Because I write often about reproductive ethics, I knew Bethany Patchin's story long before Mark Oppenheimer wrote about it in last weekend's New York Times. Bethany and Sam Torode divorced in 2009 after nine years of marriage, during which they had four children. Early in their marriage, the couple wrote a book called Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception, in which they argued that natural family planning (NFP) is the healthiest, most spiritually enriching contraceptive approach for Christians.
NFP, the only contraceptive method approved by the Catholic Church, requires couples to track the woman's fertility by detailed observation of body temperature and cervical mucus. Couples can then avoid intercourse on the wife's fertile days if they wish to avoid pregnancy, and plan intercourse if they want to become pregnant.
The Torodes, as other NFP supporters do, argued in their book and here at Christianity Today that not only is NFP as effective as medical forms of birth control when done correctly (which admittedly requires knowledge and practice), but also makes for healthier marriages that more closely align with God's purposes for husbands and wives. They believe NFP honors our God-given bodies and fertility cycles rather than manipulating them to suit our preferences. It makes each act of intercourse truly open to God's procreative purpose for marriage. It allows spouses to fully embrace each other, body and soul, without any barrier. It enhances marital intimacy and interdependence by teaching couples to constrain their sexual urges in service to a greater goal.
The Torodes' marriage did not last. But even before they divorced, they renounced NFP in a 2006 statement. They said that NFP can lead to guilt and frustration when the couple desires sex, but has to abstain, particularly given that many women are particularly interested in sex during ovulation. They argued that, rather than embracing God's gift of the body, NFP can lead couples to reject physical intimacy, either because they don't want to conceive, or because they are exhausted by raising children whose births may have been unplanned. (The statement is no longer easily accessible on the Internet, so I am paraphrasing based on a variety of sources that quote from it.)
I have several friends who speak eloquently about how NFP has enhanced their marriages. I believe them. I also know that NFP is not right for me and my husband. We have three children who were blessedly easy to conceive. I loved being pregnant, nurturing babies, and breastfeeding, even with all the physical strain and unpredictability those tasks bring. Now that our youngest is 5, though, we are reveling in the relative freedom that comes with no longer accommodating toddler naps, diapers, and night wakings. I am devoting more and more time to the life-giving work God has called me to as a writer.
My husband mentioned the other day what a "catastrophe" it would be if I were to get pregnant again. Then he corrected himself. It wouldn't be a catastrophe. Every child is a gift, and we have resources to love and care for an unexpected one. But it would be very hard, not just because we'd have to reorder our lives completely, but also because my physical health, affected by a lifelong disability whose symptoms are exacerbated by aging, could be seriously compromised.
I am a worrywart. I know that if we used NFP, I'd be continually anxious about what we would do if our contraceptive efforts failed. I know a couple who practiced NFP by the book and nevertheless had an unplanned pregnancy that, by all normal NFP measures, should not have occurred. Can medical contraception likewise fail? Of course. But I feel more confident when contraceptive success does not rely wholly on my own potentially flawed observations, and the need to diligently plan sex amid a chaotic family life. I'm also uncomfortable with the fact that NFP requires women, who do the bulk of domestic and childrearing work in many marriages (including mine), to shoulder yet another task in service to their family—monitoring their fertility.
I have rejected NFP for my own marriage, but I trust that it works well for other Christian couples. And I will not hold up the Torode marriage as Exhibit A for what can happen to a marriage with NFP at its center. Like all marriages, theirs was surely many-layered, as was its end.
If there is a lesson to be learned from the Patchin/Torode story, it's not that NFP ruins marriages. Rather, perhaps it's that humility is the number-one quality necessary for dialogue about how to live as Christians, and that we should not be too quick to either give or receive advice that hasn't been tested by years of living and plenty of challenging discourse. Perhaps it's that we should refrain from holding up a certain behavior within married sex as the absolute best one for all Christians. Sam Torode told The Times, "I am out of the business of trying to tell people what they should do." That's not a bad lesson to learn from this sad story.
Or perhaps the lesson is that marriage—as the bodily, spiritual, and utterly daily union of two uniquely flawed and gifted people—is really hard, whether a couple is young or old, childless or the parents of many. What married people most need is grace within which to explore what makes each marriage flourish, not instruction about the one and only way to embody married love.