The Law of Gradualness

I went to the weight room at the gym Tuesday night.

It was the first time I had been to the weight room in a L-O-N-G time. When you haven’t been to the weight room in a L-O-N-G time, it’s easy to get self-conscious. I saw other people who go to the weight room regularly lifting and started to think “Hey, I’m not that far behind. I’m not that weak. I can lift more.” I piled on the weights and tried to lift it.

weight-lifting-fail-sucks-weight-lifting-in-beijing-peking-c-demotivational-poster-1277240700
Bad idea

By some miracle, I managed not to hurt myself. (My guardian angel must have been spotting me.) I then sheepishly removed some weight and tried again. I then sheepishly removed even more weight until I got to a weight where I could successfully complete all my sets. Despite feeling like I was hardly lifting anything, by the end of the workout, I was tired. I felt like I got a good workout. I didn’t feel too sore the next day.

Most importantly, I felt like I wanted to go back and do it again—to lift more and lift heavier weights. If I keep that up, eventually I will be lifting what I want to lift and have the strength I want to have.  Had I overdone it, I would be sore, in pain, and probably not want to work out anytime soon. Doing too much too soon in the weight room would have been detrimental to my overall progress.

Law of Gradualness

There’s been a lot of talk at the Synod on the Family about the “Law of Gradualness”. Apologist Jimmy Akin defines the Law of Gradualism:

It is a principle used in Catholic moral and pastoral theology, according to which people should be encouraged to grow closer to God and his plan for our lives in a step-by-step manner rather than expecting to jump from an initial conversion to perfection in a single step.

 

St. John Paul II warns that the “law of gradualness” does not change the teachings of the Church or the commands of Christ.

They cannot however look on the law as merely an ideal to be achieved in the future: they must consider it as a command of Christ the Lord to overcome difficulties with constancy. “And so what is known as ‘the law of gradualness’ or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with ‘gradualness of the law,’ as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations. [Familiaris Consortio, 34]

Even with St. John Paul II’s warning, there is a concern among some that the Law of Gradualness can be misunderstood as a sort of “lowering of the bar”. They worry that if the Church doesn’t preach all of God’s commands in full, then people will assume that they don’t have to do any more than they want to. They worry that pastors will see it as permission not to preach on difficult and unpopular topics.

Microresolutions

I understand the concern, but it’s misguided.

People are very bad at making big changes, but people are much better at making small changes and turning them into habits. Caroline L. Arnold, author of the book Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Yourself Permanently discusses why resolutions to make big changes often fail:

We blame personal weakness for these annual failures, yet research shows that willpower is not a function of character but a limited mental resource that is easily exhausted. Classic New Year’s resolutions—to be slim by summer, to be organized, to be on time—are closer to wishes than action plans, and so demanding that they rapidly deplete willpower stores and hasten failure.

Smaller changes, she argues, are more managable. People see themselves succeeding at a small goal, instead of failing at a larger one. Small successes boost peoples mental resources, while failing at a big task depletes it, even if the same progress is made toward the overall goal.

This is the psychology behind personal finance guru Dave Ramsey’s “Debt Snowball”, where people pay off their smallest debt first, while making the minimum payments on all other debt. Once that debt is paid, repeat with the next smallest, until all the debt is paid.

An accountant would say that is crazy: If you pay off your highest interest rate debt first, you will pay less over time. That’s basic math—but not so great psychology. The snowball works because the satisfaction of paying off that first debt and seeing one less bill inspires people to continue the plan. People using the snowball are more likely to complete the plan, even though they may pay more money.

Gradualism and Sexuality

When it comes to issues of sexuality, a gradualist approach often makes sense. Chastity is really really hard—and the Church recognizes this—and the best way to do really really hard things is one step at a time.

This could mean different things to different people depending on where they are in their lives. Leah Libresco writes about encouraging get her college friends, full-participants in the “hookup culture”, to start to think about their partners’ wants and needs and not just as a means to “get off”. If the partners did care about each other, then this prompting would get them to do the right thing, instead of simply using each other for sexual enjoyment.

For someone with a string of short-term, primarily physical relationships, gradualism could mean starting to look for a partner, not a fling. For a couple that is cohabitating, that could mean encouraging them to think about their future together. For a married couple using contraception, it could mean simply taking a class on fertility awareness/NFP to learn more.

Dangers of Going Too Fast

The other reason why gradualism is important is that in sexuality there is a very real risk that doing too much, too fast, before you are ready, can really hurt you or really hurt someone you are with. Sometimes well meaning people can end up doing a lot of harm.

I’m not a fan of breaking up cohabitating couples. Couples, married or not, gay or straight, rely on each other for companionship and affection, not just sex. Pushing them to separate out of a concern for sexual sin (or the appearance of sexual sin) can do more harm than good. If couples need to be broken up, it is best to lead them to figure it out on their own than to try to coerce them into doing so. Asking questions like “Where is this relationship going?” “What are your goals?” “What are your partner’s goals?” will bear far more fruit than discussions of “living in sin”*

I also have seen a lot of well meaning people cause a lot of harm in Catholic NFP culture. It’s really hard to learn about openness to life and responsibile parenthood and marital chastity and abstinence, all while trying to make sense of cervical mucus and understand fertility charts. Then you have a baby and the stakes get higher and the charting gets harder.

When we tried NFP earlier in our marriage, we tried to do everything right earlier in our marriage and we burned ourselves out doing it. We’re not the only ones who have burned out. The comboxes are full of couples who have had negative experiences and have burned out.** We had a much easier time later in our marriage taking things one step at a time.  Gradualism in this area could be a post in itself. Or two. Or three.

