This is the third post in my series titled, The Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Burden of Natural Family Planning which attempts to propose some practical and sensitive avenues for addressing the struggles many couples have with NFP. Click the links for Part One and Part Two.
It isn’t unusual in NFP circles to run into faithful, devout, well-intentioned people who use NFP but live in a constant state of fear about it. Sometimes they are concerned about the method for health reasons (e.g., hormonal issues, complicated cycles, PCOS), sometimes for mental health reasons (depression, anxiety or OCD), and sometimes it’s just because they don’t really trust the method or don’t trust their ability to read their fertility signs.
Fear and Loathing in NFP-Land
This anxiety can exact a huge cost both for the person’s sense of well-being and the marital relationship. Because some couples are nervous about the method not working or “getting it wrong” (especially when they are dealing with serious health issues that make conception inadvisable) these couples often feel an incredible burden that causes them to not only use the most conservative rules for determining infertility, but add a few days on either side “just to be safe.” This can lead to extra long periods of abstinence, increased marital tension, and a great deal of self-doubt and resentment toward the Church for burdening them with the cross of NFP. In fact, it isn’t unusual to hear women who feel this way wishing for a medical issue that would require them to have a hysterectomy just so that they could stop having to worry about all of this all the time.
Fear: Not Part of the Method.
NFP isn’t a cake-walk for anyone. Sure, there are lots of blessings that can come from practicing it, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Likewise, for couples who are new to the method, it is natural to feel a little nervous while you’re learning to trust yourself to really know and understand your signs. That said, long term anxiety and resentment over the method is always sign that something is not right and the good news is that it is usually the kind of issue that can be corrected with the right kind of information and help.
Let’s Not Blame the Victim
Now, before I go on, let me make one thing abundantly clear. I’m not blaming the victim. I’m not saying that if, in your practice of NFP, you don’t experience the kind of joy that makes you want to break out in song at the site of a thermometer and a ream of graph paper then there is something wrong with you. What I am saying is that if fear and resentment were an unavoidable part of NFP, especially for couples with health or mental health issues, relationship struggles or other concerns, then all couples who wrestled with these issues would be equally miserable. The good news is that they are not. There are, in fact, couples who struggle with health problems, mental health concerns, relationship challenges, and other problems who find NFP to be, at worst, a little inconvenient, and at best, a genuine help to them. “So what?” You might say. “That’s not me.” I get that. But again, here’s the good news.
Research on the psychology of happiness shows us that the best way to find a way out of a problem is to look at people who are going through similar things as myself but who, somehow, are managing to be happy–or at least effective–despite their circumstances and ask, “What are they doing differently and how can I learn to do that too?” One of Satan’s greatest lies is that our suffering is so unique that there is no one who can understand or help us through our own struggles. Being humble enough to recognize that we can learn something useful from people who are going through similar things as us, but somehow bearing up better than we are can be a real source of hope, strength, growth. The following represent some of the ways couples who struggle with NFP but do not become oppressed by it deal with their challenges. Try to read the following with an open heart and ask yourself how you might begin to take advantage of some of the supports that follow.
1. Get Ongoing NFP Training and Support.
Even if you think you know everything there is to know about NFP, having well-trained people you can turn to for ongoing support, additional training, or who could even just serve as a sounding board can be tremendously helpful even when you feel like there is nothing else that can be done. The more you can say you feel oppressed by the practice of NFP, or nervous about it, or feel that your circumstances are uniquely difficult, the more you need to be getting regular consultation and support in practicing NFP effectively and gracefully in your life. Likewise, don’t feel that you have to be wedded to one person or even one method for support. One client I worked with became such good friends with her NFP coach that she didn’t want to “disappoint” her friend by seeking help elsewhere even though she didn’t feel that her present level of support was really helping. The only thing that matters is getting the support, training, and counsel you need, wherever and however you need it.
The truth is, different methods evaluate slightly different signs and slightly different constellations of signs, and they evaluate them using different techniques and tools. If one style of NFP doesn’t fit your lifestyle, investigate other options. The more methods you know, the more ways of gathering information you have, the more competent you can be at interpreting your unique fertility signs.
2. Seek Faithful Medical Support
If you have a health concern that is making the practice of NFP more difficult for you, it can be helpful to seek counsel from a Catholic physician whose practice is consistent with the teachings of the Church. I am not suggesting that you need to make a radical change in your treatment or even change the primary physicians consulting on your case. Rather, it might be good to get support from a Catholic physician who can offer you advice on medical approaches that are both consistent with your faith journey and how you might be able to manage your health problems in ways that make practicing NFP easier. Two good sources for these referrals would be the Catholic Medical Association and the Pope Paul VI Institute.
3. Seek Faithful Counseling Support
Perhaps you feel that your mental health and your marriage are just fine and you don’t have a particular problem that you need to address in counseling. That may be true, but counseling isn’t just about solving problems. It is also about developing strengths. When a person, or couple, is going through a particularly trying time, it can be helpful to work with a professional therapist who can help you discover how to approach the challenges you are facing in a manner that brings out the best in you. There is a wide body of research showing that even in the absence of mental health or relationship problems, when a person who is struggling with an unusual stressor seeks professional help, they function better through the difficulty and experience more rapid relief from the difficulty they are encountering. Of course, if you are dealing with a mental health or relationship issue then all the more reason to seek competent, faithful help early and stick with it until you feel like you have gotten to a better place with both your practice of NFP and the co-occurring issues. You can find good resources for faithful counseling at www.CatholicTherapists.com (a national referrals source) or through our Catholic Tele-Counseling Practice at the Pastoral Solutions Institute.
4. Seek Prayer Support
Getting good spiritual direction, or at least ongoing prayer support, is essential for remaining faithful under pressure and beating back the dark thoughts that make our attempts to remain faithful more difficult than they ought to be. Satan does not want God’s people to be faithful. If we must be faithful, then Satan would prefer we become those “querulous sourpusses” that Pope Francis decried in the Joy of the Gospel. Getting good spiritual support–whether from a spiritual director, a prayer group, or even your spouse, or a spiritually-mature friend or relation– is essential for preventing this bitter root from growing in you (Heb 12:15).
5. Avoid All-or-Nothing Thinking
When you are in the grip of fear, resentment, or other strong, emotional reactions, it is easy to fall prey to all-or-nothing thinking that says, “Unless I can see how doing this (whatever ‘this’ may be) can resolve my problems, there is no point doing anything.”
When we are in the middle of a struggle it can be difficult to know what is going to work. That’s why it’s important to take our cue, not from our feelings, but from what people who are handling things better than we happen to be are doing. Again, we need to stop thinking our pain is so terrifically unique that the things that help others couldn’t possibly help us. If you are going through difficulties with NFP and you are not seeking one or more of the forms of support I have outlined in this article, then you simply aren’t getting the help you need.
Again, the truth is, despite the many blessings it affords, NFP can be a challenge under the best of circumstances. If you are feeling oppressed by the practice of NFP, then that is a sign you need more support, training and guidance, not because you are necessarily doing anything wrong, but so that you can learn to rise to the unique challenges in your life that are making NFP more difficult than it needs to be. To get more support working through the ways Natural Family Planning might be negatively impacting YOUR marriage, check out my books, When Divorce is NOT An Option: How to Heal Your Marriage and Nurture Lasting Love and Holy Sex! The Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving or contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute to learn about our Catholic Tele-counseling practice.