Where Logic Meets Love

NFP: The Real Deal

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

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NFP: The Real Deal | Faith Permeating Life
Welcome to Part 2 of my explanation of Natural Family Planning! (Here's Part 1, in case you missed it.) Today I'm going to tackle what, in my experience, turns people off from NFP: What exactly are you supposed to do if you’re not prepared to be pregnant but the Fertile phase seems way too long to go without any sex?

(By the way, this would be one of those posts you may want to avoid if you know me in real life. Just warning you.)

Let me preface this by saying that I know that Mike and I don't do NFP "the right way," aka the Official Method in Line with Catholic Teaching. I will explain why, but I just want to put that out there so nobody feels the need to say, "OMG Ur Doin It Wrong." If you want to condemn me for not listening to and obeying every word that comes out of the Catholic Church, there are plenty of other posts you can consult on here for further proof of this.

Specifically, when it comes to the Fertile period of NFP, we don't ascribe 100% to Catholic teaching. (I should point out that most Catholics I know use artificial birth control, so I feel like we're a step "ahead" anyway, but I know that's not really the point.) Catholic teaching, to my best understanding, says that all sexual acts need to be oriented toward procreation. This raises a whole lot of questions in itself -- like, are you really oriented toward procreation if you're only having intercourse during your Infertile phase? -- but of course people have come up with all kind of explanations as to why practicing NFP this way still falls within Catholic teaching, so I'm not going to go down that path.

Traditionally our culture has labeled everything sexual other than intercourse "foreplay," which fits nicely into the Catholic idea that it all better be leading up to intercourse in the end.

Here is the main problem I have with this: It is male-centric. Intercourse is generally more pleasurable for the man, whereas other sexual acts that directly stimulate the clitoris are more pleasurable for the woman. (I don't want to get into the whole argument about how some positions can stimulate the clitoris. That doesn't work for everyone and is an unnecessarily complex way of achieving something more easily achieved in other ways.) Saying that God designed our bodies in such a way that pleasuring the woman is only allowed as a step on the road to the main event -- pleasuring the man -- just doesn't jive for me.

Mike and I both, before we were married, agreed that we define sex more broadly than just intercourse. We both believe that sex is a gift from God and a way of strengthening our relationship with each other and with God. God could have made sex not particularly pleasurable, and then I think we'd have a lot fewer unintended pregnancies, since people would only bother with sex when they actually wanted children. Instead, God gave us the ability not only to physically unite with our spouse, but to serve our spouse by helping them feel great pleasure.

Thus Mike and I are not abstinent from all forms of sex during my Fertile period (which, for me, is about a week and a half to two weeks). This means that period of time is not a time of sacrifice but a time of service.

There's nothing wrong with sacrifice, and I do think periods of abstinence can be valuable at times, but I'd rather use this particular time every month to strengthen our marriage rather than test our marriage.

It's probably harder on Mike than it is me, just biologically, to go without intercourse for most of the month. I think that being mindful of this and taking the time to give him sexual release is a way for me to be a loving spouse. In return, he avoids taking matters into his own hands and instead trusts that I will give of myself when he needs me to.

On the other hand, Mike doesn't pressure me. He keeps an eye on my chart and knows not to push me too far when it's not time yet. And when I know that intercourse isn't the end goal, so to speak, I'm more able to enjoy whatever we do without worrying about Mike having ulterior motives or thinking to myself that maybe he'd rather rush through the "foreplay." This means sometimes I'm the only one who ends up being "served," and then we're tired and we just go to sleep.

I don't know about you, but to me that seems like a marriage in harmony, not some kind of selfish lust-fest (which I would imagine is the main argument against sex-not-oriented-toward-procreation).

I think that, within a marriage, it's kind of silly to require that sexual acts lead to intercourse or else be avoided altogether. After all, what constitutes a "sexual act"? If I kiss my husband and that doesn't lead to intercourse, is that a sexual act not oriented toward procreation? What if we're making out? What if we're making out and touching each other? It starts to sound like a teenager playing the "how far is too far" game. We're married, for goodness' sake. It seems a lot more practical to me, if we're avoiding pregnancy, to simply avoid getting sperm inside me.

I actually have yet to learn of a single couple who is practicing NFP to the letter and avoiding pregnancy. (Edit: OK, now I have.) As I've explained in other posts (here and here), even the couples that the Couple-to-Couple League held up as models in their magazine's articles typically couldn't hold out until the Infertile phase and ended up just rationalizing having intercourse during the Fertile phase, then deciding that God must have wanted them to have a child after all.

