3 unexpected benefits of learning NFP during my engagement
Guest post by Stephanie Calis
If you’ve heard an intro talk about NFP, you likely realized the health and marital benefits of NFP are well-documented, rich with solid talking points about communication, mutual respect and closeness between spouses. These benefits certainly sound nice, but have they left you wondering what they might look like in the reality of your married life? Are there aspects of an NFP lifestyle that give you pause, whether you’ve been brought to these teachings willingly or by requirement?
If so, it’s not just you. I get it. If you’re currently engaged and wondering if you’re actually up for — or even sold on — developing an in-depth knowledge of your fertility and growth in self-discipline, you’re not alone. Because it’s true. NFP does require an investment on your part: in familiarity with the female cycle, in a willingness to actively discern the best choices for your marriage and family life, and in self-control during periods of abstinence. These investments aren’t effortless. But effortlessness — complete ease and passivity — isn’t what we’re meant for.
We are meant for greatness. In marriage, we bring someone else with us along that path to glory — gift and responsibility. From someone who actually missed her first NFP class by going to the wrong church and who was once so anxious about pregnancy that she’d sometimes want to wait an extra day after already determining her infertile phase had begun, I invite you to consider these less-talked-about benefits of NFP that took root in my engagement, and later in my marriage, for the better:
- My spouse-to-be and I probably laughed together more after our NFP course than before it.
I thought I’d outgrown giggling over reproduction sometime around ninth grade, at least until the day I sat next to my future husband in a Sunday school classroom listening to our instructors talk about ovulation the way some people talk about the weather. I couldn’t help myself! We had committed to saving sexual intimacy for our wedding night, and as the “waiting-for-marriage cliché” that I didn’t know I was, I could barely keep a lid on it.
I looked forward to our future intimacy with joyful anticipation, not anxiety, and had been lucky to receive a healthy formation when it came to sex. But something about acknowledging the reality of what we’d share in a matter of months manifested itself in a combination of giddiness and the slight embarrassment of speaking so frankly about the parts of ourselves we’d share in marriage. I snuck a glance around and realized my fiancé, as well as a few others in the room, seemed similarly torn between propriety and cracking up.
Sexual intimacy is a reality, not just a vague romantic ideal. The man or woman you’re marrying is also a reality, a specific person whom you love and are loved by in a singular, particular way. What that means is that your physical relationship in marriage will be unique and will be understood only by the two of you; it’s an understanding that’s continually revealed over time.
I never expected that the sense of humor my fiancé and I developed as we learned the technical aspects of charting my cycle, born partially of those snickers on the first day of class, would carry over into our adjustment to married intimacy. It did, though, and being able to enter into this new dimension of our relationship after the wedding, without any pressure to take things entirely seriously, was freedom.
- While NFP emphasizes the biological, it also drew our attention to the fullness of the person we were marrying.
When used correctly according to the prescribed method, the effectiveness rates of NFP rival the most reliable of artificial contraceptives for preventing pregnancy. I truly consider it a gift that the scientific and technological knowledge available today can provide such accurate insight into the inner workings of the human body, particularly regarding to fertility. When learning NFP and correct charting, it’s necessary to focus intently on biological signs and facts: basal body temperature, the internal and external signs that indicate shifting phases of a woman’s cycle and hormonal fluctuations that naturally occur during each phase. But I was surprised to find that deeper awareness of my body and its capabilities, and those of my husband-to-be, invited a look beyond the physical.
Contemplating the body, created by love and for love no matter what’s in a person’s past, inevitably inspires contemplation of the person himself. Our bodies are inseparable from who we are. Learning NFP during our engagement didn’t just draw my attention to my husband’s looks or his potential to one day be a father. It called me to appreciate the wholeness of his strengths and virtues and made me more excited than ever to marry him.
- Love casts out fear.
My husband and I had a year-long engagement and scheduled our NFP course as far in advance of our wedding as possible, thinking the more familiar we were with the rules and with my particular cycle, the easier it would be to avoid pregnancy. We knew we’d most likely spend the first several years of marriage as a grad-school couple while he pursued a Ph.D in hopes of becoming a college professor, and that since I was relocating after our wedding, there was a possibility I wouldn’t have a job right away.
Sure enough, I found myself unemployed for the first seven months of our marriage. Our limited income, combined with distance from family, seriously put the fear of children in my heart at the beginning of our marriage. But we aren’t called to live in fear.
As we started putting our NFP knowledge into practice, something changed in both of our hearts toward the possibility of children, without our even really noticing. Before the wedding and at the start of our marriage, our general attitude towards a family was that we wanted one one day and wanted it to be fairly big, but we definitely didn’t want kids immediately and didn’t think we could even pull it off with our circumstances. Pregnancy didn’t even seem like an option. The possibility of it made us feel ambivalent, at best, and totally panicked, at worst. Looking back, I know now that in this attitude we had the practicals of NFP down, but not the spirit of it.
Time passed, and one day as our first anniversary approached, I suddenly didn’t feel so panicky at the thought of a baby anymore. I didn’t feel actively ready to pursue starting our family just yet, but were I to consider the thought of an unexpected pregnancy now, I’d be a little more excited about it.
Obviously, prudence and discernment regarding family size looks different for every couple. The shift in my thoughts was subtle. For all NFP might lack in subtlety with its frequent use of words like mucus and cervix, its effect on our openness of heart towards children developed gradually. It makes sense, because as each cycle passed my husband and I were being trained in sacrifice and creative romance — in putting ourselves aside for love of the other. Sacrificial love, creativity, putting others’ needs first…they aren’t so different from parenthood.
I’ve come to believe that NFP is not the only opportunity, but it is a sure one, to grow in virtues that extend far beyond your sex life and into your daily interactions as spouses, as parents, and in the world. This opportunity is a choice: one to be rejected and to bear isolation and self-centeredness, or one to be embraced and to bring about joy and greater unity. Growing in love and encouraged by principles of NFP that, at the time, we didn’t fully know were forming a bedrock of our marriage, my husband and I became better able to live out our vocation, free, fully alive and unafraid.
— Stephanie Calis is the author of Invited: The Ultimate Catholic Wedding Planner (Pauline, 2016) and is the Co-Founder and Editor in Chief of Spoken Bride, a ministry and lifestyle blog for Catholic brides and newlyweds.