3 Things I Secretly Hate About NFP

I have not always been a fan of NFP.

  • First I grew up thinking that NFP did not work for avoiding pregnancy.
  • Then I got to experience how frustrating charting is when it enables one to see health issues at a time when one does not have the resources to pursue treatment.
  • Then I saw how people misunderstood the Church’s teaching on birth regulation and contraception, and how couples ended up miserable because of their misunderstanding of NFP.
  • Then I learned that it is often far from instinctive for a man to take serious interest in the workings of his wife’s body.

Eventually I made peace with NFP, but peace is not synonymous with perfect love. There are some things about NFP that I expect to always hate. These things will not show up for all NFP users, or even for any individual NFP user all of the time. But they are as inherent to the use of NFP as patience is to parenthood. Sure, you can be a parent without patience, and sometimes you can even be a good parent without needing patience during a particular time in your child’s life. But, overall, it would be silly to think that patience is not inherently required to parent well.

I am very thankful for NFP and the many ways in which it has benefited me personally, but I cannot be blind to its shortcomings.

That said, here are the 3 things I passionately hate about NFP:

NFP requires a good marriage. Now you might think that I should love this requirement of NFP. After all, who doesn’t like a good marriage? Besides, so many people will tell you that NFP creates incredible marriages. Yet while I do believe that good marriages are fabulous, and the patient practice of NFP can indeed make a good marriage great, I still hate the fact that in order to work well, NFP requires that one begin with an already good marriage.

People with not-so-great marriages probably need NFP more than anyone else. But NFP is unlikely to work well for them.

NFP, especially in the early phase of its use, can add significant stress to a relationship. And that isn’t the worst of it. NFP not only requires good communication and profound love, it also requires sexual abstinence at times when a couple may really, really want–or in some sense even need–to have sex.

Couples with not-so-good marriages often rely on good sex to make up for other areas of weakness in their relationship. Even if they can’t talk through their problems, at least they can reassure themselves of their love with a good time in bed.  Happy hormones go a long way to compensate for a love which is too immature to deal directly with the troubles which every marriage inevitably faces.

NFP, on the other hand, not only requires decent communication and a strong love which goes far beyond the physical to work well, it also periodically deprives a couple of sex as a way to gloss over serious issues.

This means that for couples who do not have a good marriage, NFP will be anywhere from miserable to impossible.

And I hate that. I really hate that. It just isn’t fair, or helpful for those who want to have a good marriage but aren’t there yet.

NFP demands too much of men. This might also seem like a funny objection. After all, isn’t it the woman who actually has to pay meticulous attention to her body, and give up sex at the times she most desires it?

Sort of. But sex always places a disproportionate burden on women. In order for NFP to truly work well, it is the man who must work to be an amazing husband.

The proper use of NFP requires that men become good husbands, husbands in the fullest sense of that word. It is not enough for a man to simply be a husband (n.) by legally connecting himself to his wife, he must also be willing to husband (v.). Instead of merely being able to appreciate his wife’s sexuality, a man must understand his wife’s fertility as well. Most women will at some point become tired (often physically tired) of carefully practicing fertility awareness. For NFP to work, it is essential that at such times men are informed enough to be able to understand what is going on, and adequately solve the problem. A man who wants to enjoy a full sexual relationship, but does not really want to be a husband, will be incapable of understanding the problems which inevitably arise with NFP.

Furthermore, NFP requires that men not only become good husbands, but great lovers as well. Although there is no scientific evidence of the common canard that the female libido rises with ovulation and falls thereafter, there is significant anecdotal evidence that many women find sex more appealing at times the couple has decided to abstain, and that women are often disinterested in having sex according to a pre-set schedule. In order to compensate for this aspect of NFP, men must be able to overcome a natural adolescent sense of entitlement, and be willing to work to make sex appealing to their wives.

NFP requires a woman to value her body as good in itself, not merely as a tool for reproduction or male pleasure. Many women want to use NFP as a Church-approved or healthier way to avoid babies, but find it incredibly challenging because they do not appreciate their fertility cycle for its own sake. This is a problem because, aside from calendar methods such as cycle beads, NFP can be difficult to practice when one does not begin with the base of reverence for fertility, particularly that of a woman’s body.

