Sex & Relationships

Dear Edith: My Crazy Cycles are Making NFP a Nightmare

April 23, 2020

Dear Edith,

My husband and I practice a fertility awareness-based method (FABM) to cooperatively plan our family. Because of our situation, it’s important that we postpone conception (though our hearts ache to welcome another child). Because of my cycles, we have limited opportunities for sex and sometimes need to abstain for several months.

I’m working with health professionals who have top credentials in my FABM and I’m open to other methods, but it’s been over a year, and progress in clarifying my cycles is real but slow. Meanwhile, it feels like sex is a rare exception to charting that generally indicates it’s not prudent to have sex, given our present need to avoid conception and my hard-to-diagnose cycles.

Praying is good — really good, even when it doesn’t feel good. I know that suffering is formative. We read Simcha Fisher’s book (The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning) and Holy Sex, and we treasure the works of St. John Paul II. Our choice to use NFP has led to incredible trust, healing, and delight in our marriage. I see that I have an unspeakably good gift: My husband labors to find ways for us to be close. He’s confused and disappointed, too.

Now that sex has become a rare exception to the norm, we’re a step beyond just needing a reminder about the good of self-control. It’s hard to live weeks on end with one’s spouse, sleeping in the same bed and knowing that sex would be (at this time) an unwise choice for us and unloving toward a potential child. Many normal forms of affection are too much when you know that you can’t have sex for a month.

I’d ditch my charts, but it wouldn’t help. I’m committed to cooperating with my fertility. I’ve asked professionals in the NFP world for resources for couples who need to abstain for really long periods. So far, no one has been able to make recommendations. We’re tired and sad. I’m angry and feel abandoned by the Church and the NFP world. Can you recommend resources for support?

Sincerely,

Anonymous

Support While TTA Response #1 — Samantha

Dear Anonymous,

Reading your letter, I feel for you. I cannot know your situation, but I want to affirm that there are good and holy reasons to avoid conceiving a child. This decision is for you and your husband to discern, with the light of the Holy Spirit, in your present circumstances.

I cannot know your situation, but I can share with you mine. It may not be what you need to hear or be a direct solution to your struggles. But it might make you feel less alone, to sit with my words as I share them with you as I would a friend. Please reach out if you’d like to talk more!

As I sit writing this, I am 37 weeks pregnant with our third child. Like you, we deeply desired to grow our family, but we had cause to reconsider those plans. During my last pregnancy, I developed bilateral pulmonary embolisms, life-threatening blood clots in my lungs, due to a genetic disorder. The preventative measures we took failed to protect me. Thankfully, it all turned out alright. Our second child, a son, was born healthy — the happiest baby I know.

But this health condition threw a wrench in our plans for our family. We wanted more children, but we hesitated. I felt guilty for these desires; how could I choose to put myself in danger when these little ones need me? Were these blessings not enough for me? We were stuck in a land of ambivalence, not sure what we should choose, postponing the decision because it was “too soon” to have another anyway.

We were stuck in a land of ambivalence, not sure what we should choose, postponing the decision because it was “too soon” to have another anyway.

And then the line turned pink.

For weeks, I reveled in the joy of the thought of another baby, the guilt of “choosing” to put myself in danger lifted. I had thought I was a bad mother for wanting another child, more children even. In response, God sent us a child, an affirmation that our desire to welcome new life was not selfish but born out of love.

I know the pain of being separated from your husband when you want to revel in that embrace. I know that sometimes, going without sex is something about which we don’t have a choice. We need resources that strengthen us for these times. You’re reading, you’re praying, and you are weathering this storm. Your willingness to embrace the suffering of this time is beautiful.

You’re reading, you’re praying, and you are weathering this storm. Your willingness to embrace the suffering of this time is beautiful.

I wish I could offer you more. Phrases like, “This won’t last forever” and, “God is doing something beautiful in this time” might be true, but they can also fall flat in the face of pain. And I know you already know these things.

I can share that God has used this time and the stories of other women to change my heart. Before this pregnancy, I felt trapped by the world’s paradigm that welcoming children into the world is a choice completely within my control. I felt that I had to responsibly discern, choose, and execute what was definitively right for our family. Although we, too, have experienced the beauty of exercising openness to life in our marriage, I felt like that openness was no longer a loving option given the risks.

God invited us into a different paradigm with the gift of this baby, our Noah. During this pregnancy, I’ve been privileged to read the stories of two other women, Danielle Bean and Jennifer Fulwiler. For both of them, God took their openness to life and used it to lead them beyond what they expected for themselves. Reading their words has led me deeper into trusting the plans the Lord has for us.

God invited us into a different paradigm with the gift of this baby, our Noah.