Your Thoughts?

What are your thoughts on gradualness? Has it worked for you? Not worked? Have you been hurt by trying to do too much to fast? Bored by low expectations and not being challenged?

I’d love to hear your story. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the combox. Anonymous comments are on.

 

*There has been some discussion about whether “living in sin” is an insensitive phrase, but I haven’t heard anyone born after 1970 use this phrase other than ironically.

**I also think that the “good couples” tend to have more problems than the “prodigals”—the “good couples” are more likely to have unrealistic expectations of themselves and the lifestyle and less likely to know that yes, things CAN be worse.

 

Synod 2014: Your Thoughts?

Wow, it’s been a long time since anyone has posted here…

Synod on the Family

This week begins the Synod on the Family, where the Bishops will be discussing a series of family issues. Most of the media coverage is about the issue of whether divorced couples who have remarried outside the Church without an annulment should receive communion, but there are other topics, including pastoral care of persons in same sex relationships, how to best include the children of parents who are in irregular relationships, marriage preparation, and contraception.

Surveys have shown that many Catholics are uninformed about Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality. If they do know the “rules”, they often do not understand them or the reasoning behind them.

While the popular perception is that the Church is cruel or sexually repressed and nobody listens to them, this article from EWTN News disagrees. The article claims many young Catholics appreciate the Church’s teachings on marriage when they learn about them, but due to surrounding attitudes of our culture, many have absolutely no concept of what the Church means when talking about sacramental marriage or why it is important.

Father Matthew Eickhoff of the Diocese of Lincoln has noticed two different “movements” among young people when it comes to their understandings of marriage and the family. 

“I have seen is a strong movement among young couples that are involved with their faith (who have) a more traditional appreciation for and understanding of the family, and are more generous with regard to having children and more conscientious about preparing for marriage as a spiritual vocation,” he said.

“But there’s also a contrary movement in the culture that is claiming many young people as its victims, and those are the ones that consider the Church’s teachings and moral standards a burden.”

Your Thoughts

So, what are your thoughts, dear readers (if I still have any)? Have you gained an appreciation for Church teaching as you have learned it and lived it in your marriage? Have you found it to be a burden at times? What has been beneficial? What has been difficult? Why do you feel this way? What has been your experience?

Anonymous comments are on, so please feel free to share.

How Not to Promote NFP

Since this is NFP Awareness Week, people may be wondering how to best promote NFP.

But there are plenty of articles on that. Instead, here are several tips to make sure that any promotion of NFP completely flops.

Don’t Take Women’s Health Seriously

Yes, most women use NFP for health reasons, but NFP is all about marital holiness right? Since marriage is for sickness and in health, you don’t have to spend that much time on the health issue. A good reading of Casti Connubi and Humanae Vitae along with the evils of contraception should be enough. Make sure women are aware that charting is a burden and somewhat icky and that God really wants them to throw their charts away. Like “lillies in the field”. You ever seen a lilly make a fertility chart? Didn’t think so.

No charts here
No charts here

Eventually, you will run into women who are using birth control pills “for health reasons”. (A likely excuse. Probably just looking for a loophole. Err, anyway…) A brief mention of NaProTechnology should be more than enough to overcome any and all doubts, ignore their doctors, and promptly toss their pills aside.

Be Sloppy With The Science

Your purpose is to promote NFP and oppose contraception and anything you can find that supports this and is vaguely scientific can only help your presentation.* You don’t need to read the studies (and certainly not the peer-reviewed criticisms), just remember that if you read it on LifeSiteNews or OneMoreSoul that it’s practically scientific fact.

*Some people would complain that I am arguing that the ends justify the means. To which I would respond that these are pretty important ends! We’re talking souls here!

Take An All-or-Nothing Approach

Your goal is to make sure that Catholic couples know that they should be generous and open to life, which, of course, means that they should have a lot of children. While some may say that development of conscience can take years and learning chastity is a long and arduous process, you know that ain’t nobody got time for that! Make sure your audience knows that whatever steps they take just aren’t good enough unless they take them all.

Inevitably, there will be some non-Catholics in the audience. Make sure they know they are wrong.

Be Territorial

You only need to tell the couples about your method of NFP, because, after all, yours is the best. “Creighton is scientific. Because NaProTechnology.” “CCL teaches the Catholic faith and the temp sign.” (Of course, we all know that Billings is for hippies and Marquette, well, that’s just cheating.)

But why limit yourself to the NFP wars? Be sectarian too! Make sure that your audience knows secular “women’s health” books don’t count. They’re practically pagan!

Make NFP all about having the “perfect” family, whatever that means.

The great thing about this one is that it’s sooo flexible. Is the perfect family a large Catholic family with double-digits numbers of children? NFP will open your heart! Is it 2.3 perfectly planned, perfectly spaced children? NFP is as effective as contraception! Make sure that couples know that they can use NFP to successfully have whatever family you want them to have.

Be More Catholic Than the Pope

Why settle for holiness, when you can have extra holiness?

Go Off On Tangents

Now is the perfect time to discuss attachment parenting, breastfeeding, homeschooling, the pro-life movement, the Latin Mass, and any other major issues of concern.

Assume the Worst About Your Audience

This, I believe is the single most important thing to remember in promoting NFP. Your audience will inevitably misuse any information that you give them. They are looking for loopholes and ways around Church teaching, which is why they showed up to your class in the first place. The men in the audience just want to use their wives for sex and the women have been brainwashed into hating children by evil feminists. They are sex addicted hedonists who would gladly give up marital relations so they can buy an new boat.

