Trigger warning: Spousal abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, pornography addiction
Part II: Advice for NFP instructors and couples preparing for marriage
The following is Part II of writer Jeanette Flood’s two-part interview with Rita*, a woman who survived an abusive marriage, in which her husband was taking advantage of their use of natural family planning (NFP) to abuse and manipulate her. We are sharing Rita’s story in honor of April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Read Part I of Rita’s story here.
The following interview between Rita (*a pseudonym) and writer Jeanette Flood has been lightly edited for clarity and to provide context where needed.
When asked what advice she would give, or what NFP instructors could tell brides and/or couples to prevent the kinds of things that happened to her from happening to them, Rita responds with the following:
“I think that preparing NFP instructors to help couples is a good idea. I think because so many Natural Family Planning users come from a traditional Christian background, especially a Catholic background, I think it is helpful for clergy and for those who are active in moral instruction about sex, to say that it is okay for husbands and wives to say ‘no,’ even though the other spouse is in the mood, and to say there’s no judgement if you want to say ‘no.’ You’re not withholding, you’re just saying ‘no.’”
It’s okay to say ‘no’ to sex
“And also,” continues Rita, “to let couples who are preparing for marriage, to let them know that just because one spouse is in the mood for sex, it doesn’t mean you have to have sex. The spouse that’s in the mood doesn’t have to approach the other spouse. And for the one who is receiving the request, it’s okay to say ‘no.’”
“I think that that’s one of the things that I was kind of hung up on, was that if my husband said he was in the mood, I had to have sex or else I was rejecting him, and that there was somehow some sort of sin or moral element involved that made it bad for me to say ‘no’ to my husband’s sexual advances. And I think that if Natural Family Planning instructors who are in a religious environment can support that idea, and literally tell couples that ‘It’s not going to damage your sexual relationship to say ‘no’ to sex,’ that that would go a long way.”
“And it doesn’t have to be about fertility,” Rita points out. That is, saying “no” doesn’t have to only be about family planning; that there are other, equally valid reasons to say “no” to sex.
“You know, let’s say you already have children,” says Rita. “The kids are needy, and I can’t have sex with you tonight. ‘I’m tired’ is a valid excuse. ‘It was a rough day’ is a valid excuse. There’s a lot of marriage advice, again, especially in the traditional Christian world, saying that you need to make time for your spouse, you shouldn’t let your kids dictate the dynamic of your marriage, you know, you should make sure that your relationship with your spouse takes priority over your relationship with your kids.”
“All of this advice really puts the pressure, especially on wives, to make sure that the kids are happy, so that she can keep her husband happy. And I think that NFP instructors really need to make sure couples, especially young couples, know that taking time off of sex, or saying ‘no’ to sex, is not going to damage their relationship. And then being able to provide examples of what a healthy ‘no,’ and respect, and open and honest communication about sex, not just about spacing children, would look like.”
‘Yes’ is not the default when it comes to sex
“Because I think that’s another thing too, in NFP,” continues Rita, “that there’s this focus on not having sex just because you don’t want children yet. And I think that it would be helpful if NFP instructors could have more background in healthy sexual dynamics, and so not presenting to young couples that the default answer for sex is always ‘yes.’”
“And,” continues Rita, “instructors should say that each sexual encounter that a husband and wife has is unique, as it were, that there’s never a presumption of ‘yes,’ or a presumption of ‘no,’ but just a conversation about, ‘How are we both feeling tonight?’ And if there’s that freedom of ‘How are we feeling tonight?’ and also, ‘What is our family situation like?,’ I think that that will help facilitate healthier conversations between couples.”
In other words, sex is never a “given,” but a gift that is always freely given, each and every time.
How NFP could help prevent women from entering abusive relationships
“I actually have a friend,” Rita shares, “where she and her husband are Couple to Couple League instructors. And I think they had a young couple that was referred to them because they were going through Pre-Cana; in our diocese, a Pre-Cana couple will take the first class from the Couple to Couple League, and that fulfills the requirement for Pre-Cana, but they only need to take the rest of the classes in the series if they want to.”