Once again, this is an area where the patient practice of NFP will tend toward cultivating the quality necessary to live it well, but I have seen too many women miserable and resentful of NFP because all they wanted was something to space out babies, and instead they found themselves incredibly frustrated because NFP demanded greater self-appreciation than they possessed. While I appreciate the fact that NFP constantly beckons women toward a beautiful appreciation of our bodies, I hate the fact that women who do not already live with an awareness of the inherent awesomeness of their bodies are likely to find NFP too frustrating to benefit much from it.

All these things I hate about NFP. I suppose that much of it boils down to the fact that I hate that NFP requires self-discipline. Self-discipline is by definition difficult, and least likely to be had when needed most. Of course the practice of NFP cultivates self-discipline, but it often takes years for a person to really mature, and NFP requires self-discipline from day one. It isn’t as if charting is guaranteed to start out interesting and easy and only become a boring (or challenging) chore once one has cultivated sufficient self-discipline to accurately track one’s fertility regardless of how dreary it may be on any given day. And let’s not even talk about the abstinence part of couples using NFP to avoid pregnancy.

It is one of the nastier ironies of life that those without self-discipline are most likely to really need to avoid pregnancy, and, of course, to have the most difficulty with NFP (or any method of avoiding pregnancy, to be honest, but this post isn’t about how I hate the work required to refill prescriptions and remember to take pills).

So here I sit, thankful for the ways in which NFP has enriched my life, but sad that those who need NFP the most are the least likely to be able to practice it successfully.

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44 thoughts on “3 Things I Secretly Hate About NFP

  1. Jessica @ Faith Permeating Life

    I love your honesty here. You’ve aptly summarized why, as much as I love NFP in my own marriage, I don’t appreciate when people try to insist everyone should switch to it immediately. Because you’re right — it requires lots of communication and patience and appreciation for one’s own body. It can certainly help develop those things, but I can’t imagine starting NFP in the absence of these things.

    You and I have talked about this before, but several of the objections you mention here have not posed a particular problem in my marriage because my husband and I define sex more broadly than the Church does. In other words, during the times we can’t have intercourse, we serve each other sexually in other ways. That, combined with the fact that we have a strong marriage, has made NFP a fairly easy and happy approach to family planning for us.

    1. November

      This is very interesting. I have often wondered how many Catholic couples take this approach to NFP since it has been my biggest struggle in that realm. Catholic guilt goes a long way towards discouraging us from taking this approach, but I’m not totally convinced it’s not a better way.

      1. Ellen

        Um, that’s NOT a “minor” sin, it’s a MORTAL sin! The husband must ejaculate inside his wife, and all sexual activity must culminate in this, anything else is mutual masturbation. The Catechism addresses this. Yes, it’s hard, and yes, my husband and I fall into sin in this area as well, but don’t fool yourself, it’ IS a sin, and needs to be confessed!

        1. waywardson

          This is why I write, Ellen.

          The idea that masturbation is always a mortal sin is an incorrect understanding of theology based on Aquinas’s incorrect understanding of biology. (He thought masturbation was basically abortion.) Read the whole thing here.

          http://realcatholicloveandsex.blogspot.com/2012/06/honeymoon-series-part-9-nfp-on-your.html

          As for masturbation, the recent youth Catechism recommended by Pope Benedict XVI says it best, “The Church does not demonize it, nor does she trivialize it.” YouCat 409. Disordered, yes. Sinful, yes. Evil mortal sin, No. The “grown up” Catechism has a long list of pastoral mitigating factors. CCC 2352.

          If Joseph Ratzinger doesn’t know Church teaching, I don’t know who does.

          1. Gerald McGrane

            The thing to keep in mind is the key is fertility. Any act that causes a man to ejaculate outside of intercourse falls outside of the “free, total, fruiftul, and faithful” standard so often used to summarize JPII’s TOB.

          2. Amy

            The Pope “doesn’t demonize it” – okay – who ever, ever said it was demonic, exactly? How does this contradict the catechism in any way? It is a grave sin. “Mortal” vs “venial” pertains to gravity of the sin + full awareness + full intent. Masturbation and various forms of onanism (complete oral sex, eg) are grave sins. It’s an objective Church teaching.

