I used to hate NFP.
I hated waking up to take my temperature every morning. Later, the rainbow of special stickers to keep track of, and having to fold the toilet paper every single time into those neat, flat layers of tissue. The charts that became such a heavy weight on my shoulders. Feeling like a gatekeeper for intimacy. The fact that “green light” days were the very days I felt least like being close to my husband. The arguing and resentment and hurting one another over and over. The feeling that I had to be doing something wrong if it was this hard.
I hated the nagging disenchantment.
It has taken me years to see some of those much-heralded fruits of NFP in my marriage.
It has taken me years to realize that NFP is not the cross.
When I have been half-drowning in real crosses in my life that made us discern the need to use NFP for a while, and when personal weaknesses and external difficulties in our lives made using NFP a struggle, I listed NFP as a great cross in my life. But NFP was not the cross.
Our crosses are the reasons why we have to use NFP, and the reasons why the practice of it can be so complicated and difficult sometimes. And all of our crosses come from the fact that we live in a fallen world and have a fallen human nature.
Our fallen world is ripe with the influences of sin pervading our human society and culture. Our fallen human nature consists of our own internal lack of virtue, our sinfulness, and our fears and insecurities. Our fallen world is one where there is sometimes sickness in our bodies or minds, and where there are incredibly complicated life situations, relationships and events we have no control over.
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need NFP. It helps to call our crosses by their right names. It helps to avoid making more crosses for ourselves than we really have. In the end, NFP is a tool. Like any tool, it can be used for either good or selfish purposes. When using it gets tough, we have to remember what our real crosses are.
Fear is the cross.
Severe financial stress is the cross.
A selfish, stubborn or unsupportive spouse is the cross.
Selfishness to overcome in ourselves is the cross.
Miscommunication is the cross.
A medical condition is the cross.
Postpartum depression is the cross.
Infertility is the cross.
A strained marriage is the cross.
Past sexual woundedness is the cross.
Having the nearest family live 1,000 miles away is the cross.
An uncertain job situation is the cross.
If you have a spouse whose faults, failures, or hard-heartedness mean that you have to do NFP for the foreseeable future, I am so sorry. If you have a medical condition that means that both you and your baby’s lives would be greatly at risk with each future pregnancy–the case for two dear friends of mine–I am so sorry. With all of my heart I am sorry for you. Those are great crosses to have to bear, and your faithful use of NFP will rain down God’s grace and mercy on you.
God doesn’t give us a definitive list of reasons when it is appropriate to use NFP. The Church doesn’t give us a list because a list would take out a very, very necessary thing: communication as a couple with God about the situation.
What does God want us to do? What does our God-given human reason tell us is prudent? I was talking to a priest friend recently about this topic, and I told him that all I wanted was for God to tell me what His will was, and I would happily do it. Father corrected me gently, though, and reminded me that God gave us our capacity to reason for a reason. Two reasons, in fact.
1. God sometimes wants us to figure it out. He wants us to talk to our spouse and to talk to Him. He wants us to grow in our ability to make good choices in complicated situations.
2. God wants us to grow in relationship with Him. What kind of relationship would we have with God if all we did was say, “Jump? Now? How high?” and all He did was say, “Yes. Now. 7 inches off the ground, please.”
Perhaps there are young couples out there who feel those much-heralded fruits of NFP early on in marriage. Perhaps it has taken 5 or 10 or 20 years for you to be able to say, “NFP has blessed our marriage.” I’m somewhere in the latter. The graces we receive from faithfulness to God’s plan for marriage so often cannot be felt in the moment. When there we are, smack dab in the middle of the tears and hurt feelings and disenchantment and miscommunication–it can seem all but impossible to cling to hope at all.
With some kinds of grace, though, it takes years before our human understanding can see what has been happening in our hearts all along: a sharpening of our faith, a solidifying of our hope, and a deeper relationship with Christ. We gain a supernatural perseverance in times of struggle which we may not have otherwise had.
It’s the same thing with taking my three children to mass every Sunday. Through all of the embarrassment, and annoyance at the children’s behavior, tension with Michael sometimes, and frustration that I usually can’t remember hearing any of the readings or even half of the homily, the grace is there if I have the disposition of will in place to receive it.
My priest friend told me that there are two kinds of dispositions to receiving the grace of a sacrament: disposition of the mind and disposition of the will. Sometimes we can’t help the disposition of our mind if we are distracted by children, or if we are dealing with feelings of frustration, fear, or discouragement. But the disposition of our will is the more important of the two.
The act of going to mass anyway, the act of doing NFP anyway, the act of offering up our struggles, through our tears and discouragement and tiredness from carrying this complicated burden of disenchantment and emotions–is what cooperates with grace.
St. Paul says that we are constantly working out our salvation. For many of us who discern the need to use it, NFP is an integral part of working out our salvation. It makes us stretch our souls to grow in generosity, patience, understanding, thankfulness, self-control, and love.
So often growing in the ways that NFP challenges you to grow feels like it will break you. And it does break you sometimes, if we’re being honest. We all need to be broken at some point, though, in order to become who we were created to be. The strongest marriages, it has always seemed to me, are ones where spouses have been broken together.
Together we are in love with God. God has for His purposes drawn us together so that we might find our salvation in each other’s presence, and that together we might fulfill a common mission.” -Fr. Robert Barron
I’ve been in deep, dark valleys when it comes to marital intimacy and NFP. The thing is, those ugly valleys, hills and plateaus in between make the mountaintops infinitely more joyful, restful, and hands-down heavenly.
