“The commandment to love prescribes only this; that each of us must continually set ourselves the task of actually participating in the humanity of others, of experiencing the other as an I, as a person.” St. John Paul II, “Person and Community: Selected Essays”
The theology surrounding the Church’s teaching on natural family planning (NFP) is really quite beautiful. The beauty of the teaching, however, in no way diminishes the fact that NFP can be challenging and frustrating at times; that’s reality.
As a person who ministers to engaged couples preparing for the sacrament of marriage, I have the unique opportunity to help young couples understand the big picture about the Church’s teachings concerning sex and sexuality. In helping couples understand the big picture, I keep coming back to the above quote about love that St. John Paul II had written many years ago while teaching philosophy at the University of Lublin. This quote made a big impact on me. It highlights the fact that love is action. For love to be truly actualized, it must move beyond feelings and attractions to participation in the good of the other. While the quote about love can be applied to any aspect of life, I use it to help engaged couples understand what God envisions for them in their sexual relationships and help them ponder what it means to participate in the humanity of their spouse.
Men and women are different. While we share the same basic human biology, our bodies also have a distinctness which means men and women often experience and look at the world in different ways. There is a mystery to our uniqueness and each gender offers something to the other because of it. The biological differences between men and women and the different way of seeing and experiencing the world bring about what St. John Paul II describes in “Man and Women He Created Them: A Theology of the Body” as “reciprocal enrichment.” For this reciprocal enrichment to be experienced in the sexual relationships for couples practicing NFP, men and women need to understand each other. While men and women are both sexual and relational beings, the sexual and relational needs of both genders are a little different. Women need to understand the sexual drive in men and men need to understand the relational drive in women.
For men, participating in the humanity of their wives means understanding and nurturing their relational and emotional needs. Women certainly enjoy the physical satisfaction of the sexual relationships in marriage, but for many women, the emotional connections they have with their husbands is as, if not more important for intimacy. Understanding a woman’s emotional needs can help a man better integrate the virtue of chastity while practicing NFP. It is a simple matter of focusing on the positive to help manage the negative. The sexual urge in human nature is strong, especially for men. The practice of NFP at times necessitates self-denial. If men view chastity solely as self-denial, they can easily become frustrated. Shifting their focus from the negative of self-denial to the positive of nurturing their wives’ emotional well-being, however, can help men diminish this frustration. In other words, saying no to sexual desires during times of abstinence means saying yes to a stronger emotional connection with their wives. So how do men go about doing this?
Connecting with their wives emotionally is easy for some men, but not so easy for others. For those men who might need a little more guidance in this area, I offer the following suggestions. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but hopefully these suggestions will help you and your wife experience a deeper emotional connection.
- Acknowledge how much you appreciate all that she does for you, and if you have kids, for the entire family. Thank her for all the things, big and small, that she does by participating in your humanity.
- Be flirtatious, especially when you know it’s not going to lead to sex. Be upfront with her — tell her you’re not interested in sex at the moment and that you simply want to connect with her spirit. Cuddle with her, hold her and tell her how much she means to you. Tell her what you find attractive about her, not just physically but also the characteristics (her sense of humor, kindness, compassion, etc…) that you treasure about her.
- Be open with her; tell her about your thoughts and feelings. Intimacy is not solely a sexual phenomenon; it means being vulnerable. Being vulnerable with your wife shows her how much you trust her.
Love is intrinsic to our identity as God’s children; it is what ultimately gives meaning to our existence. For men and women called to the marriage covenant, there is a unique call to express love through sexual intimacy. Intrinsic to this call for a sexual relationship is also a calling to discern the practice of NFP. Using natural family planning goes well beyond the scope of the sexual relationship. It’s about celebrating and honoring the humanity of the other. It means loving our spouse by being present not only to their body, but also their psychological, emotional and spiritual needs. Natural family planning is an invitation to participate in the totality of our spouse’s personhood.
Find more resources on natural family planning from the Archdiocese of Detroit at aod.org/nfp.