      2. Amy

        IMO, “Catholic guilt” is what happens to Catholics who’ve strayed from God when they sin – the Holy Spirit nags them. Normal, well-adjusted, sacramentally integrated, Church-abiding Catholics should not be suffering from random bouts of anxious, chronic, lingering guilt.
        Guilt is there to prompt you to repent of sin. You repent, you receive absolution, badabing badaboom, it’s over. Joy and peace return.
        If you are suffering from guilt, God is calling you to something greater. Go to confession!

  2. Mary

    Great entry. It made me really appreciate the things about my marriage that help NFP work, especially my awesome husband. Ive never really thought about it before from that point of view

  3. EdgarAngie

    Jessica – My husband and I share your view of sex but the church does not which means we are/were still in the wrong.

    My husband and I struggled (past tense no thanks to menopause) with the idea of living “by the cycle” versus living by your love and emotion. Consider all the things that can and will enter a women’s life that can push aside her desire to be with her husband: family sickness, work, stress, volunteering, and the list goes on. Yet when the time “occurs” a women, defined by her emotions, must be ready. For my husband and I it became robotic until a medical issue required the use of a barrier for a period of time. Instead of the cycle dictating when the mood should occur, both of our emotional states determined occurrences. Contrary to popular myth, the number of times did not increase only the intensity of the moment. We tried NFP after the doctor gave us a clean bill of health, but it felt controlled and lacked any cohesive meaning. In the end, NFP was not for us.

  4. November

    Very interesting Rae. I think these are some of the reasons my husband and I have struggled with NFP so much. Although we love each other greatly, we are both a bit immature and still figuring out how to love each other well. So far NFP has been mostly damaging. I hope that this time around (second child, so we are just starting to use it again), we can develop a bit more maturity and strength as a result of using it.

    I also suspect that a couple’s contendedness with NFP would corrolate strongly with how many days of abstinance are generally required. For a woman with an easy to read cycle, and small number of fertile days (perhaps just a week) I would imagine the method would be fairly satisfactory and easy on the marriage. However, in my unscientific experience this is rare. None of my circle of NFP friends experience the 7-10 days that NFP books cite as normal. My fertile phase is usually around 3 weeks, which I am guessing is a big part of why my husband and I struggle so much to use it.

  5. rachieannie

    Fascinating article Rae! We don’t use NFP specifically, but we did start to chart using the Fertility Awareness Method after our son was born to try to get an idea. Of course that was the month I got pregnant with number 2 … so I can’t say for sure whether this method will work for us :-) It will be interesting to see if that’s the method we go back to and if we see some of those issue pop up in our marriage.

  6. Michelle

    I really enjoyed your perspective here. My early experiences with NFP and the fact that I have a gentle, and far-more-mature-than-most husband, led me to believe NFP was easy and people who had a hard time with it were selfish. But over time, and watching one of my sisters and her husband struggle with the abstinence required to use NFP successfully, led me to understand much of what you’ve written about here.

    I specifically like this article and would share it because it puts an actual understanding with the challenges of NFP and doesn’t simply say, “oh well, NFP just can’t work for some people”. You line up very well what some major challenges are. And I like that you don’t list solutions to these challenges…as if there ARE solutions, they would vary by couple and even vary based on the time in marriage for an individual couple.

  7. Mark S.

    Rae, excellent article that NEEDED to be written. These are real issues and for the pastoral care of married couples to be helpful we all need to be aware of the struggles. Marriage needs to be a total giving of each for the other. But, we are not perfect beings. We married folk struggle. NFP is also artificial to a married couple if one considers the uniative AND procreative dimensions of marriage…not the sexual act in isoltion from all else. NFP cant be “the” answer for the reasons you list. It mmay be the answer we have but it is far from a universal marriage enhancer. Until this conversation occurs among us openly, we hide the reality and many suffer and fail. That is not acceptable. We cannot permit the standard to be silence and isolation and failure if we are to be pilgrims walking TOGETHER toward the Light.

    1. waywardson

      I agree with your post and agree that this blog post NEEDED to be written.

      The Church’s standard is perfection. NFP is difficult because we are imperfect. That’s OK. Give it your best effort, but don’t break your marriage trying to achieve some idealistic standard.

      Jessica largely has the right idea, and such an idea can make a huge difference in a marriage where there are long periods of abstinence. You need intimacy, sometimes even physical intimacy, even if you can’t have intercourse.

