From the Family Foundations archives
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by Dr. Gregory K. Popcak
NFP couples talk a lot about the blessings abstinence brings. Some talk about SPICE (using the abstinence times to pursue Spiritual, (non-sexual) Physical, Intellectual, Creative, and Emotional intimacy) and there is something to this. Couples who know how to manage Phase II abstinence well are masters of SPICE and enjoy many benefits to the marriage as a whole.
Even so, that’s not to say that abstinence is ever easy. In fact, Pope Paul VI referred to NFP as an “ascetic practice” that requires real sacrifice and self-control. The good news is, there are ways to manage abstinence in ways that don’t result in you, your spouse, or both of you climbing the walls until you can be physically intimate again. Here are four habits developed by couples who manage Phase II abstinence better than others.
1. Pray together
To do NFP well, and especially to receive the grace and develop the strength to handle periodic abstinence well, a couple must be praying together. In my practice I am constantly amazed how many couples simply do not pray together. I have also met too many couples who pray only in a very perfunctory manner that does not actually bring their real life, joys, and pains before the Lord.
If you are not praying with your spouse, especially about your sexual life together, then it will be too easy to forget that the main reason that you are abstaining in a given month is because God has asked you to take some time off from your sexual relationship to grow in particular virtues as a couple, or as a family, or as a person. (It shouldn’t be simply that you don’t want more children right now; this is supposed to have very little to do with your will.) Only through constant prayer and seeking God’s will for both your life and your life as a couple will you be able to discern the specific reasons God is asking you to abstain for a specific period of time.
The frustration of periodic abstinence is always easier to bear when you can see the fruit God will bring out of it, and when you can cry to him — together —when it seems too hard.
2. Talk openly, honestly, and without blame
Talk regularly (at least several times a week) with each other, not just about what things need to be accomplished and what is going on with the children, but also about your emotional and spiritual health and where you think God is leading you as individuals and as a couple. Do this openly (without blaming the other or becoming defensive), even about your personal struggles with sexual frustration and the pain that is a natural part of growing into the people God is calling you to be.
These conversations take the form of personal statements such as, “I know God has asked us to take this time off, but sometimes it hurts so much when I just want to be with you…” As opposed to, “You’re always saying ‘no’ to me. Why can’t you just loosen up!” Or, “Why do you have to be so legalistic about this? Can’t we just use a condom this time?” Or even, “Why do you have to be so needy/horny/oversexed? Can’t you just control yourself already?”
Being open with each other about your frustration and responding sensitively and lovingly without blaming or feeling blamed is critical for managing the emotional tension that can sometimes bubble over when we are struggling with self-control.
3. Be affectionate
Couples who do poorly handling the frustration of periodic abstinence tend to almost completely avoid sharing any kind of affection with each other unless it is going to lead to sex. These couples will say things like, “I can’t hug you in Phase II, because if I do, I get too crazy.” Or, as one acquaintance of mine put it, “I can work late for the next couple of weeks because we’re in Phase II, so it’s not like we can do anything anyway.” When intimacy is only thought of as sexual, this points directly to a truly immature view of sexuality that is more about self-indulgence than it is about self-giving.
By contrast, couples who handle the frustration of periodic abstinence better than others are usually as affectionate as they can be throughout all the phases of their cycle. These couples know that hugs, kisses, cuddling, and even “making out” doesn’t have to end in sex, and in fact, can be a real aphrodisiac when it doesn’t.
Here’s a fact you may not be aware of. When a couple enters sex therapy (even secular sex therapy with all its perverse baggage) one of the first things the therapist will do is tell the couple to stop having sex for a while so that they can work on increasing non-sexual affection. Doing this creates the safe, loving, and nurturing environment necessary for a vital sexual relationship to flourish.
Couples who handle periodic abstinence better than others follow the counter-intuitive rule that usually the more affectionate they are (despite having been led by God to abstain for a time), the easier the abstinence will be.
4. Understand the bigger picture
Some couples argue that NFP (i.e., abstinence) has the potential to ruin marriages. While acknowledging and being sensitive to the very real struggle a lot, and even most, couples face, the simple fact is, if you experience NFP as “ruining your marriage,” you have bigger problems than NFP. In fact, I would argue that your problems with NFP are likely symbolic of your struggles to communicate effectively, pray together effectively, or share (non-sexual) intimacy.
The couple who successfully negotiates the challenges of periodic abstinence recognizes clearly that sex is the tip of the larger iceberg representing their daily communication, spiritual, and intimate life. Such couples do not think of their sexual relationship as a thing that can or should stand on its own. They genuinely see sex as an expression of the deep prayer life, solid communication, common intimacy, and uncommon partnership that they celebrate in their daily lives together. Because they are already excellent partners in these areas, being partners in the pursuit of true love, and self-control, comes much more naturally.
It is always easier to kill the messenger than it is to heed the message. If NFP is challenging you and your marriage, good. It’s doing what it is supposed to do. Have courage and do the work it is calling you to do, and know that as a reward for your struggle, you will become a healthier, more godly person, and have a more intimate and godly marriage.
Dr. Gregory Popcak is the author of 10 books, including Holy Sex! He is the director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute which offers Catholic-integrated marriage, family, and personal counseling by phone. He invites you to contact him at www.CatholicCounselors.com or by calling 740-266-6461.