Catholics Do What?, Contraception, Living Humanae Vitae, Marriage, NFP, Sex, Suffering

This couple went a year without sex (and lived to tell the tale): {Living Humanae Vitae part 1}

May 14, 2018

Our first contributor wishes to remain anonymous because of the personal nature of her piece, but was generous enough to share her story here. Following the back to back arrival of their 4 children, this couple laid their cards on the table and discerned that in light of the challenges presented by parenting, the aftereffects of pregnancy, and the husband’s mobility-impairing back injury, the best course of action for their marriage was to abstain entirely for an entire year postpartum while awaiting the return of fertility.

What follows is a thoughtful, candid, and inspiring glimpse into one couple’s year of marital abstinence. While this might not be everyone’s story, I know from the comments, emails, and messages I’ve fielded over the years that they are not alone in their struggle or in this seemingly radical decision to table sexual intimacy for a prolonged season.

I’ve heard plenty of arguments for the necessity of regular sex in marriage and I can see those eyes widening at the thought of an entire year of abstinence but…what about couples with a prolonged deployment? With a devastating medical diagnosis? With horrific injuries from a car accident?

The truth is there are plenty of circumstances that require radical fidelity and sometimes, yes, abstinence, throughout the course of a marriage. This is one such story, and you may find yourself surprised by the outcome…

We tiptoe around this. All the time. Heck, most of the time we can’t even keep abstinence, continence, chastity and celibacy straight.

We tiptoe around it when we talk about NFP. We raise eyebrows it and call it “using NFP to avoid a pregnancy.” We talk fertility and charting and real life and all that, but we don’t get nitty gritty.

Why? Well, because it’s too personal. Because it exposes fragile things and brave decisions that stay between a husband and a wife.

But. In the interest of encouraging the many other couples who are either thinking about this, worrying about this or living out this situation currently, I’m going to write, ever so obliquely, about what my husband and I decided was right and prudent for our family, for our sanity, and for our faith in the theology that is imprinted on our very bodies by God: we abstained from sex for an entire year.

It’s funny, writing it out like that now, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal since we’re past it. But at the time… whoa.

I have a theory that I’ve seen play out in my life and the lives of other Catholic women in the past few years: couples take NFP classes, get married, and begin having the world’s cutest babies. Then they have some more. And at some point, whether that’s at the second, third, fourth, fifth, or nineteenth kid, the parents say: UNCLE. We need a little break. And that’s when they get serious–truly serious–about charting and monitoring their fertility.

For us, that came after the birth of our forth cherub. My husband and I had a frank discussion about how we were feeling about more kids in the immediate future. The damage to his spine was flaring worse than ever, making the physicality of caring for little kids a real difficulty. For me, I had just delivered my fourth baby in six years. I felt depleted.

We both knew that the easiest time to get pregnant unintentionally is in the post-partum and nursing phase of fertility, before the menstrual cycle becomes regular again and while hormones are having a year-long fiesta of randomness.

We both felt like for the time being, we were not “open to life”—not forever, not for the rest of our marriage, but for the short term.

So we made the decision together: we’d abstain from sex for, more or less, a year.

How did we survive that? What do you do, when you’re not having sex?

I think in today’s society, we just take sex as a given and marital intimacy for granted. A man can’t really go a year without having sex, right? A couple can’t really be continent for that long, right? It’s impossible and cruel, right?

No, it’s not impossible. My husband and I are very much alive and in love–and the year-long drought is over, we’re both happy to say. And as far as it being cruel, it’s not. It’s actually the very opposite of cruel–it was one of the most loving, generous, uniting crosses we’ve carried together.

So many times during that year, when the kids were sick and the baby wouldn’t go to sleep and the world was caving in around us, I’d look at my husband and say, “I know this is all incredibly awful right now, but. BUT. It would all be so much harder if I was either pregnant or worried that I was pregnant.”

