One of the concepts I’ve been wrestling with lately is how to assist couples who find the abstinence of NFP to be an impediment to their relationship. It’s no great secret that married people want to have sex with each other. And it’s a common criticism that NFP methods are a bad form of family planning because they rely on abstinence– which, by the way, is not very “natural.” I hear and understand and even appreciate these criticisms, because they challenge us in the NFP world to be honest with ourselves and with our clients. Without being heavy-handed about it, I try to prepare my engaged clients for the fact that abstinence within marriage can be harder than abstinence prior to marriage. If they choose to abstain from sex before marriage, they have effectively drawn an invisible barrier which they both promise not to cross, or to even approach too closely. But within marriage, this dynamic shifts– so I coach my couples that they will need to be intentional about communicating with one another early on in their marriage, as they discover new things about how they relate to each other sexually, and where those shifting boundaries may now be.
So I was struck recently when I heard a few nutritionists talking about the way they tailor diet recommendations to clients based on whether the client is an “abstainer” or a “moderator.” Apparently, the idea is not new. It has been around for more than a decade and was made popular by Gretchen Rubin, the author of multiple New York Times bestsellers including The Happiness Project. Gretchen explains the two traits through a simple questionnaire:
You’re a moderator if you…
Is it possible that these two categories could help couples navigate times of abstinence while using NFP? My experience as an instructor suggests that this might sometimes be a very valuable key for easing abstinence tensions for couples.
Take, for example, a couple whom I will call Kelsey and Keith.*
(click "Read More" for full article)
Kelsey had given birth to their second child about six months ago, and things were going well with NFP. She was breastfeeding and feeling confident with her fluid and monitor readings, but then the couple decided that Kelsey would return to work. This meant pumping all day in addition to a couple of breastfeeds at night, and all of a sudden her fluid and monitor signs changed. She was getting a lot more fertile indicators, which meant significantly more days of abstinence. We thought that perhaps fertility was returning soon… but this dragged on for months.
About three months into this scenario, Kelsey and I had a very long email exchange. She was no longer happy with the method, and her husband was getting increasingly frustrated. The two were fighting more often, especially about the frequency of intercourse. She was nervous because she was starting to feel that fertility would return very soon and wanted to abstain more, but Keith felt like they were abstaining far too much. He resented the fact that only a few days were available here or there– and wanted the assurance that they could have a stretch of available time without needing to worry about fertility signs changing every day.
One very important aspect of working as an NFP instructor is that you should never get directly involved in a couple’s discernment, and you never insert yourself into their relationship by “siding” with one person over the other. Yet, it is completely within the bounds of an instructor to offer protocol alternatives, or to help them focus on protocol options which are better suited to their current situation and goals. For me, it was very clear that Kelsey and Keith had discerned the need to postpone pregnancy. But it was not clear to me that their protocol, which allowed for intercourse intermittently on certain days but not others, was properly serving them in this transitional stage.
So, in addition to a few other suggestions, I offered Kelsey a couple of alternatives. If she was comfortable doing so, she could choose to stop breastfeeding entirely and hasten the return of her cycles, so she and Keith could get back into more familiar charting territory. Or, they could consider abstaining entirely until we could verify ovulation, eliminating the hugely frustrating variability that Keith was perceiving.
If we think about it in the terms outlined above, I suggested that perhaps they would do better with an “abstainer” approach for right now, as opposed to a “moderator” approach.
It took Kelsey a few days to get back to me, but when I did hear back, her response was very interesting. They had decided that it was important for them to keep up with breastfeeding– but much to her surprise, Keith was really relieved to have the option to abstain. For him, the mental and emotional energy of swinging back and forth between available days and unavailable days was just too much. It was too stressful, and he felt much more clear-headed knowing that sex was temporarily off limits. They both felt at peace with the decision and felt that a certain amount of harmony had been restored in their relationship.
This is obviously just one anecdotal example, but I think there is something here to be explored. Even if there is no absolute distinction between “abstainers” and “moderators,” I do believe that there are times, places, and situations, in which we will be happier trending more towards one approach than another. Much like nutrition, which is tied to another very strong bodily pleasure of eating food, finding balance in our sexual lives is much more complicated than simply identifying one personality trait. It is linked to all sorts of variables like hormone levels and libido, sexual trauma, physical impediments, love languages… you get the picture. And I know that this “abstainer” versus “moderator” distinction is not universally accepted within the diet/nutrition world, so perhaps there is much more to dive into about the psychology of learned behavior, but for now, I’d like to just explore this concept and ask:
How can the distinction between an abstainer mindset and a moderator mindset help us build strategies for couples to utilize surrounding periodic abstinence in NFP?