As St. Pius X said, “Kindness is for fools.” But since actually beating them with fists will probably get you arrested, be sure that they know you are on to them and Jesus is watching.

This may seem like a lot, but just remember that as long as you are unclear, disorganized, uninformed, and uncharitable,  your audience is sure to get the message…

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What is Natural Family Planning?

I hate the term Natural Family Planning.

It was coined by bureaucrats back in the 1970s to show that the Church was OK with family planning, just as long as the means were in accordance with Natural Law.

The problem is that you really can’t plan your family.

It’s not that you shouldn’t plan your family.

It’s not that planning your family is sinful.

It’s not that not using any family planning is more holy.

No, it’s not that at all. It’s that there is a good chance that if you plan your family, there is a good chance that your plans may not come true. It’s that the family you plan and the family you get may be two entirely different things.

Children are a gift from God. No matter how much you try, sometimes they come despite your efforts to avoid them. No matter how much you try, sometimes they don’t come despite your efforts to have them.

Making Idols of Our Plans

Contraception at its core is a lie. Contraception sells a false sense of security. It tells couples that they can plan their families with perfect precision. That they can put off having children now so that they can plan to have the family they want later. The problem is that things don’t always work that way.

When it comes to avoiding pregnancy, every contraceptive has a failure rate. Generally, the more effective methods of contraception are the more invasive. Hormonal contraception, the IUD, and permanent sterilization, all work by altering the body’s natural functioning and, inevitably, there is a price to pay for this alteration in unpleasant physical and psychological side-effects. Less invasive barrier methods are generally less effective. Condoms break, diaphragms slip, spermacide doesn’t work. Not to mention that couples don’t particularly like using any of them.

But perhaps the biggest danger isn’t when contraceptives fail, but when they succeed. Modern technology may allow people to live longer than ever, but our fertility is stone age. Women’s fertility starts to decline around age 30, and declines more rapidly after age 35. As a woman gets older, the risk of infertility increases. (Men’s fertility is important too, but men do not have a “biological clock” in the same way that women do.) If a couple waits until the “right time” to have children, they may not be able to have them or they may have a smaller family than they had planned to have.

The problem with family planning is when our plans become an idol. We see this in society. When contraception fails, abortion is used as a “backup”. When babies don’t come the natural way, artificial technology such as IVF and surrogacy “make babies”. Even if you have no moral problem with these procedures, they are often emotionally difficult and painful for those who go through them. The Church says “No”, not to restrict us, but to protect us.

Knowledge is Power

So if family planning doesn’t always go according to plan, then why bother with NFP?

Although “Natural Family Planning” can be used as a tool to help couples achieve or avoid pregnancy and try to “plan their families”, NFP is just fertility education combined with teaching women how to read the signs and signals of their own body.

The fertility charts give women critical information about their bodies.  The charts are not just useful for determining when sex can and cannot lead to pregnancy, but as a general monitor of women’s health. If cycles are abnormal, this may be a sign that something’s wrong. If something is wrong, it often can be more quickly diagnosed and treated if a woman is charting.

It is useful for the couple because you both start to recognize how hormonal changes can change moods and attitudes. Husbands: Your wife may have very different reactions to the same situations right around ovulation vs. right before her period. Being aware of these changes can help couples avoid fights and frustration.

Charting gives a couple who would like to conceive a baby vital information that will make the process easier. But what do couples gain when they are avoiding?

One of surprising advantages of using NFP instead of contraception to avoid pregnancy is that the couple does not lose sight of the cost of avoiding. It doesn’t feel like an advantage, because it’s hard, but it is one. You see, avoiding pregnancy with NFP takes effort: You must understand the method, chart carefully, and abstain. And when you go to all that trouble, it really puts your plans in perspective. Is my plan really worth all this effort? Or would another plan be better? Do we really need to avoid pregnancy, or could we possibly have another baby?

The best way to promote Natural Family Planning is that it is not family planning at all.* Comparisons with contraception are inadequate, and ad infinitum discussions about “serious reasons” among some Catholics are a distraction.

NFP is knowlege. It’s women’s health. It’s empowerment. It’s powerful. The best way to promote it is to share that empowerment with others.

Jennifer Fitz nails it with her post about why you should Learn it Before You Need It. So does Kelly Mantoan at This Ain’t the Lyceum with her post NFP PSA ASAP.

*Yes some couples may view NFP as just another method of birth control or just another fertility program and some promoters will pitch it this way. It’s not, so stop doing that. You’re selling NFP short. While NFP is quite effective at helping couples prevent or achieving pregnancy, promoting NFP in this way will only lead couples to be as dissatisfied and hurt with NFP as they are with other methods of contraception and/or fertility programs.

NFP Awareness Week 2014

This week (July 20-27) is NFP Awareness Week

NFP Awareness Week 2014

 

Observations About NFP

We’ve written WAY too much on this blog about NFP, so what’s left to be aware of?

Instead of yet another “NFP is awesome” post, I will simply share what I have learned from using NFP in our marriage, writing for this blog, reading the research, and what I have seen about how couples actually use the method from various charting sites.

For purposes of this post, unless otherwise specified, “NFP” refers to any use of the method to avoid pregnancy.  “FAM” refers to the use of NFP with barrier methods.

The majority of couples using NFP are NOT doing so for religious reasons. This includes the majority of Catholic couples.

NFP works quite well—if you follow the rules. Symptothermal users are more likely to have unnecessary abstinence. Creighton and Billings have less abstinence during the fertile phase, but this also means they have less of a margin of error. Creighton seems to be especially prone to instructor/user error. Marquette is the least accurate method under perfect use, but seems to be the easiest to learn and the least prone to user error.