As Christians, we are called to lay down our lives for each other–and this is, as Jesus taught, the greatest possible love–the love that sacrifices. That’s what we did for a year–sacrificed. And yeah, we watched a lot of tv. HA! But there are no other ploys, tricks, shortcuts, loopholes or secrets to making it easier. The only thing that makes it easier is knowing it’d be harder if you were pregnant.

Well, I take that back. There was one other thing that got us through that year–and that was knowing that it would be, about, just a year. All my kids have pretty much weaned themselves at 12 months. And I knew from charting before being married (and during the space between my second and third babies) that my cycles, post-nursing, go back to being pretty standard, with obvious fertility markers.

And that brings us to now. Our baby is going to be 2 this summer, and due to that year of discipline (coupled with just using days post-ovulation), we’ve earned a little breathing room, and I’m not currently growing a baby. Praise hands.

This isn’t every couple’s story. Some women have zero reliable fertility markers. Some have more yellow stickers than Dr. Hilgers himself. There are about as many different crosses with NFP as there are couples who use it.

I offer this here because that year of abstinence, that was our cross. The crazy thing is though, if you ask my hubby or me about our best year yet as a couple together… we both say it was the past year. How is it that a sex-free year could be the best of your life?

Because intimacy is built one deep conversation at a time–one soul-barring, fear-challenging, dream-sharing conversation at a time. And since we weren’t being intimate in one sense, we learned to channel our vulnerability in other ways–but always toward each other.

It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t easy. It’s definitely definitely definitely not something we want to repeat. But we did grow.

YES, BUT HOW DO YOU HANDLE THE ABSTINENCE??? you say. Ok! I don’t know! You take it day by day! You talk to your sister, your friend, your facebook support group. You surround yourself with voices that tell you you can do this. You keep three things ever before you:

One, this is not forever.

Two, other people are in this same boat with me (send me an email! let’s tawk!).

Three, remember that we ask our priests to live celibate, continent lives EVERY DAY. Pick a priest during your desert experience and pray for his intentions.

For our wedding, a beloved priest and friend gave us a beautifully framed copy of the Exhortation Before Marriage. It was commonly read at weddings in place of a homily in the pre-Vatican II wedding rite. It fits this topic, and so many others:

No greater blessing can come to your married life than pure conjugal love, loyal and true to the end. May, then, this love with which you join your hands and hearts today never fail, but grow deeper and stronger as the years go on. And if true love and the unselfish spirit of perfect sacrifice guide your every action, you can expect the greatest measure of earthly happiness that may be allotted to man in this vale of tears. The rest is in the hands of God. Nor will God be wanting to your needs, he will pledge you the life-long support of his graces in the Holy Sacrament which you are now going to receive.

That exhortation sits on the dresser in our bedroom, which is pretty darn appropriate.

16 Comments

  • Reply Sarah May 14, 2018 at 7:59 am

    I am pretty pumped for this series. Hearing others stories, learning more about humans and thinking more deeply about how all this is truly lived in our world…it is just gonna be so good, if this first piece is any evidence (and I believe it is!).

  • Reply Kris Chatfield May 14, 2018 at 8:01 am

    Been there through 3 deployments. Even on visits home, we had to decide – did we want to be open to another pregnancy DURING deployment? Once, the answer was a resounding “yes!” Twice, the answer was a definite “no.” So even during very short leave periods, we had to make a conscious decision to abstain. It’s not impossible no matter how difficult it sounds, or feels, in the moment.

  • Reply Ari May 14, 2018 at 8:10 am

    Just finished one year of abstinence and starting on the second year…I had a miscarriage followed by a difficult, high-risk pregnancy. Rainbow baby is now about 4 months old. I have to take medication each time we are intimate in order to prevent chronic UTIs, and I cannot take said medication while pregnant or breastfeeding, so here we are. I’ve only been Catholic about a decade, and only married about 3 years. During our NFP trying-to-avoid days, then our NFP trying-to-conceive days, now our NFP total abstinence days…I’ve become convinced that very few people must practice NFP because it is SO SO difficult, and it seems No One talks about it, and if they do, no one mentions the possibility of prolonged abstinence…it’s all ‘second honeymoon’ talk. I’m sure before science was as advanced as it is now to track ovulation that those who wanted to avoid (seriously) had to abstain for months or even years as well. (I’m thinking of perhaps my grandmother’s generation.) I can see why people throw in the towel and contracept, get sterilized, etc. after reaching this point. It’s a great temptation. This is really hard.
    But sex is not a right, it’s a gift. Thanks for sharing.

