Numerous studies show that the large majority of couples who practice NFP feel it improves their marital relationships, and that even with the periodic abstinence required by such methods, they are satisfied with the frequency of intercourse. However, in one study, 19% of men reported that periodic abstinence is often difficult (Fehring, 2016). Furthermore, in another study, nine percent of couples felt that their relationship was hindered by NFP (Unseld, 2017).
Anecdotal evidence confirms that for some couples, NFP can represent an outsized challenge. For example, one of our readers wrote to us recently:
“NFP is a huge struggle. My husband follows along and understands why contraception is wrong, but disagrees that we can’t do whatever we want outside of intercourse during the fertile time. This has become a huge issue. He is angry all the time about it, and I am frustrated and sad.”
Another couple says they’re on the brink of divorce because the husband believes in using NFP only, and his wife (who has serious health conditions that would make a pregnancy life-threatening) refuses to have sex without any additional protection.
The periodic abstinence required by NFP methods can be a challenge for both partners, but particularly for men whose sexual drive is not cyclical like women’s. In fact, some users find that the times they can’t have sex is a heavy burden. For some it can feel downright unbearable, and it can lead to marital conflict and resentment. What can be done?
This article is not the ultimate reference or prescription on this broad topic, but I would like to offer some considerations that could hopefully help many men and couples maintain a healthy relationship while continuing to practice NFP.
Start with the basics of NFP practice
People who were used to contraception before making the switch to NFP may think that NFP is the problem, but it’s not. It is a road towards healthier and deeper relationships if it is properly understood and practiced.
First, gaining confidence in your chosen method will definitely help, as fear of pregnancy can be a major hurdle to enjoying sex or wanting it in the first place. If you or your wife are not fully confident in the effectiveness of your method, here are two questions to consider:
- Are you using the best method for your current situation? Some NFP methods work for some couples during certain seasons of life, but changes in life circumstances (like after a baby is born, during times of illness, etc.) may lead them to reconsider and explore a different approach. That is okay, and everyone should feel encouraged and empowered to find the right NFP method for them at the right time.
- Are you getting help from a good NFP instructor or coach? A trained instructor can help you and your spouse implement proper charting practices and assist in better interpretation of your charts, which will give you much more confidence in the method’s effectiveness.
Men need to be involved—it’s not optional!
Another important change to make is for the man to be involved in the charting process if he has previously been hands-off. Why is it so important for the man to take an active role in charting? Because it makes it a shared responsibility between the couple, rather than placing the burden entirely upon the woman. When a woman feels like it’s all up to her to determine whether they are “safe” to engage in sex or not, it can breed resentment, making her feel like she’s the gatekeeper to sex, and the “bad guy” for having to say “no” when she is fertile—even if the couple agrees they want to postpone pregnancy for the time-being. It can also place undue, sole pressure on the woman to get her charting exactly right, lest she make a mistake and end up getting pregnant as a result; an unfair burden for one when it takes two to make a baby.
Charting together helps men take ownership over their shared fertility as a couple, and gives them an opportunity to more deeply connect with their wives, which is an important step towards a more intimate relationship. If we’re really honest, women are a mystery to us men (not in a bad way!), and they can be guarded. We, men, are longing for intimacy (even more than sex), and are not always very good at achieving it. The simple practice of taking time at the end of the day to help your wife record her fertile signs from that day, and working together to determine what that means for your ability to get pregnant, can give us men a window into our wife’s life and health that will help us understand and love her better. It can also help in discussions about sex, as a natural starting point.
A man’s self-control of his sexual drive is a condition not just for enjoyment of NFP, but more generally his wellbeing and a fulfilling, intimate relationship with his wife. Yet gaining this self-control can be a challenge, especially in a culture where the opposite is encouraged, and temptations to indulge abound.
For those struggling in this area, it may be useful to understand the dynamic of sexual desire and satisfaction. In an article on the issue of pornography, psychiatrist Kevin Majeres explains that two different parts of our brains play a role in our sexual behavior. The lower part of our brains (the lower cortex) is the place where our animal instincts, memories, feelings, and rewards centers are active. The upper part of our brains (the upper cortex) is where “rational thought occurs; free will, abstract reasoning, morals” .
Dr. Majeres further explains that sexual drive is a very powerful instinct among animals, stronger than eating or drinking, for example. In fact, animals will be ready to kill in order to reproduce. In addition, males’ sexual drive is stimulated by diversity of partners, a phenomenon called the Coolidge effect. A study of rats shows that after they mate with a female, they lose interest in her, but if a new female is presented, they will mate again, and so on, until they are almost dead.
A similar brain dynamic can be at play for men who are purely driven by their lower cortex when it comes to sex. It explains behaviors such as pornography use, compulsive masturbation, multiplicity of partners / frequency of sexual encounters, sex addiction, infidelity, and other tendencies.
The consequences of letting our lower brain run wild with our sex drive can be incredibly damaging. Men driven by sex in this fashion tend to show the following emotional challenges: “depression, low self-esteem, loneliness, boredom, and/or rage, shame and guilt” . They may also lose interest in their sexual partner, as “the lower brain actually comes to prefer pornography to real sex with a spouse.”
