have to attempt to gratify the relational needs of our marriage. I have to make a deliberate, reflective effort to continue to maintain the quality of our relationship regardless of when we have sex. … Continence does me a favor. It provides me with a ‘rhythmic’ opportunity to make sure it is love and intimacy, not sex, which binds me to my wife. The periodic tension that sometimes comes with continence means we frequently examine our relationship, our needs, our communication and the quality of our intimacy and affection.”
NFP fosters reciprocal respect and shared responsibility
NFP is based on a profound respect for how God has designed us as men and women. Neither the husband nor the wife has to withhold, diminish or destroy their fertility, but rather, both spouses work in cooperation with the woman’s cycle. Couples who use NFP work as real partners to interpret the biomarkers of fertility in the woman’s body during each cycle and to apply the rules of the method depending on their family planning intention. As one husband reflected: “Why shouldn’t the fertility cycle be respected when it comes to sex? Why shouldn’t husbands conform their desires and actions to the natural rhythms of their wives’ bodies, rather than ignoring or suppressing them?”
Not surprisingly, the early pioneers of the women’s movement understood intuitively that contraception degraded the dignity of women. Far from insisting on “reproductive freedom,” 19th century feminists considered contraception to be “unnatural,” “injurious,” and “offensive” to women, and feared that its use in marriage would relegate women even further to being regarded as sex objects by their husbands. More than a century later, Pope Paul VI sounded the same alarm in “Humanae Vitae”: “A man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.”
In contrast, the husband who practices NFP is willing to postpone his own sexual pleasure for the sake of his wife’s well-being. Here is how one wife experienced the self-sacrificing love of her husband during a difficult cycle in which stress delayed ovulation, resulting in a longer-than-normal period of abstinence: “He began to understand that God was using this time of abstinence to teach him temperance, self-control and that charity involves acts of sacrifice, not just emotional affection. He could see from my cycle that I was under great stress and he realized that it was his duty to console me and help me through these difficulties. In other words, the chart spoke to him and told him more about his wife than he understood from her words. We survived that difficult cycle, which both of us remember as the turning point in our relationship. Abstinence does make the heart grow fonder. We were sacrificing something important for each other, and we each knew it.”
NFP safeguards the total, mutual gift of self that sex is meant to signify
Sex is intended by God to be the most intimate sign of the mutual gift of self that a man and woman make to one another in marriage. It is designed to be a dialogue in which a husband and wife “say” to each other, through the language of the body, what they said aloud publicly on the altar on their wedding day: I accept you completely as the gift that God created you to be, and I give myself to you completely in return. But a spouse is not giving himself or herself completely to the other in this dialogue if at the same time he or she is withholding from their other the fertility that is an integral part of identity as a man or woman.
In contrast, the practice of NFP safeguards sex as a sign of total, mutual self-giving. Here is how one husband describes his experience: “As I now reflect back over our 36 years of marriage, I can see that the practice of NFP has been a freeing experience for me. Our fertility as a couple has been an awesome gift. … For me, NFP has helped me to get my intellect, will and emotions all lined up in one direction so that I can strive to give myself totally to Ann Marie in the act of [intercourse], and not just be responding to a sensual urge.”
Learning NFP has never been easier, and a marriage stands everything to gain. For more information on a nearby class series go to www.diocesefwsb.org/Natural-Family-Planning; or to find distance learning opportunities see www.usccb.org
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