My husband and I learned natural family planning while we were engaged and have now been using it in our marriage. We think we will need to postpone pregnancy for a while. We understand the method, but practicing abstinence is far more challenging than we were led to believe. Do you have any advice?
We have been NFP teachers for the last 14 years. Since NFP teachers very much want their student couples to understand the Church-approved benefits, they naturally desire to emphasize all the positive benefits. Unfortunately, this sometimes means the teachers will gloss over the tough part of NFP, which is the time of abstinence when postponing pregnancy. Sure, there are countless benefits, and we would never do anything else, but couples need to be told that abstinence is a difficult discipline.
However, that in no way should be a reason to stop NFP or to think you cannot be successful. How many worthwhile, beneficial practices in life are difficult? Think of dieting, exercising, changing diapers, even committing to a regular prayer time. All of these practices are difficult at one time or another, yet all of them are keys to a fulfilling, joyful life for an individual, parent or spouse.
The same is true of abstinence. We are reminded of St. Paul’s words of hope in Hebrews 12:11: "All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness." Taking the long view, in other words, helps us manage the short-term trial.
Of course, anytime we are tested by what we know to be God’s call for us in our current state in life, we need to pray for divine assistance to accomplish what God has asked of us. If you aren’t spending time in prayer, start. We cannot succeed in living out the sacrament of marriage without calling upon God’s grace to lift us up and out of our weakness. If we rely on our own power, we will fail. Prayer as a couple will do wonders.
Also remember what the Catechism states: "Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom" (2370).
The Church notes, however, that right reason must be involved for postponing pregnancy in
Humanae Vitae, 16: "If, therefore, there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles."
And, finally, consider this: What would it say about your marriage if abstinence was easy? It would indicate that a longing to be with one another intimately is missing. Abstinence being difficult is a sign that the two of you desire to become one — and that is a tremendously good and beautiful thing. Remember to treasure and not to resent that desire. In the meantime, during those periods of abstinence, seek other ways in which to grow in your relationship. By doing this, you will build new avenues of love for each other.
The McDonalds are now coordinators of family life and
adult education at St. Ignatius parish in Mobile, Alabama.