National Catholic Register


Does Contraception Make Marriage Easier?

BY Jennifer Fulwiler

| Posted 7/20/11 at 8:19 AM


While we’re on the subject of NFP, this New York Times article has been making the rounds. It’s about Sam Torode and Bethany Patchin (formerly Bethany Torode), authors of the well-known book Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception, who were once vocal opponents of artificial contraception. In 2006 they announced that they no longer believed that natural family planning is the best method of birth control, and went on to say that it is in fact harmful to marriages. In 2009 they divorced.

The article focuses on the problems that NFP caused in their marriage, and the reasons they ended up speaking out against it. Mr. Torodes said that it makes men feel guilty for desiring their wives during times of abstinence. He also pointed out that it’s a bummer (or, to use his words, “theological attack”) that women must abstain during their peak times of desire unless they want to conceive a child. Ms. Patchin pointed to the physical and emotional stress caused by two unplanned pregnancies that resulted in closely spaced children.

My take? They’re right. It is hard. As our own Simcha Fisher has pointed out, NFP has its downsides, and they can be serious. But the part of this discussion that is too seldom explored is that contraception is no bed of roses either.

Let’s set aside the moral problems with contraception, and look only at the impact that it has on marriages. To take Mr. Torodes and Ms. Patchin’s points one by one:

I have a lot of friends on both sides of the NFP/contraception fence, and it is not the case that my friends who use contraception report better or more satisfying marital lives than my friends who use NFP. In fact, the anecdotal evidence I’ve seen points overwhelmingly to the truth of the claims of NFP proponents: It’s a safe, effective way to space children that also strengthens marriages. But this is not to say that NFP is a magic bullet that makes everything perfect. It’s not. We live in a fallen world, and the arena of human sexuality is one of places where the fallenness manifests itself most intensely. Mr. Torode and Ms. Patchin were right that NFP is hard; they were just wrong to think that contraception offers a solution.

I thought the last few lines of the article were touching in a bittersweet way. Looking back on Open Embrace, his marriage, the divorce, and everything else that’s changed, Mr. Torode said simply, “I am out of the business of trying to tell people what they should do. I am out of that business for good.” My guess is that there’s more to that statement than meets the eye. Surely if he had found contraception to be the liberating solution it seemed to be, he would have continued to write about its benefits, sharing this great news with others. But the tone of his statement makes me wonder if perhaps he found that there are no easy answers when it comes to human sexuality; that every method of birth control has its crosses, and that contraception really doesn’t make marriage any easier.