FAM couples (who use barriers) generally do not have more sex than NFP couples (who abstain). Although FAM couples aren’t abstaining during fertility, they tend to have less sex during “Phase 3″ than NFP couples. FAM couples also tend to be more cautious about going “unprotected” than NFP couples are about abstaining. Even with this extra caution, barrier method failure is surprisingly common. Couples may use FAM very conservatively, but unexpectedly get pregnant by using an not-so-effective barrier method during fertility.

There are, however, two cases when FAM couples are clearly having more sex:  (1) “High-drive” couples (including newlyweds), who have sex nearly every day and (2) women with PCOS-like symptoms (long patches of fertile CM, short luteal phase), who have few available days with NFP. Both of these cases are uncommon. While it may seem like every secular couple you know is having lots of sex and every Catholic couple you know is either gets pregnant from an amorous look or has PCOS, from what I have seen, this is not the case.

FAM couples complain about barriers almost as much as NFP couples complain about abstinence. As Simcha Fisher put it, “When it comes to facing fertility, all God’s children got angst.

Many couples try to use NFP without proper instruction. Couples may take an introductory class, but not go to follow up classes. Other couples may try to learn the method from a book and don’t get help. Not understanding the method is where a significant number of “surprise” pregnancies come from. For other couples, leads to a lot of unnecessary abstinence and unnecessary frustration.

Other couples try to learn NFP while breastfeeding. Some idealistic Catholic couples try to have a baby right away and hope they’ll never need NFP. Then they find that they really do need to avoid pregnancy, often when they have their hands full with a little one (or two, or three). Then they try to learn NFP at the most difficult time while already stressed out. Not suprisingly, these couples often have a more difficult time with NFP than those who learned it during engagement and practiced it for a short time early in their marriage.

Many of the “surprise pregnancies” are because couples deliberately break rules while trying to avoid pregnancy. Often this isn’t just using “one more day” or “it’s P+3 already”, but blatant risk taking on highly fertile days.

This is often due to a desire, sometimes subconscious, to have a baby when it is not “socially acceptable” to have a baby. In this culture where children must be planned like a moon landing, it’s often psychologically easier for couples to claim that they had an “oops” than to admit (even to themselves) that they wanted a baby when society says they shouldn’t.

Couples who are trying to conceive have problems too. We’ve never been in this situation, so having never faced temptations related to infertility, I am hesitant to write about it. What I will say is that couples can separate the unitive from the procreative aspects of sex in trying to make a baby just as they can in trying to avoid making one. If you’re still trying to make a baby, but no longer making love, remember to reconnect your relationship.

Most couples are satisfied with NFP. It’s not easy, but most couples find that the positives outweigh the negatives. The couples who have the most difficulty with NFP are those who use it strictly out of a sense of religious duty and resent the Church for “making” them do so. While some women do have genuine cycle problems that do make determining fertility difficult, often the problems in using NFP are due to underlying spiritual issues or marital issues.

In the next post, I will talk about ways to spread the “Revolution” of Natural Family Planning

Moving the Blog and a Starting a Conversation About Sex

Kate has been moving the site from BlueHost over to HostGator.

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It’s still not done, but I think that all the posts and comments have been moved over. The themes are still in flux. I think what is there today is the WordPress Default.

Starting a Conversation About Sex

Anyway, there has been some great conversation over at Leticia Adams’s blog, Crazy Face. Leticia wants Catholic women (and presumably men too) to talk more about sex. As she says…

I really hope that the discussion among Catholic women will start, because it has started among secular women a LONG time ago, and while the goal in life is not to be like the world, we should still be able to counter all the accusations about how Catholics are so prude. That and we need to be able to answer the questions of newlyweds who are trying to live their life chastely but wonder about some things.

http://theramblingsofacrazyface.wordpress.com/2014/07/03/im-gonna-talk-bout-sex-for-a-minute/

and the follow up…

http://theramblingsofacrazyface.wordpress.com/2014/07/12/lets-talk-about-sex-part-dos/

Many Catholic couples have questions about what is and is not OK in a marriage and don’t have much of a place to go for guidance.  Couples range from clueless newlyweds (and not-so-newlyweds) and those who have Been There and Done That. (Yes, THAT.), Unfortunately, much of the advice from the Catholic world (when you can find it) is one-size-fits-all and doesn’t fit every couple’s situation. Yet while couples are different, there are still some universal truths about sexuality.

Have anything to say yourself? Go join the conversation at Leticia’s blog.

Seven Quick Takes on The Pastoral Challenges of the Family

The Vatican has just released a document on The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization. The document was based on the responses to the recent Vatican study on ministry to families. (My diocese posted the results online.) Here are some of the notable points in the document.

— 1 —

Hand-wringing about contraception is, for the most part, a #firstworldproblem.

It’s a first world problem in that the contraceptive mentality that sees children as a problem to be avoided is closely associated with secularization and with affluence. It’s also a first world problem in that families in the developing world have other problems and other priorities. The document tends to see the contraceptive mentality as a symptom of first world materialism (i.e. more kids = less stuff and less stuff is bad) and other first world secular ideologies. It does not take the view that contraception is the cause of all the problems with the family where it is widely used, as sometimes comes up in the Catholic blogosphere. The document recognizes that the Church must be able to break through the culture before people can really understand the teaching.

— 2 —

Dealing with polygamy is a big problem for the Church in parts of the world.

What IS a problem outside the first world is polygamy. Not only must the Church deal with cultures that still have polygamy and find the idea one man marrying only one woman to be foreign and harmful, but the Church must also deal with people in polygamous marriages who want to convert. What should a man who is supporting three wives and their children  (who he married before hearing of Church teaching) do with wives #2 and #3?