      And NO, horniness and sexual frustration is NOT God’s call to have another baby!

      At the same time, NFP can be a marriage enhancer, and fertility awareness is much healthier than contraception, so don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  8. Christine

    I think that what I dislike the most about it is the assumption that it’s really easy. Yes, it’s nice to not have to be on the @#$(*&% pill (I’m blessed in that I ovulate every time I menstruate, so if I’m charting I know when to expect my period, so I can take my meds). But if we’re trying to not have a baby (as opposed to the year of trying to have a baby when we were charting), we would have to abstain from sex for up to 9 weeks. My cycles ranged from 30 to 77 days, and basically until I ovulated there was no way of knowing when I was going to (hormonal problems).

    Would we be able to be strict about it? Yes, if we chose to. Yes, it would probably be nicer than oral contraceptives (my husband noticed the change in my mood when I went off them). But it would require a major sacrifice, and frankly it would make sex a lot less enjoyable. We both know that we’d be prone to “well we should do something tonight, because who knows when we’ll get to again”. Currently we’re also “defining sex more broadly than the Church does”, and waiting for my cycles to resume, but it’s been a real stress.

  9. waywardson

    One problem is genuine method issues. Different methods work well for different women.

    My wife could not make heads or tails of Creighton. (Regular cycles 25-27 days, but with Yellow Stamps) We had a bad relationship with our instructor, which didn’t help either. And with Creighton, there is no where else to turn for help.

    Now we are using Billings with a BBT cross-check (TCOYF and BillingsLIFE FTW) and everything makes sense. Sometimes changing the method makes a BIG difference.

    1. Christine

      Is there a good method which doesn’t use mucus or cervical position? I’m using thermo-sympotmatic (it’s what’s taught in this area), and according to it, only “dry” days (no vaginal mucus at all) are safe if it’s before ovluation. I don’t think I’ve had one of those since my daughter was born 6 months ago, and I don’t think I’ve ovluated yet either. Temperature and cervical position don’t work as predictors for me either, but it’s not as dramatic.

      1. waywardson

        STM is bad for nursing and Creighton is bad for constant mucus (it was designed to treat infertility and scant mucus).

        I have heard good things about Marquette for nursing. Supposedly, the monitor doesn’t pick up the “false positives” and requires a lot less abstinence.

        http://nfp.marquette.edu/sc_breastfeed_monitor.php

        They also have a “constant mucus” protocol.

        Another good method is the Billings Method. Billings allowed her to distinguish between safe not dry days (yellow stamps) and fertile days.

        The basics are here:
        http://www.thebillingsovulationmethod.org

        The science is here:
        http://www.woomb.org

        Online tutoring:
        http://www.billingsmentor.org

        Online teaching:
        http://www.nfpaware.com

      2. waywardson

        Marquette is supposed to be good for breastfeeding. The monitor supposedly allows you to ignore the “false positives” and cuts down on the abstinence. They also have a protocol for constant mucus.

        nfp (dot) marquette (dot) edu

        She also has constant mucus. We have found Billings works well for that.

        www (dot) thebillingsovulationmethod (dot) org

        They is also a Billings teacher who is doing online classes.
        nfpaware (dot) com

        1. Christine

          Thank you. Even though my husband isn’t Catholic, and doesn’t see anything wrong with contraception, he agrees that we need a new solution. I was on the pill for years before I was married, and he noticed the improvement when I stopped, so I have a lot of support from him, but we need a method that works with my PCOS.

          1. waywardson

            Good luck with that! Any method will be a struggle with PCOS. Treating the PCOS will make NFP a lot easier.

            Fertility, Cycles, and Nutrition by Marylin Shannon is good if you haven’t already gotten it.

            As for the non-Catholic husband, my wife is not Catholic. Going off the pill is good for everyone, but full NFP requires both partners to be committed. However you decide to handle this, always remember to love each other first.

          2. Christine

            I’ve tried treating the PCOS, and I’ve come to the conclusion that extreme measures would be required. For example, if I lost the last 5 kilos (ignoring baby weight) to be smack dab in the middle of the healthy weight range instead of at the top of it (and those last 5 are always the hardest). Or if I went completely off sugar. Or if I exercised every day (I have a six month old and bad knees. You may not laugh because I know this isn’t possible.)