  • Reply Colleen May 14, 2018 at 9:32 am

    You are amazing! Thank you for sharing your story, God bless you guys!

  • Reply Ashley May 14, 2018 at 11:10 am

    Thanks for sharing. This series is a gift! We didn’t set a specific timeframe but I’d say it was close-ish to a year for us. After my 3rd in under 4 years was a 10-pound emergency c-section, my body struggled to recover. I actually don’t find abstinence that hard, I’m sure it was much harder for my husband. I realize I’m probably an anomaly there! The hardest for me was feeling like I couldn’t tell anyone because we’re supposed to be having all the babies you can baby (or so I felt, anyway). Besides being sinful, I think using contraception at that time would have made my physical and emotional recovery much more difficult.

    • Reply L May 15, 2018 at 8:22 am

      Ashley, if you are an anomaly, then so am I. I’ve been nursing for a year. I do not find much joy in motherhood. I have no sex drive and no desire to mother another kid anytime soon. Total abstinence would be a gift to me, not a sacrifice for me. Maybe that will change if our kid weans, or if I find work that pays enough to justify daycare for two kids, or after this kid is in school full time. (Full background so nice this series is about NFP: We never did NFP. I was told that I would be one of those ladies who would not conceive without lots of shots and pills and charting. I got pregnant before my husband and I even had a chance to move in together. It was a happy surprise, but not one I’d like to repeat anytime soon.)

  • Reply Beth May 14, 2018 at 11:11 am

    Thank you for sharing this. I think one of the more damaging parts of our culture is the sex anywhere/anytime/all of the time. And how its shown in movies/tv shows. My husband and I have had extended periods of time of abstinence and sometimes I just thought there was something wrong with me and us. Thank you for being willing to share your story.

  • Reply M May 14, 2018 at 12:50 pm

    So good! Thanks for being brave enough to share! Sometimes talking about nfp is rough because there’s always someone ready to discount your struggles. Currently recovering from a second c-section in 1.5 years & I really need an extended period of recovery. (If one more person tells me their great-aunt/Sister/friend had 8 csections & was totally fine, I may lose it! Ha). Especially since it’s so hard to care for your existing children, while also trying to recover from surgery. The extended family close to us has been experiencing severe illness so we’ve been on our own more than I anticipated. Your story is so encouraging!

  • Reply Sj May 14, 2018 at 4:05 pm

    Jenny, any possibility of turning this series into a book?

  • Reply Bridget May 14, 2018 at 9:14 pm

    Thank you for this post! I had a child birth injury with my first. Sex wasn’t an option between the injury, surgery months later, and recovery from surgery of area. Having practiced nfp and abstaining until we were married was great practice for this difficult time in life. Sex is a great, wonderful part of marriage! But it’s also not the end-all, be-all. Our relationship is so so much more than just sex.

  • Reply Anonymous May 14, 2018 at 10:23 pm

    I’ve been so excited to read this series and I was happy to see that the first installment was about abstinence within NFP! My husband and I are in a unique situation although for the past year I’ve been wondering if there are others out there like us who have to abstain for an extended period for one reason or another. I have two young children, and each delivery included life-threatening complications. After the birth of my youngest, my doctor urged me not to have any more children, both for my health/safety and for that of the baby. She actually said that this was of grave importance. She’s a Catholic doctor and I do believe she has my best interests at heart, so I trust her. However, this presented quite a quandary to my husband and I! We’ve been using NFP up until now, and know we still can use it to avoid…however, I ask myself…am I really open to life if I’ve been told I shouldn’t get pregnant and therefore will be trying the rest of my life to avoid? If we did by chance conceive, then what? I don’t want to jeopardize my life or that of an unborn child’s. I think of the little ones I have now and I want to be there for them. So, since my baby was born, we’ve abstained. It’s been nearly a year. It is certainly a cross but we believe it’s the right thing, fully embracing the Church’s teaching. Glad to see that there are others out there like us also carrying similar crosses! Thank you for sharing these stories, they are encouraging.