— 3 —

Divorce and remarriage is a thorny theological issue.

Similarly, divorce and remarriage is another thorny theological issue. It’s not so simple as reciting Mark 10. The Church has to deal with the pastoral problem of people having families in second marriages. The Church does not want to break up the family, nor can they ignore the commands of Jesus himself. In many cases, it creates a situation where couples may feel like they have committed an unforgivable sin, which is not only a pastoral problem, but is an idea counter to the entire Gospel.

Additionally, current practice also causes problems in relations with the Orthodox. Reunion seems to be a high priority for the Vatican, but gets little attention in the US Catholic media. The Orthodox allow penetential second and third marriages. The Catholic Church recognizes Orthodox marriages as sacramental, but not the second and third marriages. The Orthodox see the Catholic position as hypocritical considering how many annulments are granted in the Catholic Church.

— 4 —

Lack of respect toward women in some areas is a significant obstacle for the Church. 

This is something you’ll never hear in the media, but the Church has difficulty in explaining the equality of men in women in heavily patriarchal cultures that view women as inferior.

— 5 —

Celebate priests are often ill-prepared to deal with marital issues.

When married people do seek guidance, they don’t get much help from priests, especially celibate ones. Some priests are overly legalistic, others are overly lenient, and a few even openly dissent from Church teaching. The majority of priests, however, (and this is my experience) simply don’t feel comfortable with the subject and don’t want to talk about it.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of candor that the document has about the failings of the priests and bishops, most notably the “counter witness” of sex abuse crisis.

— 6 —

Many Catholics are poorly catechized.

Many of the problems listed in the document aren’t so much “The Church teaches ______” as much as “The laity thinks the Church teaches _______” or “The laity has never heard what the Church teaches”. In our own secular, first world culture, people are taught for years by the culture about how the Church is backwards and unscientific. The Church tries to counter this cutural assault on the faith with a short lecture during a particularly awkward pre-Cana session. That’s not enough.

Other common problem are misunderstandings about annulments, and the mistaken belief that one is excommunicated after a divorce or that an annulment makes children illegitimate.

Vatican documents and official diocesan statements have a wealth of information, but are often well over over the heads of the laity. Priests and bishops have the equivalent of a PhD in theology. The average lay Catholic has the equivalent of a middle school education in the faith. When dioceses and the Vatican do makes statements, the message simply isn’t getting across. For example, the bishops wondered why people rejected Natural Law teaching. This is a pretty basic philosophical concept to most clergy. What they found is that most of the laity doesn’t understand the meaning of the term “Natural Law”—they often mistake “Natural Law” for the Appeal to Nature fallacy, and, therefore, reject it. Then they wonder why the Church is promoting such obviously fallacious reasoning.

— 7 —

What is missing is rooting Catholic teachings on marriage to the Gospel. 

Overall, the “big picture” message is that the Church has largely failed to present Catholic teachings on marriage in the broader context of the Gospel. When teachings on marriage are presented as a disjointed set of rules justified primarily by arcane philosophy, the culture ignores them and couples have little guidance. Minstring to the family necessarily involves growing faith within the family. It is only through a proper understanding of Christ’s love for us that we can make sense of these often difficult teachings.

 

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

Help! My husband is not interested in sex! – Part 2

The previous post discussed common causes of erectile dysfunction and lack of sexual interest in men. This post discusses several things wives can do if they are struggling with sexual intimacy in a marriage.

It’s Not About You

Many women get discouraged when their husband is not interested in sex. They start to wonder “What is wrong with me?” and think that their husband’s lack of interest is because they aren’t sexy enough or that they are doing something wrong in the marriage. This, however, is rarely the case. Simply taking a positive attitude toward sex and toward your relationship with your husband is really all you need to do. (Guys are simple, trust me. You don’t need wine and roses and romance, just show up naked with a smile.) If you see sex as a positive and have a good relationship outside the bedroom and your husband still isn’t interested, then your husband’s erectile dysfunction and lack of sexual interest are his problems and the causes have nothing to do with you.

Barriers to Getting Help

The good news is that your husband’s lack of interest isn’t your fault, but the bad news is that this means there is a lot less you can do by yourself to solve it. Solving the problem is not something you can do by yourself, instead, he has to value your sexual relationship enough to put the effort to work through it.

One obvious answer is to get professional help. But sometimes men don’t want to get help. Here are are several common barriers that keep men from seeking help when they have sexual problems:

  • Embarrassment – Men are often embarrassed that they can’t “perform” and don’t want to talk about it, even with their wives or with a professional.
  • Shame - The lack of ability to perform sexually impacts a man psyche. Sexual ability is to men what sexual attractiveness is to many women. Sexual desire requires confidence in both men and women and sexual problems cut to the core of one’s confidence. When women don’t feel that they are sexually attractive (in their own opinion, not that of others) they may become less interested in sex and feel bad about themselves. Likewise, when men struggle to get an maintain an erection, they may feel like less of a man. They lose confidence, lose interest in sex, and feel bad about themselves.
  • Fear – Sexual struggles in a marriage can lead to a lot of “what if’s”? “What if the problem never gets fixed?” “What if there’s something really wrong with me?” “What if my wife leaves me?” Other times the fear is fear of change, such as confronting a porn addiction or making lifestyle changes to deal with a physical problem.
  • Stress – The pressure to perform adds stress, which makes sexual performance even more difficult.
  • Denial – Whatever the underlying problem, denial is a common defense mechanism. If your husband believes that the problem is too big for him to handle, then he may deny he has a problem. Statements like “I’m just not interested in sex” or “Sex isn’t that big a deal” are common signs that a husband is in denial of the problem, especially if a lack of sexual interest wasn’t a problem earlier in the relationship.