“And with this one young couple my friends were mentoring, when the question came up that with Natural Family Planning, there could be times in their marriage where they likely wouldn’t have sex, the male fiancé really got upset about that idea. And he was like, ‘No, I don’t think that you should have reasons for not having sex. Like, we’re married, we’re having sex, right?’”
“After a while, my friend decided to follow up with the couple to see if, you know, they were going to sign up for the rest of the classes in the series, and the woman said, ‘No, we won’t be taking the classes. We broke up.’ Because she saw that his response about not having sex was a real eye-opener for her, that this was not going to be a healthy dynamic if he won’t be okay with me saying ‘no,’ or for there to be a situation where we wouldn’t have sex.”
There will be times in any marriage when you can’t have sex
“Which kind of brings me back to a part of my experience,” continues Rita, “because there are other times when a couple wouldn’t have sex, for example, during the postpartum period. You know, most doctors will recommend a minimum of four weeks, ideally six weeks, where a woman would have complete pelvic rest and no sexual activity after a baby is born. My husband did not respect that. And so, I think that maybe even mentioning that in a class–in a Couple to Couple League class or other NFP class–that couples are going to have times where they aren’t having sex, and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with waiting to have more babies.”
Rita makes the excellent point that this is not unique to couples using NFP. She says, “Even contracepting couples, even couples who use sterilization, will have times if they have a baby, where they will not have sex. There will be times when the baby’s up all night screaming, and everybody’s tired the next day, and they won’t have sex. Or, you know, a kid is sick, and they start to have sex, and then a kid throws up, and it’s like, okay, welp, that’s gone. Or at a very minimum, you know, the postpartum period. Six weeks of no sex.”
“And if a husband cannot come to grips, or if a boyfriend can’t come to grips with the fact that there is going to be at least one time in my marriage where I will have to go for six weeks without any sex… either he would have to say, ‘Is that worth it?’ Or a woman would look at her boyfriend’s response, and have to, you know, look honestly and go, ‘Am I willing to marry somebody who is getting upset at the idea of not having sex for six weeks?’ And also, have the courage to not be in denial and say, ‘Well, maybe after we’ve gotten married and he’s settled down, things will be different.’”
Additional training for NFP instructors may be warranted
Rita concludes her advice with a suggestion that NFP instructors familiarize themselves with the warning signs for domestic abuse.
“Since most NFP instructors don’t just do classroom instruction, they do consultations and on-on-one,” Rita says, “it might be helpful if they hear, especially from a woman, ‘I’m really concerned about my boyfriend’s response to this, or my husband’s response,’ that the NFP instructors not only listen, but that they are prepared, and understand about the dynamics of relationship abuse. Then, they may be able to help a woman who may be going into an abusive relationship. So, maybe some training in identifying domestic violence might be warranted when NFP facilitators are themselves being trained.”
We at Natural Womanhood are incredibly thankful to Rita for sharing her story and her sage advice with us. We believe that Rita’s story shows that while NFP has the potential to be used for abuse, it can also reveal problems in a relationship that could help a woman avoid entering into an abusive marriage if she has the right guidance during premarital counseling. What is also clear from Rita’s story, is that offering nothing but birth control to a woman in an abusive relationship is a cop-out of the worst kind, as the birth control itself may help hide evidence of abuse.
Finally, we encourage those who teach natural family planning or fertility awareness to couples (including any clergy who participate in premarital or Pre-Cana counseling) to familiarize themselves with the warning signs for abuse that Rita discusses above, and to communicate clearly with their couples about sexual expectations rooted in love of the other (not use), and the need for respectful abstinence in marriage–no matter what method they use for family planning.
Betrayal, Trauma, Recovery
Catholics for Family Peace
Fight the New Drug