Have you ever noticed how NFP (Natural Family Planning for the uninitiated) is marketed? It’s sold with glossy photos of couples holding hands and dancing in flower-filled meadows, their faces plastered with blissful grins.
It will make you so much more intimate! It will change your life! You’ll never be so in love as when you chart your spouse’s cycles! So they said.
Well the truth is, NFP stinks.
And while hate may be too strong a word, NFP is anything but blissful. It’s abstinence. In marriage! To be perfectly real and honest, NFP has not lead to blissful meadow-dancing, but rather to hurt feelings, grumpiness, pouting, and temper tantrums (Don’t worry, I’ve gone to confession.).
But that said, it is probably the best thing for me, and I’ll tell you why.
I need NFP because it reveals a hidden love affair competing for the love I have for my wife. It’s called self-love.
Put another way, I hate NFP because there is still so much selfishness and immaturity in my heart, and marital abstinence brings it to the surface in all its ugliness.
When I was first preparing for marriage, I had read countless marriage books and articles on how to be a great husband. “I’m going to be the best husband ever,” I thought smugly. “I’ve got this down.” And then I got married. In no time at all, that marriage advice that once seemed so clear and simple evaporated. I quickly realized I was nothing more than a selfish jerk. Impatient, rude, demanding, and insensitive. Boy did I have to get over myself fast.
The truth is, though, loving my wife has gotten easier the longer I’ve been married. What used to be a struggle has become natural. There are times when I really think that I am doing well and growing—and perhaps, by God’s grace, I am. But then NFP rears its ugly head and reveals just how much self-love is still lurking in the dark recess of my soul. And that selfishness has to be put to death.
Marriage is a Cross
You see, society sells us a lie. It tells us that marriage is about self-fulfillment, about happily ever after, about using others to create your own happiness. It’s about one and a half kids in an 8,000 square foot McMansion, with a couple of SUVs in the driveway. Oh, and the greatest good in marriage is sex; unlimited contraceptive, child-preventing sex. If your spouse isn’t meeting your “needs,” you are free to move on and look elsewhere for someone who does.
But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Marriage isn’t about you. It’s about losing yourself, about putting the old man to death. It’s about giving yourself away. It’s about loving your wife in the same way Christ loved his bride, the Church—all the way to the cross.
Have you ever noticed that every sacrament contains an image of death? We are immersed into the death of Christ in Baptism. Priests lay face down on the ground when they receive Holy Orders. The Eucharist is the passion of Christ made present. In confession we enter a box that could be considered a coffin. In every sacrament, we must die to ourselves in order to receive the grace and life we so desperately need.
In case you’ve forgotten, marriage too is a sacrament—and a happy, fruitful, and faithful marriage will always involve death to self. There’s a spiritual law that goes like this: The harder we cling to our own happiness and fulfillment, the less we find of it, but the more we die to ourselves and live for others, the more joy we find.
In a very real sense, marriage is a martyrdom, a very real kind of death—but a death that gives life.
So What About NFP?
What’s the point? NFP is hard and we are prone to hate it because we often enter marriage thinking about our rights, our needs, and our wants. In other words, we so often want to take instead of to give, because giving always hurts.
The truth is, though, we desperately need NFP and the self-denial it represents. Without it, all that selfishness and immaturity and greediness would still be there, buried under layers of self-deception. It would manifest itself subtly, or not so subtly, in many other aspects of marriage, wounding the intimate bond between husband and wife. Yes, it would still be there, and it would still do harm.
Marriage is a sacrament because God wants to convert our hearts. Marriage isn’t about two-incomes, an oversized house, and overpriced vehicles. It won’t always look like the American dream, which all too often is more of a nightmare. Marriage according to God’s plan is hard and sometimes painful because marriage is meant to be a school of genuine love, and genuine love always looks like the cross.
Don’t get me wrong, a Catholic marriage well lived is full of joy. I mean it. Yet that abundant joy is always the byproduct and not the prime product. It flows from self-forgetful, self-emptying love, never from selfishness or self-seeking. We must surrender ourselves in order to find the happiness we seek.
So do I like NFP? Nope. Sometimes I downright hate it. But maybe it can help me grow.