So What Can You Do?

couple-bed-frustrated

If lack of interest is his problem and something he needs to solve, then what is a frustrated wife to do? You can’t solve his problem, but there are somethings you can do to help.

Increase Physical Intimacy

When a wife lacks interest in sex, husbands are often told to increase non-sexual intimacy. Well, the same works for wives who husbands lack interest in sex. Increasing non-sexual intimacy, especially physical intimacy, builds closeness, reduces stress, and increases a sense of well-being. “No-strings-attached” physical contact removes the pressure to perform and the stress negative associations that goes along with it. Intimacy builds trust, which gives struggling spouses the courage to break down the barriers that have been keeping them from getting help.

Building a pattern of non-sexual physical intimacy creates a positive association with physical contact between the two of you and may rekindle desire. Some may wonder what a couple is to do if desire is rekindled, but ability to perform is not. If the wife has problems with sexual response, couples are commonly advised to try to have sex anyway. The couple can still enjoy the intimacy of sexual intercourse, even if the wife’s sexual response isn’t quite there. Men, however, have to physically be able to have and maintain an erection for intercourse to happen. My advice, however, would be the same—try to have sex anyway. While a husband is not be able to have intercourse without an erection, there is plenty he can do for his wife with his hands, his mouth, etc. Sometimes starting by pleasuring a wife in other ways can lead to an erection—problem solved. If not, you’ve shared an intimate and enjoyable time together.

Some Catholics may be concerned about the “One Rule” if the couple is unable to continue on to intercourse, but they need not be. If the couple begins a sexual encounter with the intent (or even the hope) to continue on to intercourse, but are physically unable to, that isn’t a sin. Physical problems aren’t sins any more than infertility is contraception.

State Your Feelings

You have a right to sexual intimacy in your marriage and your spouse has a duty to provide that to you. Spouses should not deny each other sexual intimacy without a serious reason. (See 1 Corinthians 7:3-5). In the Jewish tradition that St. Paul was writing from, this was seen as primarily a husband’s duty to sexually satisfy his wife. So if you are feeling unloved, deprived, or just plain frustrated, that’s completely normal and understandable.

Does your husband know how you feel about your lack of sexual intimacy? Have you told him? Some men are bad at subtlety and you have to be direct about it. This doesn’t mean being tactless or cruel, but that you have to tell your husband what you mean and what you want.

If having a conversation about sexual intimacy is difficult (and it often is), try writing a love letter. Tell him how much you love him, how much you value your sexual relationship, the positives you see when your sexual relationship is good, and how you feel when that aspect of your relationship is missing. Use “I” statements not “you” statements. (e.g. “I feel unloved and unwanted when you say that you aren’t interested in having sex with me.” not “You make me feel unwanted when…”) Talk about feelings, not thoughts. (If “I think” makes sense when you say “I feel”, that’s a thought, not a feeling.) Don’t accuse. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t try to analyze your husband. Instead talk about your emotions, your reactions, and your desires.

Set Boundaries

Sometimes lower-drive spouses use sex as a way to gain power in the marriage. The higher drive spouse always wants more sex, giving the lower drive spouse a bargaining chip to use to gain more control in the marriage. But a system of sex-for-favors isn’t marriage, it’s prostitution. If your husband is constantly telling you “I’ll have sex with you if you do ______”, then that’s a sign he’s using sex as a bargaining chip. Don’t play that game. He really wants _______, not sex. Tell him that you want sex with no strings attached (faithfully, freely, fully, and fruitfully) and that if he only wants sex if ______ is involved, then you’re not interested.

If your husband’s sex drive is low because he is seeking sexual satisfaction outside the marriage, through pornography or, more seriously, an affair, boundaries are vital. You may not be able to stop him from downloading porn, but you can make it a lot more difficult for him to do it in the house. Get an internet filter. (I recommend OpenDNS. It’s free and works with many routers.) Put computers in public areas. If he is having an affair, then he is no longer welcome in your bed or, in more serious cases, your house. Men who have affairs often want it both ways. When forced to choose, they will often end the affair, as many mistresses have learned the hard way. Dealing with affairs is well beyond the scope of this blog, so I advise you to seek professional help from clergy and licensed marriage and family counselors.

Take Care of Yourself

If you’re struggling with these issues, it’s easy to get wrapped up in your marital problems and get so focused on your spouse that you forget about yourself. If your spouse won’t go to counseling, make an appointment for yourself. Your counselor may be able to give you ideas to better handle the problems in your marriage. Priest or spiritual adviser may also be able to give you advice for how to come to terms with the problem, even if your spouse doesn’t want to change.

Pray

Finally, pray. Pray for your marriage. Pray for your spouse. Most importantly, pray for yourself. Pray that God will give you the strength to get through this difficult time in your marriage.

 

If you have any questions or comments, please share in the combox. Anonymous comments are on. You may also contact me privately at waywardson23 (at) gmail (dot) com.

Help! My husband is not interested in sex! – Part 1

A reader writes:

I dunno if this is something you can even cover on here, but how does a married couple struggle through Erectile Dysfunction? My husband refuses to see a doctor because he claims he’s just “not interested” in sex anymore, but no man in his right mind would say that without there being an underlying reason.

Our marriage is in a great place, he and I communicate regularly, and he’s very physical with his shows of affection. When it comes to sex, however, he absolutely has performance issues and bristles whenever it gets brought up.