Before I wrap up I should mention one other thing that often comes up regarding NFP and Catholic teaching, and that's the idea that you should be having intercourse during the Fertile phase until you have "grave reason(s)" (sometimes also called "just reasons") for avoiding it. I wrote more at length about this in this post, but basically I think this idea leads to unhealthy guilt about not constantly being pregnant, and I'm perfectly comfortable with our plan to avoid pregnancy indefinitely and begin adopting children when we've been married long enough. However, if we did decide to have biological children, we're confident that using NFP would make it easy to conceive.

Anyway, I just wanted to put this out there because I've talked to several women who hate being on birth control but have a perception of NFP as being this strict, sexless way of living. And I will admit that it's probably more difficult to switch to NFP if you've been married and on the Pill for a while than it was for us to start out marriage this way. But I think it's worth it. I feel completely at peace with my body and with the intimacy in our marriage.

Questions? Please, ask away!


  1. hi, :) i followed you from the 20sb thread.

    sorry if my comment will be irrelevant to your post. i just wanted to see and check your blog for myself. ... ... I can say that, your blog posts are very lengthy :/ and i only have a short attention span so that may be one reason people dont comment? ... either too long they stop reading. OR. ... too many ideas that they dont know which to comment on....its like after reading the post. the reader already forgot what to say.

    :)just sharing what i think.

  2. @Toni Rose
    Hi Toni,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I talked about this very thing in a previous post. The consensus seemed to be that I should keep my regular-length posts on my regular schedule and occasionally post additional shorter posts, so that's what I've been doing. I will keep looking for ways to explain my thoughts more concisely or mix in more shorter posts. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. no prob :) i guess one thing also to gain more comments as you wish it to really find that right community who relates to the topic you post, those type that would want a discussion..

  4. This is a really good explanation of how to make NFP work well and of why the official Catholic stance on it is, IMO, silly. :-p I can't really agree that it's male-centric, though. As I understand it (based on what strict Catholic blogs have explained), women are allowed to have an orgasm during foreplay as long as the session ends with intercourse, but male orgasm is allowed only in the vagina. That means that women get to enjoy a lot more variety, whereas men have to be on guard and prepared to switch to intercourse "before it's too late." My man, at least, says that sounds really annoying!

    With time, you may be able to detect the beginning of the true Fertile phase more clearly so that you don't have to consider yourself fertile for two weeks. It's really only about 5 days; the trick is knowing when those days start.

  5. @'Becca
    I hadn't thought about that male-female difference that you mentioned. I guess I meant male-centric in that the male orgasm is treated as the "important part" of sex and whatever happens to the woman during sex--whether she has an orgasm or feels any pleasure at all--is really secondary, which makes it a lopsided view of sex. But in terms of the logistics of adhering strictly to the teaching, you're right, that puts a lot of pressure on the guy to only orgasm a certain way!

    I hope you're right about my getting a more nuanced understanding of the Fertile phase. I usually have a pretty long period (about a week) and then go right into what seems to be fertile mucus, but then don't peak for a week or so. At this point we're so not ready for a child that I'm extremely cautious, but I can see loosening up about it a bit down the road.

    Thanks as always for your insightful comments!

  6. :whines: Ahh, my comment never made it through the interwebz. :( I think I closed out of the box too early.


    As for what I wrote...the other day? I had thanked you for covering this topic in such an open-minded, clear-headed way...as well as being REALISTIC about it all. I wasn't really sure what couples did during the "red light" times, and had a hard time believing that people just sat around, waiting.

    I also gave you a link to a post that Simcha Fisher wrote in March re: grave reasons for abstaining and why doesn't the church make a list. Basically, it boils down to what I might consider a grave reason might be completely different than what you might consider a grave reason, and no one knows what those are other than that couple and God. And the reasons might change with time and circumstance.

    I also wrote some personal things, then decided not to make my reply all about me, so I deleted that paragraph! Maybe some day I will post about them over at my blog, but for now, I'm a little too nervous to put so much detail out on the web.

    ITA with you re: how sad it is that couples will just "give in" due to guilt of not constantly being pregnant. To me, that's NOT the point of NFP. When you PLAN something, you know more or less when it will happen. If you want to be PG all of the time and are very fertile, then honestly, you don't need to chart nor practice NFP. You will be PG all of the time, soon enough!

  7. @Rabbit
    I'm sorry your first comment didn't post! I've done that before, where I hit Preview and then thought I'd published my comment and exited out. Or it could be Blogger's fault. It ate one of your comments and my reply on another post :P

    I'm glad you found this informative, and I don't mind hearing about your personal experience as well if you decide you want to share!