I don’t expect that God wants to shift your perspective or alter your decision to avoid pregnancy. I couldn’t possibly know what the situation is for your family. But I do know that fear is not of God. The illusion that we can control our lives to the degree the world tells us is a lie. Holding onto these things put me in a trap of my own making. As I learn to let go, I am filled with joy and gratitude. I hope and pray that through this trial, God brings you to greater freedom and deeper love.

Fear is not of God. The illusion that we can control our lives to the degree the world tells us is a lie.

For further reading, the books I referenced here are Giving Thanks and Letting Go by Danielle Bean and One Beautiful Dream by Jennifer Fulwiler.

Support While TTA Response #2 — Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

First, I want to offer some solidarity in what you’re going through. Sometimes, especially in the Catholic-sphere, NFP is portrayed as some magical panacea with only brief windows of abstinence. Perhaps there are some lucky couples out there who have only had easy-breezy cycles and brief windows of abstinence — but if they exist, I’ve certainly never met them.

My husband and I very quickly jumped into what I call “the deep end” of NFP.  After a year of charting beautiful, perfect 28-day cycles with clear fertile windows, we were confident that the time we had put into learning NFP while engaged would make the transition to marriage so much easier.

Oh, how unprepared we were. The month we got married, my cycles went haywire.  First, our wedding night was no longer a “green” day (I cried when I did the math), and then each subsequent cycle only became more confusing. Our first six to 12 months of marriage were spent with endless fertile days interspersed with the occasional week when intimacy was possible. We saw posts about NFP online touting the “Only seven days of abstinence a month!” claims and roll our eyes — we had seven days of intimacy every other month, if we were lucky. Sex, as you share in your post, became a “rare exception” for us for weeks and months at a time.

I can share the few things that have helped us weather long periods of abstinence; you may be doing most of these things already.

1. Make an “Exit” Plan

We had discerned the need to postpone pregnancy for the first two years of marriage as my husband finished a graduate degree and I worked as the primary breadwinner. It was discouraging to see the months stretch out ahead of us when we were stuck in a pattern of strictly “trying to avoid.” Especially as my cycles became more frustrating, I found myself overwhelmed at the idea of doing this for another two full years.

I ended up making a calendar of the next 20 months and sat down with my husband to plan out which months we needed to “strictly” avoid pregnancy and which months we may be able to lean more toward “trying to whatever.” For example, it seemed important that I not go into labor during his dissertation defense, so we were strict in our practice of NFP about nine months before that date. However, we could make things work if a child came along the summer after his graduation (although it wouldn’t be ideal), so we agreed to be less exacting in our charting that month.

Doing this let me breathe a sigh of relief that frequent abstinence wouldn’t last forever. It was just a season in our long lives together and would eventually come to an end.

Frequent abstinence wouldn’t last forever. It was just a season in our long lives together and would eventually come to an end.

I’m not sure what your “exit plan” might look like. Maybe it’s calendar-based, as ours was, with a clear timeline of when you can switch to trying to conceive. Perhaps your plan is more goals-based, with a list of concrete obstacles you need to clear out of the way. Either way, I recommend writing it down somewhere so you can check it often and remember that this season of avoiding pregnancy isn’t forever.

2. Treat Yo’ Self

When I’m trying to get myself out the door for a run, I have a special podcast or audiobook that I’m only “allowed” to listen to while running. It doesn’t completely remove the fact that running is awful, but it does make it bearable, because I get to listen to the next episode of Armchair Expert or find out what happens next in The Name of the Wind.

My husband and I have adopted a similar strategy for long stretches of abstinence: We pick something special or new to treat ourselves to and only allow ourselves to enjoy it during Phase 2. We might choose a new book to read out loud to each other, buy a new video game to play, or choose a new kind of cuisine to perfect.

Of course, no book or treat will come close to comparing with sex with your spouse. However, it gives us something to do while we wait and a way to connect when we can’t be together physically.

Of course, no book or treat will come close to comparing with sex with your spouse. However, it gives us something to do while we wait and a way to connect when we can’t be together physically.

3. Find Your Village

I am unspeakably lucky to know women who are in the same stage of life as I am and with whom I can talk openly and honestly about practicing NFP in our marriages. They are my lifeline and a constant reminder that we are not the only couple bearing difficult crosses.

You mention feeling abandoned by the Church and NFP world; do you have other couples you can lean on for support? If not, I encourage you to start those conversations with other wives at your parish. We have a married couples’ group that has been life-giving to us as we navigate the realities of marriage. If your church doesn’t have such a group, consider starting one! I think you would be surprised to find how many other couples also struggle with NFP (although perhaps not to the degree that you and your husband are) but who don’t know how to talk about it.

