The slide presentation I use as an introduction to NFP when I am teaching a group of couples includes a wonderful slide titled The Beauty of Waiting. Much has been said about the ways in which periodically taking a break of a week or two from sexual intercourse enhances relationships. In fact, a regular period of abstinence is one of the first recommendations of secular “sex therapists” to couples who are having trouble with their intimate relations. Abstinence provides us with an opportunity to refocus on the other aspects of communication and intimacy that can get lost in the busyness of our lives. (If we make the effort – this doesn’t happen automatically, of course, but abstaining on a regular basis does provide us with a reminder and an incentive to take the time to do this.)
Catholic couples who abstain as a part of using NFP to avoid pregnancy find that these times of waiting have still other benefits as well. Regularly having to deny ourselves something that we desire helps to keep us generous in our acceptance of children and honest about the seriousness of our reasons to avoid pregnancy. If abstinence weren’t a real sacrifice there would be a great deal less incentive to reconsider the need to avoid pregnancy on an ongoing basis. One of the sad effects of contraception is that couples who use it can go years without ever discussing why they are doing so and often this leads to a great deal of misunderstanding and resentment.
The struggle to abstain when a couple believes it is necessary to avoid pregnancy can also help them to make better decisions about their life together and to keep their priorities straight and their vocation as spouses and parents first in their lives. In my own life there has been more than one instance when frustration with the necessary abstinence has led to some big changes in the way my husband and I were doing things so that our reasons for avoiding pregnancy could be removed.
Sometimes the reasons for avoiding pregnancy absolutely cannot – or should not – be changed and in those situations I firmly believe God gives us the grace needed to abstain when necessary. At least for my husband and I, however, there have been other times when the need to avoid pregnancy was the result of a situation we had created ourselves and which God asked us to change by way of tension from abstaining that led to discussion and prayer and, ultimately, a change in our plans.
Not that any of this makes the actual abstinence any easier, but there is something that I have found very helpful and have been told by others has helped them as well – each time I realize that I am feeling frustrated by the need to abstain, I concentrate for a second or two on offering that frustration for someone whom I know to be struggling to live chastely, to accept the Church’s teachings on sex and marriage, or whose marriage is troubled. Or sometimes I will offer it for my own children and their future spouses. This doesn’t make the frustration go away, but at least I can do something with it besides carrying it around and feeling sorry for myself.
The reality is that every marriage involves periods of abstinence – whether a couple uses NFP or not – following the birth of a baby, when one spouse is sick or traveling alone, when children’s needs make intimacy impractical for a time. The challenge for couples who use NFP to avoid pregnancy is to see the periods of waiting not as a burden, but as a beautiful opportunity for growth and good.
Copyright 2009 Sara Fox Peterson