And truth be told, it’s been an issue since we were first married. We’ve been married 7 years now, and sex has gone from happening daily for the first few months of marriage, to maybe once a week, to barely once a month, to nothing for well over a year.

I’ve tried bringing this (admittedly) touchy subject up a bazillion times in a bazillion different ways, but he just refuses to talk to a doctor, and it’s beginning to hurt our intimacy (in more ways than one).

I should probably also mention that I’m pretty fit for my age (30), would like to think I’m attractive, and am a thoughtful lover.

He’s known about this issue for years (as he used to attempt taking pills for it), but he’s since stopped and refuses to get checked. I’m actually quite worried it’s symptomatic of an even graver health issue given he’s so young and it’s been an issue for so long.

A Common Problem

couple-in-bed-embarrassed

It’s extremely frustrating to be in a marriage where your husband isn’t interested in sex. While the cultural stereotype is that sexless marriages are caused by a frigid wife leading to a frustrated and unloved husband, about 1/3 of the time it’s the wife who desires sex and the husband who constantly “has a headache”. Women can feel just as unloved and frustrated when sexual intimacy leaves the marriage as men do.

While women can have sex without necessarily being in the mood for it, that’s far more difficult for men. If the penis isn’t cooperating, intercourse isn’t going to happen. Even if he wanted to have sex for her sake, physically, this may not be possible. Lack of male desire can put a serious strain on a marriage.

Causes of Erectile Dysfunction

A husband’s lack of desire is generally caused by a one or more of the 3 ‘P’s: Physical issues, Psychological issues, and/or Pornography.

Physical Issues

The best known causes of erectile dysfunction are physical problems. The penis is made of erectile tissue which is spongy, vascular tissue that is mostly empty space. When it fills with blood, the penis is erect, when it is empty, the penis is flaccid. Getting an erection involves a complex series of hormonal and cardiovascular reactions to get the tissue to engorge with blood and remain hard.

One cause erectile dysfunction is circulatory problems—the blood cannot fill the penis. Erectile dysfunction is a symptom of a large cardiovascular problem, such as high blood pressure or arterial disease. Viagra was originally developed as a high blood pressure medication until doctors discovered it had an interesting (and lucrative) side effect. Usually circulatory problems are more common in older men. In younger men, physical problems with erectile dysfunction are very often associated with obesity. Obesity causes type 2 diabetes, which impacts circulatory and nervous function, plus it can lead to an imbalance of estrogen and testosterone, which can kill male sexual desire.

Less common are hormone issues, such as hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism, and other congenital problems. Another possibility is a drug interaction or side effect. Lack of sexual desire is a common side effect of many anti-depressants.

Physical problems are less common in younger men and when they do occur, they are often associated with other physical problems, such as obesity. If your husband is in otherwise good physical health and isn’t on any medication, then the problem probably isn’t physical.

Psychological Issues

The most important sex organ isn’t the penis, the circulatory system, or the endocrine system, but the brain. Confidence is key to male success, and that includes in the bedroom. It’s no coincidence that the word “impotent” can refer to both erectile dysfunction and a sense of powerlessness.

Society puts a tremendous amount of pressure on men to be sexual all the time. Men are supposed to always want sex, whenever, wherever, whoever, whatever. If a man has a lower sex drive, even if there is nothing physically wrong, he may feel like less of a man and put pressure on himself to perform. Unfortunately, stress is a real “boner killer”, making it less likely that he will be able to do so. This creates a vicious cycle where the man worries about performance, fails to perform, then worries even more. Eventually, some men just give up and avoid sexual intimacy, much to the frustration of their wives.It’s not just stress about sexual performance that can cause a lack of sexual desire. Stress outside the bedroom will cause the same problems, as will depression. The problems inside the bedroom only make the problems worse.

Another psychological cause can be a negative view of sex. Some men see sex as something wrong and dirty. They see it as something shameful that men want and that “good girls” don’t. (Unfortunately, some well-intentioned Catholics can unwittingly promote this view by dwelling excessively on sexual sin and misinterpreting St. John Paul II’s discussion of what it means to “use” one’s spouse.) This may lead them to show little sexual interest in their wives—even to the point of acting out sexually outside the marriage—even though they may still value the platonic aspects of the relationship.

Past sexual abuse is a common cause of sexual dysfunction in both men and women. While sexual abuse is more common in women, a tragic number of men have been abused. If this is an issue, please get help.

Pornography

Stress has been around forever, as have poor eating and exercise habits. So why are doctors seeing an “epidemic” in erectile dysfunction in young men?

Pornography

Pornography, too, has been around forever, but it’s never been as easily accessible or as “hardcore” as it is now. Never before have men been only a click away from a virtually unlimited supply of any sort of sexual stimulation they want.

Let’s set aside the morality of pornography for a moment and talk about it’s strictly physical and psychological effects. Pornography isn’t simply sex on (digital) film, it’s an exaggerated and unrealistic form of sex on film. Real sex is awkward. Porn is choreographed and edited. Real sex is best when it’s intimate and enjoyable. Porn sex is about whatever films best. Real sex can be great no matter what your body is like. Porn involves perfect—and often fake—bodies. Porn isn’t reality. Porn is an artificial fantasy packaged and sold to consumers.

Porn is what is called a supernormal stimulus. A supernormal stimulus is  “an exaggerated version of a stimulus to which there is an existing response tendency, or any stimulus that elicits a response more strongly than the stimulus for which it evolved.” Humans have an natural response to sexual stimulation. Porn is an exaggerated form of sex that elicits an exaggerated response. Over time, the brain normalizes the exaggerated stimulus, leaving the normal stimulus uninteresting by comparison. Even if a man knows that porn isn’t real sex, he will react more strongly to and begin to prefer the artificial stimulus of pornography to real sex. In fact, he may have difficulty becoming aroused by a real woman because his brain has become used to the exaggerated stimulus.

