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.