Does Contraception Make Marriage Easier?

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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:

  • NFP makes men feel guilty for desiring their wives during times of abstinence. Certainly some men struggle with this, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that this is an inherent part of a life without contraception—open communication can go a long way towards ameliorating this issue. Meanwhile, contraception comes with its own serving of guilt: Without the built-in times of periodic abstinence like you get with NFP, women can start to feel obligated to be available for intimacy all the time. Those with low sex drives feel guilty when they’re not interested as often as their husbands are, and their husbands feel guilty for the opposite reason.

  • Women must abstain during times of peak desire. No question, this one is true, and it’s a downside of using NFP to space kids. But does contraception really offer a better alternative? Hormonal methods of birth control are notorious for reducing women’s sex drives, and barrier methods are inconvenient and have higher failure rates. Plus, NFP has the advantage of putting the laws of supply and demand to work in the couple’s favor: Scarcity always increases demand, and this area of life is no exception. The required times of abstinence that come with NFP tend to lead to a natural increase in desire for both men and women during “safe” times.

  • Surprise pregnancies are hard for women physically. Yup. Surprises do happen sometimes to those of us who are bad at NFP, and that can be hard. But at least you get a kid out of it in the end! What mother has ever looked around her Thanksgiving dinner table, recalled the tough pregnancy she had with her 30-year-old son, and said to herself, “I wish that one had never been born”? And let’s not forget that contraception 1) does not guarantee that you won’t experience an unexpected pregnancy, and 2) is also hard on bodies. The Pill and other hormonal contraceptives are powerful chemical cocktails that come with serious risks like blood clots, and permanent sterilization requires the surgical severing of a functioning part of the body. Barrier methods may be the one exception, but their relatively high failure rates and inconvenience levels mean that few people want to use them for the long term.

  • Surprise pregnancies are hard on marriages emotionally. There is truth here as well; there are plenty of NFP-practicing couples who have gone through stressful times due to pregnancies that came at inconvenient times. But let’s consider the flip-side of the coin, the stressors that come with using contraception to avoid surprise pregnancies. Among my non-Catholic acquaintances, disagreements about child spacing and birth control methods are some of the biggest sources of tension in marriages. I can’t count the number of times a woman at a playdate has reported that she and her spouse have bitter arguments about whether he’s going to get a vasectomy or she’s going to get a tubal ligation, or someone mentions that her marriage is suffering because of a lack of agreement about when and if to have more children. Also, women frequently report feeling resentful that the most common methods of birth control (the Pill, the shot, the patch, IUD’s, etc.) make their bodies bear the burden of birth control alone.

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.