Last week I received a question regarding condoms. Although the comment was quite snarky in tone, I felt the underlying question was a good one—and one worth addressing. I have discussed my disdain for hormonal contraception at length on both this blog and on my youtube vlog, but I have not yet addressed non-hormonal forms of birth control.
So what about condoms to prevent pregnancy? Why learn Natural Family Planning (NFP) when non-hormonal forms of birth control are available? The short answer to that is that NFP is not merely one form of several methods of birth control. NFP is much more, even aside from its ability to be used to conceive as well as to avoid pregnancy. Primarily, I think, NFP is a way of communicating with your partner.
I don't think it is a coincidence that the divorce rate for couples who practice NFP is around 1%, compared to about 50% for the rest of the US. (Sorry, I don't have statistics for other countries.) I've heard one woman say, "If you can talk about cervical mucus, you can talk about anything." She said it jokingly but I think it's true. I have sometimes felt there is an openess that my husband and I have with each other that I haven't often observed in other couples. And in the few other NFP couples I know, they all seem to have above-average marriages. Their closeness, their ability to be a good partner, and their respect for each other is apparent. For myself, I know my husband's maturity in hearing about my very intimate bodily functions helps me trust him with my intimate thoughts and feelings. In this culture in which so many women feel enormous pressure to act and look a certain way—and many even from their partners—I feel extremely grateful for being loved as I am for who I am.
I think there is more to it than just this though. In the practice of NFP something else seems to happen. Firstly, my husband and I communicate nightly about my body and what phase of my cycle I am in. And, inevitably, at least monthly, we talk about how our lives are going, our feelings about more children and why or why not we want more. These discussions have led us to discussing our finances and making plans together about how we could afford to have another child. Another time, this led to a discussion about my feelings regarding my miscarriage and my fear that maybe I was just wanting another child so I wouldn't have to deal with the pain of losing the one. On another occasion I was surprised to discover that my husband was considering not staying at his dream job for the rest of his life, but was thinking that he would go elsewhere in five years if he was not satisfied with the pay at that time. Another time my husband shared that he didn't want more children right now because he felt he had all he could handle. So then we discussed ways to lighten his load. In other words, we discuss our lives frequently and share our inner worlds and deeply intimate thoughts and feelings, and when we're planning and imagining our future, we're planning it together. Though some people divorce because they feel they have grown apart, it seems NFP couples don't have that opportunity.
In my own experience, I know that there were times that if my husband and I could have had sex, we would have, but we were abstaining that week, and we ended up getting in the most profound and deep conversation—the kind where my eyes were opened to another facet of my husband that I didn't know was there before, and I felt I had another piece of him with which to fall in love.
In a way, even though my husband and I have never contracepted, I feel that I have experienced what contracepting couples do—the ability to have sex whenever desired without concern about pregnancy. Due to nine months of pregnancy and at least six months of postpartum infertility because of breastfeeding, my husband and I have had years where we didn't chart my signs or abstain from sex monthly. Aside from the period immediately following childbirth, any other time was possibly a go. To be honest, though, I actually looked forward to the time when my fertility would return and we would get back in the rhythm, the ebb and flow of my monthly cycle. Why? Because, although I hesitate to admit it, sex became kind of boring and routine. At times I felt taken for granted and I missed the closeness I felt during those frequent sharing sessions that just didn't seem to happen as often anymore.
Perhaps this would be a good time to describe what we experience monthly. In Phase I, when I menstruate, I naturally feel more withdrawn and I want to contemplate and reflect. My husband respects my need for more solitude and my need to be with myself. Also, as I do not have as much energy at this time, he is very good about helping out more around the house and taking burdens off me to allow me more rest. We don't usually have sex when I menstruate partly because it's messy, but mostly because neither of us is in the mood. As I said, my body pulls me inward and I seek solitude.
After my period ends, but before I begin my fertile phase, we can have sex every other day. This is because if seminal residue is present it can be difficult to make observations regarding my cervical mucus. I have more energy and am more sociable than when I was menstruating. There is kind of an excitement about sex as we know that there is a limited number of days before I begin my fertile phase.
Phase II begins the time when having sex might lead to pregnancy. If we are avoiding pregnancy, then we abstain from sex. Physiologically, my body basically goes into baby-making mode. This is the time when I am most attracted to my husband and I feel most nurturing, selfless, and giving. Consequently, perhaps because I am so amiable, loving, and pleasant, this is also the time when my husband really wants me too. Sounds like a recipe for a lot of sexual frustration, right?
Though it does require some sacrifice (most things worth anything do), I've really come to look forward to this phase. NFP encourages couples to nurture their relationship without genital contact at this time. Coincidentally, many of our greatest conversations seem to happen when I'm fertile. And, our relationship has this energy to it too, like when we first started dating. My husband is really attracted to me and I feel like the most beautiful woman on the planet. I feel so wanted and cherished at this time. My husband is really affectionate, and since we both know we can't have sex, I know he isn't coming around just because he wants some, but because he actually just likes me for me. And more than that, he is actually sacrificing something he wants for the benefit of my physical health and for the health of our marriage. I feel really valuable because of this, knowing he considers me worth the sacrifice. We consciously interact with each other as friends and persons, and nurturing the other aspects of our relationship really makes it healthy.
Then in Phase III, when I'm no longer fertile—it's a green light anytime, anywhere (well, maybe not ANYwhere) until I begin my period. For me, this phase lasts about a week and a half. I've heard NFP promoters say, "What's not to love about NFP? You get a honeymoon every month!" I think this is also true. When Phase III begins, we act like newlyweds. We've spent a week anticipating and desiring each other and now it's a go. Boring and routine sex? What's that? Sex is exciting and passionate. Aiding the excitement and passion is the fact that we have just spent a week doing nurturing, thoughtful, and loving things for each other and have spent time nurturing our friendship. And about the time when we've had all we want for awhile, my period begins and the cycle repeats.
Perhaps I have a new slogan: Do you feel the need to spice up your marriage? No need to go to the adult toy store, just learn NFP! Well, maybe that's a little corny. (But it's still true.)
Slogans aside, the more I learn to notice, listen to, and respect the natural rhythms of my body, whether in childbirth, breastfeeding, or menstruation, the more respect I have for myself; the more whole I feel. It seems that so often in this culture women are asked to change or compromise themselves to fit in, or to be whatever others say we should be. NFP takes a woman, and rather than asking her to change herself, invites both sexes to change their perceptions of any so-called flaws. It asks us to overcome the initial shock and learning curve of living peacefully with ourselves, and to truly live and experience the wisdom and freedom of being our natural selves.