Courage, hope, peace and the abiding joy of Christ to each of you!
Michael Radigan says
wow…brilliant insights on NFP…please pray for my future wife Oksana may talk and pray freely with God and me on our holy path to marriage
many of your insights are found in the “Litany of Humility” (also sung by Danielle Rose and Audrey Assad –she calls her song “I shall not want”
thank you – men need the greatness of woman to bring out our goodness and Ephesians 5 sacrificial love….
Thank you for this amazing post alot of the struggles you wrote about here my husband and i have been dealing with lately. It inspires me to keep using nfp.and also lets me know i am not the only one. I really appreciate your words of wisdom and i absolutely loved how you said that we should speak to god. In all honesty that is something that i have not done but will do after reading this .
This was the best article on NFP I have ever read. I came across your blog after downloading your podcast and I was so encouraged to read about someone who believes in NFP and can share the blessings and struggles in an honest and genuine way. My husband and I just started giving the NFP talk at pre-cana classes at a local church. It is such a difficult thing to explain, but you explained the whole picture wonderfully and I hope we can do the same! Thank you for writing this!!
Erin Franco says
Lisa, that is such strong praise! Thank you, and know that I’m honored that you read the post at all and then connected so much with it. NFP is a tough topic. So, so tough. I prayed to Our Lady before I published this reply for you and your husband to have just the right words in your talks. God reward you for your wonderful, faithful ministry together in your parish!
Thank you for such an honest and beautiful blog about NFP. I will admit due to years, almost 2 decades of dealing with infertility, I only learned, and used NFP for a year in an attempt to conceive. My instructor led me to a wonderful surgeon who did a fantastic job helping me with endometriosis. I was so blessed to conceive just once, and we have a beautiful daughter. I have so much respect and admiration for couples who choose NFP over all the worldly options of family planning, and I will keep you all in my prayers. And thank you also for reminding what the true crosses are in marriage, and life. You hit the nail on the head with this blog 🙂
Joanne Kibbe says
Nice post! I think if my husband and I were in a position where we needed to learn and practice NFP I would resent it… ALOT
Erin Franco says
It is soul-refining, for sure, Joanne! Getting through those natural feelings of resentment that come up for a lot of couples is where we need grace and receive grace, though. I am a better person and we are a stronger couple for being faithful to God’s plan for marriage through prayerful discernment to use NFP.
Stephanie K says
This is beautiful and hands down my favorite thing I’ve read about NFP in a long time!
Erin Franco says
So awesome, Stephanie. Thank you.:)
Thank you for posting this! NFP has been a struggle in my marriage as well and I needed to read this.
Erin Franco says
I don’t know about you, but I didn’t see NFP coming. At all. We read all the right books and had as good a spiritual and theological and emotional understanding of sex as you can probably have by the time our wedding night rolled around. The thing is, I never realized how complicated things can get once you add sex to the equation in any relationship. Old wounds, new fears, and everything in between…
I am praying for you this morning. I know, I know, I know where you and your good husband and have or may still be. Hugs and encouragement and a big dose of It-gets-so-much-better-just-trust! from here in Louisiana. 🙂
Rebecca Nobles Larriviere says
Thank you so much for this, Erin! NFP has been a real struggle. I’m not a “textbook” mucus kind of girl and we are currently avoiding another pregnancy for health reasons.
I’m not exactly FEELING all of the grace that is flowing from our decision to use NFP in our marriage. The analogy of bringing kids to mass so perfectly hits home. I don’t get that awesome feeling like I used to from mass after an hour of breaking out into a cold sweat trying to keep the chaos down to a low roar and catching a word here or there, but I bring them anyway knowing the grace is there whether I perceive it or not. So thank you again, your post is like the words of encouragement to “keep going” in the middle of the race when everything hurts and I’m seconds away from throwing my hands up and walking to the car.
Erin Franco says
One thing I have learned about NFP is that, sometimes–or at least so far for us–the fruits of NFP can only be felt when you are NOT doing NFP. Maybe during a pregnancy, or while you wait on the blessing of a new pregnancy, Those have been the times in our marriage that we have been most unified, relaxed, and (dare I say?) perfectly happy with our intimate life in general. But again, it takes the valleys and plateaus to make the mountaintops that much more wonderful. Definitely that has been the case for us.
Erin Franco says
I wanted to say one thing about the mass thing with small children and babies in particular.
Michael have I have been in some super-stressful seasons of life where Mass was something we couldn’t help but dread with all three kids, who we had to constantly take out of church to discipline because of fighting, rudeness, running away from us, fussing, etc.
At some point last year, we started putting the kids in the (wonderful!) church nursery at our parish one Sunday a month (and for a few months, maybe twice a month because we were so exhausted and emotionally drained). When the kids are in the nursery, we have a “date Mass.” The older kids love the little Sunday school, and Michael and I love the opportunity to rest in the Lord at Mass–and to rest with each other for an hour.
Starting that really helped us have more energy and patience on the rest of the Sundays where we bring the kids into Mass with us. I just wanted to share that. I don’t believe it’s wrong at all to use a nursery if your parish has one. For us, occasionally using it nurtures our marriage in a way we can both feel clearly, and it does no harm that we can tell to our sweet children to get excited about “Bible school.” Our kids have more patient and relaxed parents at Mass when they do go, for one.:)