I think you would be surprised to find how many other couples also struggle with NFP but who don’t know how to talk about it.

There are also Facebook groups for all sorts of NFP situations; some groups are more helpful than others, so your mileage may vary, but they can be a good starting point for finding like-minded Catholics.

4. Get Physical

I agree that lots of physical affection can be too much to handle when you have weeks of abstinence ahead of you, but I’ve found it essential to continue being flirty and affectionate even when we can’t have sex.

Of course, only you and your husband know where you need to draw the line in order for things to not get carried away. Abstaining is so much harder when it feels like you’re just roommates, existing in the same home without any of the romance and intimacy that are vital in a marriage.

Abstaining is so much harder when it feels like you’re just roommates, existing in the same home without any of the romance and intimacy that are vital in a marriage.

So, we make eyes at each other like the cheesiest of lovebirds and let ourselves get a little carried away on occasion (without violating Church teaching, of course). We steal passionate kisses that leave us breathless and cursing our luck that we can’t go further.  We make out like teenagers until one of us has to leave the room to take a cold shower.  And we laugh a lot at the absurdity of being so in love and so very sexually frustrated.

5. Embrace the Cross

Finally: There’s no getting around the fact that this is a cross, plain and simple. There are things you can do to make it seem a bit more bearable, but at the end of the day, the need to abstain for long periods at a time is sacrificial. It is an encounter with suffering.

I don’t say that to discourage you but, rather, to affirm that your struggles are real. And, unfortunately, your lament at a lack of resources is partly because there is not much to be done about this kind of suffering except to just bear it. It’s not dramatically different from suffering the loss of a loved one, the decline of old age, or the suffocating fears of a global pandemic: There are no easy fixes or quick cures.

Unfortunately, your lament at a lack of resources is partly because there is not much to be done about this kind of suffering except to just bear it.

Allow yourself to be sad and angry. Shake your fist at the heavens, if you need to. It’s OK to find this season challenging.

This author would like to remain anonymous.

Support While TTA Response #3 — Ginnie

Dear Anonymous,

When you wrote in with your Dear Edith question, you began by stating your desire to welcome another child while still needing to TTA. You shared how you are working with top medical professionals to remedy your health issues. You suggested that you already know the goodness of NFP, prayer, and the other things people recommend when NFP gets hard.

In short: You already know that you are in a hard place, and you’ve tried everything. I get that, and I commend you for being open and vulnerable with us. You already know “the answers,” and they just aren't enough right now. That’s OK. Before I continue, please allow me to validate the difficulties you might be facing.

Right now, life is hard. Specifically, sex is rare, and your NFP charts tell you that having sex with your husband could result in a pregnancy, which is not prudent in your life at this moment. All of this hurts a great deal, as should be expected from such a difficult circumstance. Not only that, but switching to TTC may lead to its own set of problems. Talk about a rock and a hard place.

It’s OK to say all of this out loud to God, to yourself, and even to your husband in the spirit of camaraderie. Life shouldn’t suck all of the time, and when it feels like it does, it takes more out of us than we may be able to handle.

It’s OK to say all of this out loud to God, to yourself, and even to your husband in the spirit of camaraderie.

If you are still searching for a way to “fix” the problem of prolonged abstinence, I am happy to share some ideas (take it from someone who learned NFP while breastfeeding postpartum with an undiagnosed mental illness). Medical help is great, but sometimes, it needs support from holistic lifestyle changes, which allow the medicine to work at its fullest potential and give you the most benefits possible. One client of mine implemented light elimination therapy at my suggestion (sleeping in natural darkness, with no artificial light coming into the sleeping environment), and her hundreds-day-long cycles shortened to where they were still long-ish but much easier to chart. This is just one example of a simple, inexpensive change to make in a difficult circumstance.

Medical help is great, but sometimes, it needs support from holistic lifestyle changes.

If you are not looking to add more to your health regimen, perhaps this idea can ease the pain just a little: When awaiting those rare nights of lovemaking, you and your husband can have a jar to fill with your anticipations, hopes, and ideas concerning your love and sex life. Perhaps a few of them are prayers for yourself and your husband — or even stupid jokes! Whatever you wish. Add at least one note a day, but write as much as you and your husband like. If you ever need a pick-me-up, reach into the jar and enjoy a glimmer of positivity, intimacy, and silliness to get through that day.

My response alone can not guarantee that your situation improves. I also won't pretend that my suggestions will help right away — or at all. Even so, I pray that this season will end for you sooner rather than later. May it become a distant memory that forms your marriage into something wonderful.

Yours truly,

Ginnie

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