    That's interesting about the grave reasons thing. My guess is that even if the Church doesn't want to make a list, there are plenty of people who will tell you what *they* think constitutes a legitimate grave reason--probably the same people who try to make me feel guilty for not wanting to spend as much of my life pregnant as possible!

    Thanks as always for sharing your thoughts, and sorry you had to rewrite them!

  8. @Jessica
    As with many things about sex that seem "unfair" to women or to men, the different rules about orgasm are based in actual differences in biology. In terms of reproduction, male orgasm is the "important part." So since the Catholic concern is with not impeding the reproductive potential of sex (except in the ways it's okay to impede it...), the means of male orgasm is important and the means of female orgasm is not. The woman's pleasure is, in biological fact, secondary to reproduction--it does have an effect, but a much smaller effect than the man's. It's one of those facts we have to cope with, similar to the facts that only women have predictably cyclical fertility and only women can carry pregnancies and breastfeed.

    I had extremely long cycles before pregnancy, and even now they're 5 weeks or more, so I have at least a week of infertile phase after my period ends. Thus I've become very aware that there is a "rinse cycle" right after menstruation, which somewhat resembles fertile mucus but is not as stretchy. In a shorter cycle, I guess there is no pause between that and fertile mucus, so you need another sign. Since pregnancy (maybe because of breastfeeding) I have had nipple tingling/itching that is an unmistakable sign of "something about to happen" about 7 days before ovulation. It's an annoying feeling but very useful!

  9. @'Becca
    Yeah, I get why the Catholic Church considers the male orgasm most important, since it is usually connected to ejaculation and therefore the mode of reproduction. I guess I was attempting to say that because the Catholic Church focuses primarily on the procreative aspect of sex, it makes the female's participation largely irrelevant except as a receptacle, and I don't like that limited view of sex. But you're right that they are at least being consistent in their teaching--if reproduction is the focus of sex, then teachings about sex need to focus on the male ejaculation.

    I can see why having longer cycles would give you more of that infertile phase after your period. My cycles are pretty close to 4 weeks, so I'm not sure how long I really have before my Fertile phase starts. But now that I'll be going to a midwife group for my GYN exams, maybe they can help me figure it out!

  10. @'Becca
    You inspired me to go back to my Art of Natural Family Planning book and look over my past cycles. Unfortunately it looks like my earliest temperature rise was Day 15, so using the Doering Rule I'm only infertile through Day 8, and since my period is usually 7-8 days that doesn't do me much good :P

    Thankfully Mike said he is totally happy with our current arrangement and doesn't mind waiting until Phase III :)

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    2. You've mentioned this in several comments, so you seem really fixated on the fact that Mike and I do not want to have intercourse while I'm menstruating. Guess what? Sometimes we don't have intercourse during Phase 3 either. Because we are physically intimate with each other during my entire cycle, we are not obsessed with trying to squeeze in every possible day of intercourse we can. It has nothing to do with being uncomfortable with our bodies. I use a DivaCup, and Mike does the laundry with my reusable menstrual pads; we are both comfortable with my menstruation. We just don't want to have intercourse during that time. Mainly because I prefer to just leave my DivaCup in for my whole period except to empty it.

      We are both very happy with our sex life, and I don't understand why you think you know better than we do what would make our sex life even better, but you've insinuated in several places now that we only *think* we're satisfied, and I would appreciate your not making any more comments like that.

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    4. I don't think you will find me claiming anywhere that this is "a Catholic site." I am Catholic... and this is my blog. I am also a woman, but that doesn't make this "a site about women." I make it pretty clear, even on my About Me page, that my goal is not to represent Catholic teaching, but to share information about my own life, which is strongly informed by Catholic teaching but also by a lot of other things. I go out of my way, as seen in the opening of this post, to explain when my life and beliefs diverge from Catholic teaching. So I don't consider this a Catholic site.

      Also, I did not say we were "choosing mutual service over becoming one flesh," just that we don't try to squeeze in as much intercourse as physically possible. And personally I believe that if we were abstinent during Phase 2 every month, we would be trying to grasp at every possible chance to have intercourse when we could, and that seems like a less healthy way for sex to be part of our marriage than it is now, a deliberate self-giving out of love and commitment.

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    7. I have gone back and deleted my original comments as they were really a distraction and rather tactless.

      To summarize, I believe that by completely disregarding Church teachings you are not getting the full benefits of NFP. You are, as you said, not using contraception, so I do believe you are getting most of them. It's the 80/20 rule.

      Many Catholics ARE reading this site and you are addressing Catholic teaching.

      Don't get me wrong, we use NFP the "bad Catholic way" too, but putting for the effort to do it the right way make a big difference for us. YMMV.