While the struggle with self-control is not the only reason men may be dissatisfied with the practice of NFP, it is evident that it can seriously affect their marital relationships and cause real harm to their wives.
Reaching for the ideal in our intimate relationships
Our animal instincts in the lower cortex do play an important role in our sexual drive, and it can actually be a good thing: desire, arousal, pleasure, and memories are positive parts of our humanity and sexuality. At the same time, we can and must rise above a pure dependency on our instincts by developing the proper use of the upper area of our brains, where our reason, thoughts, and free will can be cultivated to guide our actions.
In fact, when men activate the higher brain and pursue an ideal for their relationships, things change for the better. The upper brain is where ideals such as fostering caring relationships, finding joy in the family, and the desire to pursue responsibility and virtuous activities are generated and cultivated. In order to regain and maintain a healthy intimate relationship, we have to desire and work for these ideals to guide—and properly order—our sexual behavior.
But what, practically, does that mean? Dr. Majeres explains that gaining this self-awareness and control leads to more happiness in general: “our intelligence increases, our grasp of ideas increases in clarity; we are more focused and motivated; and we are able to love others without selfishness,” he explains.
He adds that mastering oneself in this way empowers men to be better husbands and fathers. It “produces joy and contentment in his relationship with his wife.” Finally, it impacts the sexual experience, as it “elevates sex into a way of showing real love and affection for one’s spouse– not primarily a way of getting pleasure.”
For men, it can be undoubtedly difficult to admit to struggling in this area. They might be tempted to make excuses for their lack of self-control, or hide it as a shameful tendency. But it is more productive to admit the struggle, and seek help in overcoming it. Men struggling in this way shouldn’t stay isolated, and they should understand that caring and compassionate help exists. More than anything, they should be told that the path to freedom offered by self-mastery is worthwhile .
Communication issues in relationships
Difficulties with frequency of sexual intercourse are more likely revealed by the practice of NFP, where there has to be a conversation and consideration for the timing of intercourse. Unlike contraception, which makes women seemingly “available” at all times, sex while practicing NFP cannot happen “whenever you want” (at least, not without the consequence of unintended pregnancy). Even if a couple isn’t using contraception, our contraceptive culture can lead men to expect sex or sexual activity from their wives, but sex must always be a mutual gift, freely given between spouses. Beyond men’s personal challenges we discussed above, NFP can also reveal serious relational problems and a lurking “contraceptive mentality” about sex. But NFP can also help a couple resolve these challenges if they are tackled head-on.
A recent article from The Wall Street Journal discussed a study showing that women who feel unattractive have a lower sexual drive . If this is the case, how much can a husband foster self-confidence (and therefore desire) in his partner? Whole books have been written on this topic, but here are a few tips which can help:
- Do you cultivate an interior positive attitude towards your wife? Do you make an effort to show that attitude in exterior ways?
- Are you attentive and working on listening skills, showing appreciation, and empathy?
- Are you controlling or trusting? Do you believe that you are owed sex, or that every sexual encounter is a gift that must be freely given between spouses?
Women are receptive and can feel their husband’s internal disposition towards them. Working on cultivating the admiration you had for your spouse when you first met is critical. One way to cultivate this appreciation is through meditation and prayer, as well as prioritizing dates and other ways to spend fun time together.
Women who don’t feel heard don’t feel appreciated, and are often deeply wounded by that feeling. We men tend to want to solve problems and fix things, and it takes a real effort to stop and really listen. But a lot of the time, actively listening is more important than providing solutions. If you’re not sure whether your wife feels listened to or appreciated, ask your wife if she feels listened to or appreciated—and if she doesn’t, ask what you can do to help. (Here is an article to learn more: https://positivepsychology.com/active-listening/)
Getting help—your marriage is worth it!
These are just a few of the common issues that men struggle with when it comes to NFP and relationships, and a combination of communication, empathy, and a desire to grow in self-control can aid in the fight against all of them. As men foster an open dialogue where they speak about their own struggles and learn to listen more attentively to their wives’ struggles, a mutual empathy develops which can be a huge game changer for the couple. Again, it takes work, but it can bring amazing rewards.
Don’t hesitate to seek help for yourself or your marriage if the relationship struggles that can accompany NFP seem to be overwhelming. You’re worth it, and so is your marriage.
As I close this article, I am aware that I barely touched the surface of this huge topic. My first goal is that men and women who experience these struggles know that they are not alone; perhaps you may even consider sharing your story with us (confidentially and anonymously) via this link. My second goal is that those who are struggling with what can seem like the burden of NFP will be encouraged to work on this issue as a team, and not ignore it or “kick the can down the road.” As you read above, struggling with NFP can be a multi-faceted problem, but the personal and relational growth and rewards from tackling it are well worth the effort.
 The science behind pornography, Dr. Kevin Majeres, MD 2016. https://purityispossible.com/the-science-behind-pornography/
 From article Self-Control and Sexual Behavior by Michael W. Wiederman, PhD, Department of Human Relations, Columbia College, Columbia, South Carolina http://ndl.ethernet.edu.et/bitstream/123456789/28342/1/162.pdf.pdf#page=544
 “Too schlubby for sex” The Wall Street Journal, Oct 20, 2021. The research they quoted indicated that “fear, worry, loneliness and boredom” had taken a toll on people’s desire for their partners.