From the Family Foundations archives
So you’re getting ready to get married in the Catholic Church and you’re wondering about natural family planning?
You’re probably wondering if it’s really good for your marriage and why the Church cares about your method of family planning. You might be wondering what life is really like for couples who use NFP.
I know. I’ve been there.
So here are some things I wish I had known about NFP when my wife, Karen, and I were first married.
The method works.
Really. It does. I promise. If you need to avoid a pregnancy, you’ll be able to do so with an effectiveness rate comparable to hormonal contraception. Of course, that means you must abstain on days the method indicates might be fertile. Yes, that means abstaining on that day you weren’t sure about…and that other day, too. That’s the hard part.
Natural family planning is not so much a method of birth control as it is a way to understand a woman’s fertility cycle. Find a method that helps her understand her body — CCL’s Sympto-Thermal Method is a great one — and an instructor with whom you are comfortable. It’s OK to switch methods or instructors if you need to.
Do not suffer in silence through weeks and weeks of abstinence. Don’t complain loudly and bitterly either. Ask your instructor for help. You may be using the method more conservatively than you need to. Often lifestyle changes, such as changes in diet and exercise, can make a big difference by making fertility signs less ambiguous. Sometimes confusing cycles may be a sign of a health problem, and your instructor can refer you to a medical professional.
Your wife will be doing most of the observations, but you both need to understand the method. You both need to know how to read a chart. If you can figure out fantasy football, you can figure out fertility. Charting is a big responsibility and it’s good for your marriage to share this responsibility.
When you learn the method, you’ll both start to notice how your wife changes as she becomes fertile. When Karen is fertile, she seems to always be in a good mood, full of energy and very flirty. She is irresistible in every way. You will probably feel the same way about your wife during this time. This is why there are 7 billion people in the world. You’ll also know the best times to bring her flowers and chocolate. Trust me, this is good for your marriage.
One main rule
The Catholic Church teaches that every marital sexual encounter must be “ordered toward procreation.” Ordered toward procreation does not mean that there must be a chance of pregnancy with every encounter. Instead, it means that a couple’s marital sexual activity must be consistent with procreation. A couple’s sexual activity can be consistent with procreation even if they know that conception is, for all practical purposes, biologically implausible, such as during a clearly established post-ovulation infertile period. Conversely, a couple can act against procreation even if there is a significant chance of pregnancy, such as using contraceptives during the fertile period. In other words, ordered toward procreation refers to the nature of the sexual act, not the possible result of a pregnancy.
Specifically, for an encounter to be ordered toward procreation, the husband must ejaculate inside the wife’s vagina. That’s how procreation happens. As long as you follow this one rule, you can build up to this natural climax in whatever ways both of you feel are an appropriate expression of your love and respect. For some couples, this may include such things as oral stimulation, manual stimulation, different positions and the use of lubricants. (Many women don’t climax from intercourse alone, so you may want to actually talk about this most intimate part of your life together and find a pattern of love-making that is enjoyable for both of you.)
Sex was designed to be a “source of joy and pleasure in a marriage.” This “joy and pleasure” is not simply physical pleasure, but joy that comes from the fullness of the physical expression of your love for each other. If what you are doing is not a true expression of your love — for example, if either of you is not comfortable with something, or feels that an activity is degrading or that it simply doesn’t build intimacy — then don’t do it. Different couples will have different preferences, and you will need to discuss what you might want to do together. Chastity is the virtue that helps us tame our sexual desires and make sure we are always placing sex at the service of authentic love.
Sometimes couples think that abstinence during the fertile period includes “alternative forms of sex,” including oral sex and mutual masturbation outside the context of intercourse. These activities are not ordered toward procreation, so you should avoid them.
I realize these rules can sound horribly technical and legalistic, but the reason behind the rules is that these alternative activities do not have the same level of intimacy as regular intercourse. They may be pleasureable, but you are not becoming “one flesh” (Eph. 5:31). They are not as satisfying for either of you. Trust me. When couples separate sexual pleasure from the one-flesh union, then sex becomes selfish whether it feels that way or not. It becomes about what he gets or what she gets instead of the two of you coming together. This attitude can undermine your sexual relationship and your marriage. This is what the Church is trying to protect you from.
Some couples try to avoid the temptation to have sex during the fertile period by voiding each other. Yet by turning their marriage off when they are abstaining, they end up making their marriage all about sex, which leads to distance in the relationship and resentment. Even when you are abstaining, you are still married. Don’t avoid each other, but try to channel your sexual desire into other ways of showing love. The abstinence period is a good time to take a long walk, do work around the house or tackle that big home improvement project together. Go have a fun date.
Don’t let the idea of marital chastity and abstinence scare you away from practicing the method. I get it. Marital chastity is hard, and abstinence unappealing. It’s difficult to be with someone you love and have committed your life to and not be able to have that physical union that you both desire. You will desire each other when it is best to abstain. But as G.K. Chesterton once said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” By choosing NFP over contraception, you are saying that you valuing your wife’s health and see your sexual relationship as being something more than simply a way to get off. These are positive choices that will lead to a stronger, happier marriage. So even if you do mess up, don’t beat yourself up, just pick yourself up, go to confession and try again.
Make the most of the days you do have available for sexual intimacy. Schedule time and make it a priority.
When you are abstaining, you might feel like your contracepting friends are living it up every night and twice on Sunday. They aren’t. Google “birth control side effects: and “condoms suck” if you don’t believe me.
Keep in mind that there is no rule that says you have to abstain. There is nothing wrong with a married couple making love and making babies. If you choose to abstain, remember that you are not abstaining because sex is bad or that the Church thinks that sex is bad, but because sometimes the best way to show love is to give up what is good in order to serve a greater good.
Children are the supreme blessing of marriage — and a bring responsibility. Whether you as a couple decide to pursue pregnancy or not at any given time is between you, your wife and God. Don’t leave God out of it! This is something you both need to talk about, pray about and perhaps seek good, spiritual advice. Other than that, it’s nobody’s business. Not your mother-in-law’s. Not the busybodies in your parish. Definitely not strangers on the Internet. Every marriage is different, and good Catholic families come in all sizes.
Don’t expect a perfectly planned family. No method of pregnancy prevention, NFP or contraception, is 100 percent effective at avoiding pregnancy. You’ll take chances. You might goof up a chart. You might make an oh-what-the-heck baby. That’s OK. Likewise, no method of pregnancy achievement guarantees you a child. If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. If you want to make God laugh harder, tell him how you will have exactly 2.3 children starting at age 31½ spaced exactly 40 months, 2 weeks, and 3 days apart.
The Catholic Church tells couples to avoid contraception not because she hates sex or because she wants Catholic couples to outbreed the pagans, but because she wants what is best for you and your marriage. Natural family planning is a safe, healthy and effective alternative to contraception that can build intimacy and bring couples closer together. It is a better way. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth doing.
— James Burton is a father and CCL graduate.
CCL’s award-winning Family Foundations is the only NFP magazine in the United States and is a great source of support. Visit here to learn more.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1652.
 JPII in Love & Responsibility discusses the good of the husband’s stimulation of the wife (St. Ignatius Press, P. 272).
 Catechism, 2362.
 Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, no. 50.