What follows are my working thoughts on the matter.
If you and your spouse are both moderators, then times of periodic abstinence may prove to be either very easy or very difficult for you, depending on your perspective. If your perspective is short-sighted, you’re going to feel very panicky because periodic abstinence feels like an absolute prohibition. So for moderators, it is important to remember that sex is not off limits for the whole cycle. Keep in mind that even if sex is not available right now, it will be available again soon. Moderators may want to focus on utilizing Phase 1 and Phase 3 days**, rather than taking a “Phase 3 only” approach. They also may do better if they allow themselves a certain amount of physical intimacy during Phase 2, finding it easier to have regular make-out sessions which they are comfortable pausing at a certain point, than restricting physical intimacy altogether. For the moderator couple, the focus should be: We are temporarily abstaining. We must remember that for most methods of NFP, periodic abstinence does not change the frequency of intercourse– it just changes the pattern.
If you are both abstainers, then clearly-defined rules are the way to go. It's possible that periodic abstinence may be challenging because of the periodic component, so you may have an easier time navigating the fertile window if you focus on the short-term rather than the big picture. It's also possible that you may do better mentally and emotionally with a “Phase 3 only” approach, because the beginning of the fertile window can be subject to change based on individual biomarkers, making it feel like a "less certain" time. Be very intentional during the fertile time to avoid activities which lead to the desire for sex and physical intimacy, because you will have a much harder time saying “no.” Two abstainers may find that their best balance is achieved when they are very good about intentionally cutting off sexual activity at a clear point in the cycle, and then actively planning date nights or other special occasions during the infertile times. For the abstainer couple, the focus should be: We have very clear and defined rules, and can easily identify when sex is available and when it is not. We are intentional about removing temptation during the fertile phase, and enjoy actively planning for times of intimacy.
AN ABSTAINER + A MODERATOR:
The strategy for a mixed couple is going to vary much more than the previous strategies. Each partner will need to feel that they are striking a balance which feels healthy and respectful, which may mean that some times during the marriage the abstainer will be prioritized and at some points the moderator will be prioritized– but it is not always an either-or. Strategies can be developed which are complementary, and you may have already noticed that part of the strategy is simply what you choose to focus on.
Within the context of a menstrual cycle, periodic abstinence can either be viewed as a total prohibition (periodic abstinence), or as one small part of an overall pattern of moderated availability for intercourse (periodic abstinence). It just depends which perspective you come from. So a moderator would focus on the big picture of the whole cycle, while the abstainer would focus on a smaller picture of restrictions right now. The moderator and the abstainer would just have to be mindful not to try to force the other person to adopt their particular view.
There are certain things, however, on which the moderator and abstainer will actively be at odds and so they must navigate certain tendencies with care and respect for the other view.
For the moderator, it may not seem like a big deal to give your spouse a passionate kiss outside the kids’ bedroom door when you finally get them to sleep. But if your partner is an abstainer and you are within the fertile window, this sort of gesture could be creating additional tension. Don’t tease your partner, even playfully, because your partner will feel that you are either being insensitive by blurring lines, or downright cruel by taunting. Instead, focus on showing love in a way that is very clearly not physical. You may even want to “treat” yourself during the fertile time with an activity that you save just for Phase 2: as corny as it sounds, having a specific game to play, a cocktail that you enjoy, or some other thing you restrict to having during fertile times may help satisfy your need for that “occasional indulgence.”
For the abstainer, times of periodic abstinence may be fairly navigable for you, but you should pay attention to the dynamics of sexual activity in the infertile times. It's possible that you may desire sex more than your moderator partner, who prefers not to have a lot of a good thing all at once. The abstainer may also have to make more of an effort to show affection during times of abstinence, because your moderator partner craves small doses on a more frequent basis, and they may otherwise feel like you’re being too cold or aloof.
So, NFP world, what do you think?
Were you aware of the abstainer/moderator difference, and do you think incorporating this awareness into your marriage might yield some more helpful strategies for navigating abstinence??
* Obviously not their real names. And I’ll change some of the specifics of the situation for privacy, but the main points remain the same.
**While phase terminology is not common to all NFP methods, it is fairly universally recognized in public discussion groups. For the sake of clarification, Phase 1 are the days which are available for intercourse prior to the opening of the fertile window. Phase 2 is the fertile window. Phase 3 are the days after the fertile window has closed.
Christina has been an NFP instructor in the Boston Cross Check Method since 2013. She is on a mission to change conversations about body literacy and NFP within the Catholic Church, through innovative lifelong body literacy programming and support... plus apparently this blog.