  11. Wow! What an honest post. (Love the long posts, by the way, and I don't think it is too long.. it's an interesting and important topic.) I've always used the LAM version/compliment to NFP and although we do the finishing act 'by the book' I'll tell you that it can sometimes be a sacrifice and a chore to do so... (it was easier in the old days before I took all this stuff seriously.) My attitude is if I have gotten this far, we may as well just roll with it. We try to have a sense of humor about it. (My husband has to go to confession a lot.) You are the first person to blog about this so openly, it is appreciated.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I am glad you have found a way for NFP to work in your marriage, though I'm sorry to hear you have found the Catholic teachings on sex to be a sacrifice/chore. I understand that not everyone feels as free to be sexual in different ways as Mike and I do, but it has made sex (and NFP) a wonderful gift in our marriage. Thanks very much for stopping by to read and share your thoughts.

    2. Hi Jessica... Actually I find the Catholic Church teachings on sex and marriage beautiful! (Didn't mean to imply otherwise)... it is why we willingly use nfp and maintain an openess to life. The challenges can come in the implementation but in the long run it is worth it. I'm so happy NFP has been a blessing for you and your husband.

  12. I'm happy to introduce myself as one-half of a happy Catholic couple practicing NFP to the letter, and avoiding pregnancy. :D We have never once had sex during our known fertile window, (and no, we do not define sex as broadly as you do) even on occasions when abstinence has been in the realm of months, rather than weeks. We're young, in love, and while living this aspect of the faith can be a challenge, given our experience so far, having endured extreme difficulty with NFP and coming out the other side, I don't foresee us ever practicing NFP less-than-perfectly and then rationalizing that afterward. ;) If we didn't do it then, we're never going to.

    As an aside, we find the reasoning behind the unitive body language of love, as entwined with procreation, logical, consistent, reasonable and most wonderfully of all, beautiful. But then, we did read the entirety of John Paul II's Man and Woman He Created Them: a Theology of the Body. That (along with various reader guides to JPII's tome, and JPII's earlier "Love and Responsibility") served to convince us that following the teaching was not only a matter of obedience, but clearly to our immediate benefit.

    And I have absolutely no quibbles with the pleasure quotient in our lovemaking. I do possess a fantastically thoughtful and disciplined husband, and if it's at all possible for me to climax, he'll help me get there.

  13. Also, if you are having a hard time narrowing down your fertile window due to weeks and weeks of mucus, you might like to look into the Marquette Method of NFP. It uses the ClearBlue Easy Fertility Monitor to read the secondary signs of fertility (estrogen and LH levels in the urine), along with a particular algorithm and protocols. Using the monitor alone (without the protocol and algorithms) is not sufficiently efficacious in avoiding conceiving. Although the Marquette Method also incorporates tertiary signs (mucus and/or temps), and women can choose which combination of tools they wish to use, they've found that abstinence is significantly decreased for women using the monitor-only protocol, while the method retains a very high effectiveness. In your case, it would mean more time for "intercourse" and less imposed constraints to simply "service."


    If you're interested, I'd encourage you to register and log in to the discussion forum. Their website gives just the basics, and certain things have been tweaked, so for an up-to-date understanding on the latest recommendations, it's good to read the discussions. A new and improved website with a better version of the online charting is due for release later this year.

    We switched from Creighton to Marquette, and have found it to be a good fit for us. I still observe my mucus for "know-my-body" and health reasons, but we don't use it in our fertility decisions, since we've discovered that it's nowhere near as precise as the monitor has been for us. It's proving particularly helpful for women in times of fertility confusion (such as during the post-partum transitional return to fertility) where your physical signs can be all over the place.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience! I do know about Marquette and have discussed with my husband if he wanted to look into other options, but he said he was very happy with our current level of intimacy. We don't see our fertile period as a constraint, or that there's something inferior about sex that involves serving each other. It is good to know that there are other options available if things change in the future, but we're very, very happy with how things are right now.

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  15. I really enjoyed your post. My husband and I are very much like you and your husband.

    I agree with you up to a certain point. My husband and I are in the same boat, however, at the times when we do "go to far" so to speak, and one or both of us climax, then we go to Confession. We Confess both for both forgiveness of the weaknesses we do face and the graces to do better.

    I see no reason to feel sick with guilt over loving my spouse. We are married and we need to be intimate as part of a healthy marriage. We are human and we should own up to our weaknesses, not loathe ourselves over them.

    I wrote a post on this same issue- "Abstinence Ideas" and check out the article that I quoted. It is a very healthy and balanced look at intimacy and sex and Church teaching.


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