            I did try dietary interventions, losing weight, and exercise, but doing so in moderate amounts didn’t have a noticeable effect. (I tried when I first started charting.) The NFP teacher in our area loaned me an excellent book from the library on PCOS, but most of it didn’t apply to me, and I was disappointed.

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  11. Guggie

    Sounds to me like NFP provides couples with a clear summary of the opportunities they have to grow. Demands too much of men, eh? Maybe it’s time to start asking the men to step up. If being an involved, authentic, unconditional lover is asking too much of your man, then some meditation is required.

    NFP isn’t easy, because nothing important in life is easy. NFP is about monitoring human bodies…and human bodies are amazingly complex and beautifully designed.

    If we want to drown out our inner voice, if we want to have superficial relationships that use objectifying sexual encounters to stay together and if we want to live in an unaware stupor, stuck on the same level, in the dark about our bodies and never thinking more than one step ahead, we’d pop pills.

    1. Gerald McGrane

      Well stated. NFP can be demanding for men. A better way of looking at it is not what it demands, but what it calls out of us and gives us in return. I refer back to my earlier comments about the Cross. Without the crucifixion there is no resurrection. NFP, while frustrating at times, has made me a better husband and our marriage stronger.

  12. Gerald McGrane

    One thing to keep is mind is that marriage, like all Christian life is meant to be an imitation of the Cross. It’s not supposed to be easy. NFP is challenging. Wierd cycles that don’t leave a lot of infertile days are trying. NFP requires effort and sacrifice and yes, as indicated above a sense of service. But if there is one thing we tend to forget it’s that without the Crucifixion there is no resurrection. NFP has been and continues to be a cross in our marriage. But through that cross we have experienced growth and joy we would not have had otherwise.

    I especially appreciated the emphasis on the need for good husbands. I’m not always the greatest husband, but NFP has certainly helped me become a better husband.

    God bless and guide all of you.

    1. waywardson

      We are all called to service and service sometimes does involve sacrifice and suffering.

      But Christians must ask ourselves at what point are we picking up our cross and at what point do we think we need to be crucified ourselves for the sin of the world? What point does a well-formed conscience become an overscrupulous one?

      Jesus does not want us to be masochists. Indeed, if we are, we cannot do His work. Ephesians 2:8-10. He certainly does not want us to crucify ourselves or our spouses.

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  15. Amy

    I have appreciated the honest perspective expressed in this entry, as well as in the comments. That being said, I define sex exactly the way the Church does, and agree with other commentors: we grow through embracing the Cross. What needs to be kept in mind is that God gives us the grace to do so. Yes, there is suffering in life, sometimes it will suck, sometimes we won’t feel up to it, we will be painfully aware of how inadequate we are, how immature – but that is the basis of humility. That painful awareness, combined with the awareness of God’s grace, is the definition of humility. (See 2 Cor 12:1-10)

    1. waywardson

      I’m a bit surprised to find people still commenting on this thread.

      Since then, an NFP instructor was kind enough to explain that we had significantly more abstinence than most of her couples and was able to help us clear that up. Shortening the fertile period makes a big difference.

      Looking at our struggle and those of others, I am finding that couples who have extended periods of abstinence have problems when they starve their marriage for intimacy out of a disproportionate fear of sexual sin.

      The Church’s definition of sex is correct and there is no substitute for the real thing. But couples still do need to be close, especially if there are extended periods of abstinence. It is the closeness that couples need, not the sex. Of course, closeness may lead to arousal and a need for release, because we are human, but this does not mean that couples should avoid each other.

      The Church’s teachings on sexuality have a purpose and that purpose is to keep sexuality “a source of joy and pleasure in a marriage”. Making following the rules a goal in itself misses the point.

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  17. Jill

    Sex can provide the biochemical feelings of closeness and bonding (oxytocin, vasopressin), which is why the abstinence period can be so hard- it gives us a shortcut to returning to the feelings of closeness when life and the state of our relationship make that hard. I empathize with the writer when she says sometimes we just need, on some level, to have sex. I really do understand that.