One or More of the Above

These problems aren’t mutually exclusive. Sometimes men may be struggling with multiple problems: For example, a man may have physical issues (poor health) which causes psychological problems (depression, stress) and leads to pornography (increased stimulus, no expectation of intimacy). It may appear on the surface that he is preferring masturbating to pornography to sexual intimacy with his wife, but this may overlook the real issues that are driving the behavior.

It’s NOT Your Fault

Many women think that they are responsible for their husband’s erectile dysfunction. They may think that if they were prettier or acted sexier or were a better lover that their husbands would not have a problem. I think this is because often wives feel that their own desire changes based on their husbands’ behavior and assume their husband’s desire changes in much the same way. But this is not the case for most men. While marital problems certainly don’t help with sexual desire, erectile dysfunction is almost never due to something that the wife is or is not doing. If the problem is physical, then it’s his responsibility to take care of himself. If the problem is psychological, then he’s probably dealing with issues that have nothing to do with you (and trying to be “sexier” may make things worse by putting more pressure on him to perform). If the problem is porn, then he’s chasing a fantasy and no real woman would be able to catch his interest.

So What’s a Frustrated Wife To Do?

Knowing the causes of erectile dysfunction isn’t much help if you can’t do anything about then. If it’s his problem and he won’t do anything about it, then you may understandable feel frustrated and helpless.

So what steps can a frustrated wife do if her husband has a problem and won’t get help? That’s the subject of Part 2 of this series…

Open to Love

When I was 17, I wanted 2 children. Both girls, better yet twins, so I could get it done in one shot.

 

OK, ok, maybe 3, but only if one was an accident.

 

When I was 19 I had my first baby and I suddenly changed my mind.

I could totally do 4 kids- totally!
I got this!
My body was made for this, baby!
I got my jogging stroller, and my pretty little diaper bag.
I can show them all how this momma thing is done!

Fast Forward:
A few years later, I felt like I was drowning with 2 screaming toddlers and an infant. I cried out to God!

 

This is too hard!
I can’t do this.
I am a mess everyday!
I’m too tired to parent my kids.
I’m ineffective.
My house is a disaster.
I burn dinner every night.

In fact, in the midst of my chaos, I made an appointment with a priest. I have never ever made an appointment to talk to a priest before. I walked in, and I had no idea what to say. He smiled and asked what I was in for.. Ohh the tears- they came a-flowing!

“I can’t have more children!” I whaled.
The tears just wouldn’t stop, and I cried for another hour while giving a litany of reasons why I am unfit, unable, and unhappy.

He listened to me, calmly-lovingly-fatherly. He smiled, and said, “you don’t have to. If you are praying, and discerning God’s will for your life, then listen to Him.  He will guide you straight and He wont give you more than you can handle”.

 

I was a bit dumbfounded. Like- Eh, what do ya mean? I thought I was supposed to be open to life, and right now, I am anything but open to life. I don’t want more kids, like, ever. I kind of want to pawn off the ones I’ve got so I can take a 16 year bath.

The appointment ended that way. I was left with a lot of questions in my heart, but a greater sense of peace. “Am I open, or aren’t I?” I thought. I know the Church says that I need to be open, always. But I don’t feel open now.

A couple of weeks passed, and I felt a glimmer of hope. I realized something profound. Something that made living this vocation bearable again.

Being Open to Life, is an action.

I am either open or I am not.  I thought to myself, if I became pregnant, would I abort? No, I absolutely would not. I am open to that life, even if I don’t currently think I want it.

For so many years I had words floating in my head that fed my fears. Words that made me feel inadequate or inferior. I had words from secular society telling me that I wasn’t a good mother, or a good wife, or a good woman.

There were also words from older women at Church and on the Catholic blogosphere telling me that I was not a good Catholic or that I was not following God’s will unless I abandoned all control of my fertility to Him. I thought of the women I had heard talking about “contraception mentality”, and how evil it is. I was afraid I was one of those people, since I didn’t want more children.

By the way: Contraceptive Mentality is mindset, not an action.

During this time where I felt at odds with the Church, I now look back and I realize how unnecessarily compounded it had become. The whispers of secularists and radical traditionalists crept into my mind and tormented me.It dawned on me that the people that use this phrase to attack are also rejecting the words from the same Pope that spoke of responsible parenthood. Taking some of his words and using them as a weapon while ignoring his other words, is just as rotten as those that claim couples shouldn’t have more than 2 children.

I had always been open to life, and my heart would soon open up for the desire of new life.

It was only 6 weeks later that I walked back into a follow up appointment with that priest when I announced I was expecting my fourth baby, and that God granted me everything I needed to be at peace with it.
I left with a new mantra in my head:

Lots of Coffee
Lots of Hugs
Lots of Laughter
Lots of Love

 

This was less than 2 years ago.

I thought I would only want up to 4 children. I am completely happy with my four children I have now, even though I occasionally feel overwhelmed by all their needs. I am a better mother because of each of them. They teach me to give and to love, they show me unconditional love and fast forgiveness, they sanctify me.

Being open to life is the same as being open to love. It is being open to everything that comes with life, and doing it with love- not loving every bit of life. See, there’s a difference!

I can’t help it. As much as I wanted to be done, there is a burning in my heart for another child. Someday. Not just yet, but maybe someday soon.