  • Reply Kristy Regester May 15, 2018 at 3:58 am

    I am so excited and grateful to read other people’s stories about living our Faith. Thank you for this series! I am looking forward to it.

  • Reply Shannon Hernandez May 15, 2018 at 7:54 am

    After our sixth baby was born, and we learned that child number four had autism, we discerned that our family was complete (though we certainly would have accepted another child had He chosen to send us one!). We were 42 and 45 at the time. So we decided that we would not be intimate during the pre-ovulatory phase but only after we had definitive signs that ovulation had occurred. In the immediate post-partum period, that meant several (maybe 8?) months of abstinence while my cycles got back to normal. After that, it meant we had about a week to 10 days available for intimacy during most cycles. The months of abstinence were hard, but reserving relations for the post-ovulatory phase was really not too hard at all. We used the sympto thermal method and relied on both the mucus sign and especially the temperature sign, and we usually waited one extra day for added certainty. I would encourage anyone with very serious reasons to avoid pregnancy to look into this option. Assuming you can tell when you ovulate using your preferred method, this is a very reliable rule to follow–I believe it is the same effectiveness as the most effective contraceptives. It’s been 10 years for us, and we are so glad we stayed the course and did not give into the temptation to surgical sterility. Practicing periodic abstinence really is a training in virtue and has helped us grow together in love and in our faith. God is always good and faithful; He will never abandon us! Blessings to all, and keep fighting the good fight!

    • Reply L May 15, 2018 at 12:57 pm

      I appreciate your story so much! My husband and I are both 43 and have discerned that our family is complete. Not for a season, not for now, but for good. Of course, we’re still using NFP and leaving room for Gods will, but we are no longer having monthly discussions about avoiding vs. being open. We’re just avoiding pregnancy. I’ve never seen or heard anyone talk about the end of the road and have scoured the internet for support and guidance, only to find 30 something year old bloggers writing about the early and middle years of fertility. Thank you for sharing! May we all have the perseverance to stay the course. God bless!

  • Reply TooPersonalToPostMyRealName May 15, 2018 at 8:44 am

    Thank you, Anonymous Couple, for sharing your story with us! It’s been encouraging for my husband and I as we’re in a almost year long period of abstinence ourselves for a 2nd time (thankfully the stretches haven’t been back to back) and probably will be for longer until our newest baby weans and my cycle returns. Yes, there are some great nfp methods out there but I’m someone who can’t reliably use the same biomarkers as every one else due to low progesterone and I do have a napro gyne plus have tried both creighton and stm with plenty of training. I know two other moms my age (20s) who know plenty about how to use nfp to avoid pregnancy but have still abstained for different reasons …basically the sureness that they won’t conceive at a time when it would be difficult for them to handle another baby (e.g when husband in job transition or far away from family or pregnancies tend to be high risk-that and more are just some of the reasons for us). Still, it’s good to see a testimony like this on the web. Looking forward to trying marquette if low progesterone doesn’t skew it like it does mucus readings and to having more children when God shows us it’s the right time. We have two who are 2 and under so reading body temperature as a biomarker is totally out of the question : D

  • Reply Jen @ Surprised by Marriage May 15, 2018 at 3:58 pm

    “And since we weren’t being intimate in one sense, we learned to channel our vulnerability in other ways–but always toward each other.” This has been our experience with abstinence too! Totally hard in the moment, but the payoff is worth it.

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