    However, in 25 years of marriage, I have come to understand that sexual desire is a desire for *intimacy in the final analysis. THIS is the goal of all expressions of love. A friend whose husband is a porn addict emailed recently to say his group is using a book about intimacy- have they gone mad, she asked? I said, no. This is exactly what sex replaces- his inability to acheive intimacy in his relationships is what makes him need the hit of porn. Any sex outside of God’s plan is trying to serve the same purpose.

    Difficulties with abstinence are very, very normal (Greg Popcak has a wonderful and compassionate chapter on this in his book “Holy Sex.”). Keeping our eye on learning to develop in the different areas of intimacy (studying SPICE is a good start) during the abstinence period is crucial. You can’t practice NFP with an abstinence period by just giving up the sex- you MUST add more and different forms of love. (If I have a beef about NFP promotion, this would be it…MUST add and not just subtract!) This does not require both people on board- this requires one of us to start. (I love the movie Fireproof to demonstrate this.)

    But, when abstinence causes serious problems for a couple, it doesn’t make them bad people-but it should be a red flag. What woman wants a husband who cannot say no? What implications does this have? My friend can tell you one implication- and it hurts like hell. Glossing over the abstinence period with [deleted by admin for inappropriately explicit content], or anything else just delays the experiencing of the reality of lack of intimacy. This can show up a hundred ways, but in the end, a lack of deepening intimacy in the different areas of marriage is the underlying problem.

    When I read about (and experience myself!) things people hate about NFP, they usually come down to what weaknesses NFP reveals. I propose we accept the revelation, no matter how painful, as an opportunity. Begin a campaign toward intimacy, get counseling, speak to a priest…allow it to move you toward an action that invites God into the pain and the struggle. I believe He gave us NFP so we could experience a higher love…but after the fall, this will require some acts of will to enter into a solution.

    1. waywardson

      A few comments:

      1. Sometimes the weakness is a genuine physical issue. For example, there is big difference between a “week off” and long periods of indefinite abstinence.

      2. Saying “What woman wants a husband who cannot say no?” is incredibly sexist. Why do you assume the man is the one who doesn’t like to abstain? Because I can assure you, that’s not always the case.

      In fact, I have also heard NFP called anti-woman because women must abstain when they want sex the most, that is, during ovulation. This can be a significant loss for some women.

      While an obvious red flag is when one spouse is making the other do something they don’t feel comfortable with or don’t like, what if both spouses are OK with this and neither wants to abstain?

      3. The question that I still have not found a satisfactory answer to is: Why does enjoying sexual contact imply that there is something wrong with your marriage? Aren’t spouses supposed to enjoy sex? Aren’t spouses supposed to desire each other sexually?

    2. Christine

      There are lots of healthy, non-sexual ways to be intimate. But to rely on them exclusively for two months means that when the couple *is* able to have sex again they will either feel obligated to do so, to take advantage of the window, or they will be out of the habit, and maybe miss the window. I don’t see how either of those is a good marriage either. Sex should be a part of marriage, and to either force it in, or to let it fall out entire isn’t good.

  18. april

    Hello, May I chime in? I understand that you are all serious about your faith which is admirable. Certainly NFP is the best way… however I would add health issues as another reason to dislike it. I have heard of women with abnormal cycles who cannot use the method. I work in a clinic with women who,if they get pregnant, will die. Fact. I know it’s supposedly very rare but it’s actually common. Is she sinning because she has to use condoms? Is it that she lacks faith and does not trust God’s plan? No. She wants children and would try even with the risk except that it would leave her one miracle baby without a mum and her husband to raise him.
    I think in these situations it’s important to consider our motives. Who is it harming? Are we doing it to thwart God’s will? To gain control? Or are we doing what is wise, still trusting in His plan. No birth control is 100% effective. Actually NFP is more effective than birth control. Therefore if God wills a child to be born we cannot escape it.
    These Catholic leaders are brilliant men, but alas… they are single men. I say not not to disrespect them but did any of us truly understand marriage intimacy until experiencing it? In countries and situations where women do not have normal cycles bc of their poverty and lack of charting or education… are they sinning bc they use a condom so they don’t have a child they cannot feed and support?
    I guess what I’m saying is that God can read our hearts. And so if you cannot use this method and must use condoms or take pills for medical reasons I’m not referring to birth control, which I myself take a thyroid med which if I do not take I literally can’t get out of bed) I do not believe that our Loving Father does not understand.

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