At the end of our Marriage Encounter weekend, the priest who was on the leadership team had a very specific message for the married couples.
Say “yes” to sexual intimacy.
He had been a priest for many years and knew the damage caused by sexual refusal and “sex-starved” marriages.
What he says is nothing new, but comes straight from scripture.
Do not deprive each other, except perhaps by mutual consent for a time, to be free for prayer, but then return to one another, so that Satan may not tempt you through your lack of self-control. 1 Corinthians 7:5 (NAB)
Similarly, marriage blogger Julie Sibert calls sexual refusal “The sexual sin no one will talk about.” She blames her own failings in this area for the dissolution of her first marriage, and tells her readers how changing her attitude has made a major difference in her current marriage.
She talks about how a healthy sexual intimacy in a marriage can enrich the entire marriage, while a lack of sexual intimacy can lead to a buildup of resentment and disillusionment even in areas that seem unrelated to sex. Good sex bonds you closer together and, between the orgasms and happy hormones, just makes you feel good. And when you can be close and make each other feel really good, it helps smooth over all the rough spots.
Wanting to say “Yes”, but having to say “No”
Although Julie’s blog is not a Catholic blog, what she says is often just as true in Catholic circles. There is plenty of talk about chastity. There is more than plenty of talk about sexual ethics and morality. There is plenty of high-sounding theological talk about how sex is wonderful and beautiful and good and holy. But talking about the nuts and bolts of “just doing it”, doesn’t come up quite as often.
And that’s a shame.
Not only is it important to couples who may be struggling with issues around saying “yes” to sexual intimacy, but it’s also important to those of us who don’t.
Even happily married Catholic couples with a healthy sexual relationship can find themselves in trilemma when it comes to sex.
- Catholic couples are supposed to say “yes” to sex, lest Satan tempt them. (And not just tempt them to sexual sin, by the way.) 1 Corinthians 7:5
- Catholic couples are also called to responsible parenthood as part of their vocation, which may require them to avoid pregnancy for a time. Humanae Vitae 10. Especially if you marry young, this may be a significant amount of time in a marriage.
- Catholic couples may not take any action to separate the procreative aspect of sex from the marital act. The Church teaches that “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” Humanae Vitae 11-12
When a Catholic couple has a good reason to avoid pregnancy, it can feel like “Pick any two” of these three important teachings.
Given these choices, it is understandable why so many Catholics throw out the third. It’s the hardest to understand, hardest to follow, and easiest to ignore. Others have reacted to this by trying to throw out the first (“abstinence is a joy”) or the second (“just let God plan your family”). While there is nothing morally wrong with either extended periods of mutually agreed upon abstinence or providentialism, these both can be highly demanding of couples. Even should a couple choose to do either of these, not recognizing Church teaching in its entirety can give couples an incomplete and unbalanced view of sexuality and leave them puzzled and often angry at the Church.
Blogger Bonnie Engstrom recently wrote a guest post on the Women Speak On NFP series at Carrots for Michaelmas, in which she called NFP “a cross”. Her NFP experience has involved long periods of abstinence, indecipherable symptoms postpartum, and a few unplanned pregnancies. She says:
The months of abstinence are tough because I really love my husband, he really loves me, and we have a happy marriage.
One of the things makes NFP a cross is that the stronger your marriage is, the tougher the abstinence is. The often discussed benefits of NFP in drawing you together as a couple only make it harder to abstain and avoid pregnancy. If you try to get a few more days of intimacy, you increase the risk of pregnancy. Babies are great, but if you have serious reasons to avoid having another, then this can make the avoiding all the more difficult.
Bonnie wonders if the “NFP dropouts” had an easier time with their sex life than she has. If you (or your wife) are one of the “lucky” 7% or so of women who has trouble identifying signs of fertility, learning NFP can mean multiple classes until you find something that works, lots of questions, WAY too much abstinence, and possibly a unplanned pregnancies—or several. That’s hard. (Pro Tip: If you aren’t married yet, start learning the method now.)
But contraception brings it’s own problems. Hormonal contraception, such as the Pill, often causes decreased interest in sex and decreased sexual response in women, which kind of defeats the whole purpose. IUDs suck. Sterilization is permanent. Sex with a condom just isn’t the same. Not to mention, everything has a failure rate. There’s no guarantee the “NFP dropouts” had an easier time than Bonnie did or that their family planning choices didn’t cause even worse marital difficulties.
Still, the problems with contraception don’t make NFP any less of a cross. And while I believe know NFP can help a marriage and can make a marriage stronger, it’s not without difficulty and it’s not without risk. So if you’re struggling, that’s normal. You are not alone. And if you think you need help with the method or help with your marriage or just need someone to talk to, don’t be afraid to ask.