If You’re Not Trying To Avoid, You’re Trying To Achieve

There is a common canard in certain NFP circles that goes like this: if you’re not trying to avoid, you are trying to achieve.

I understand why this is taught in the context where it protects an organization and serves to enhance the reputation of NFP as truly reliable for those who are absolutely determined to do what it takes to avoid pregnancy.

The problem is that this simply is not true in reality. I can come up with many, many thought experiments where it is impossible for an objective outsider to declare whether a couple is seeking to achieve or avoid pregnancy. But instead of sharing those, I offer instead the situations of three women I know in real life.

Woman One: wishes very much to become pregnant. She and her husband have (randomly timed) sex about once a month, sometimes less. She menstruated 6 or 7 times last year and is not pursuing any reproductive healthcare.

Woman Two: does not expect to become pregnant for another year or so. In addition to having regular cycles, she knows her body exceptionally well. If cycle day 7 happens to fall on a Saturday, then she and her husband might have sex on cycle days 7 & 8 and then abstain until the evening of peak + 1 or +2, depending upon how certain she feels that cycle.

Woman Three: is not quite certain of her own intentions. She would be happy to be pregnant, but it is not an appropriate time for several reasons. Then again, she is well aware that it may never be an appropriate time. She also knows that she has short luteal phases and that achieving pregnancy could be difficult, if not impossible, so she is glad that she is not trying to become pregnant.

According to some people, all three of these women are “trying to achieve” pregnancy. In reality, Woman One is not doing the basics of what she knows would have to happen to make pregnancy at all likely. She is not trying to achieve anything, she is simply hoping. Woman Two is absolutely avoiding pregnancy, she just is not using a 99% effective approach to avoiding pregnancy because she does not need a 99% effective method. Woman Three most likely vacillates back and forth between seeking to avoid or achieve pregnancy depending upon how she feels during a particular cycle.

The truth is that the only person who can know whether a woman is trying to avoid or achieve pregnancy is the woman herself. Everything else is just a matter of behavior making pregnancy more or less likely. And when it comes to behavior and statistically likely outcomes, you have to consider each case–each day–on its own merits.

When we spew logical absurdities such as declaring that failure to avoid perfectly is the same as intention to achieve, we set ourselves up for fair accusations that NFP is about nothing more than control. And after that there is not much more to do than to start selling diet materials based on the idea that if you’re not trying to lose weight, you’re trying to gain it. Something tells me that just isn’t going to sell well.

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8 thoughts on “If You’re Not Trying To Avoid, You’re Trying To Achieve

  1. waywardson23

    I saw this post yesterday about NFP/FAM being simply knowledge.


    Which is really all it is.

    I think this is why I like the FAM (secular) approach better than the NFP (Catholic) approach. The FAM approach seems to have more of an understanding of “This is information, do with it what you like”, while some NFP advocates try to, umm, butt into what should be very private and personal decisions between the couple.

    This is not to say that Catholic teaching is bad or unnecessary, just that an undue focus on it by health educators/health care providers is highly inappropriate and can be detrimental to the couple.

  2. Michelle

    Exactly. This was definitely the case (at least the woman #3 scenario) for me when we conceived this latest blessing. I just fluctuated throughout my cycles a couple of times as to where I really wanted to be and then decided “what the hay” the night I’m fairly certain this little one was conceived and … well … here we are.

    I always get annoyed by the idea that you have to be one or the other. I mean, without any knowledge of NFP and without any artificial means of birth control, people used to just have sex within their marriage (and outside, as the case was at times) and accept whatever comes. Not always ideal for people who wanted a bit more control over things, but…it was what it was.

    Sometimes I envy that time. Sometimes I wish I didn’t know so much about my body and my cycle because I feel like then I must always be trying to avoid or trying to achieve and sometimes I want to do neither!

  3. Tiphaine

    I don’t really know myself where we stand. I think there are different steps in the NFP message.
    If you come from a very “worldly” background, growing up with condoms and birthcontrol, it’s understandable to get this “natural birth spacing” speech. So if you really want to avoid, you need to play by the rules. This is how I understand the message.
    And then once you comprehend the catholic vision of the world as a whole, then your take on children becomes different. Instead of having the default setting being: “should we have more children” the default setting is a much more positive and confident take on the future. Well it is for me I guess.

  4. Nayhee

    I don’t really get it. Why are people saying this? I don’t recognize this as something I have come across before but maybe I just haven’t followed the logic through to the end or something.

    1. Rae Post author

      You got me. Thank you. :-) I hate it when people talk about negative (or even some positive) aspects of “NFP” when what they really mean is an issue with one particular method.

      In this case, it is totally a CrMS (http://www.creightonmodel.com/) thing. I thought that I had encountered it a few times elsewhere, but after thinking about your comment I realized that I cannot think of a single non-CrMS example.

      Positive: the reason that they say it is to help couples realize the significance of their choice in timing sex.
      Cynical: the reason that they say this is that it helps them inflate the effectiveness of the method (because they base use-effectiveness numbers on couples who use the method according to the system’s standards, rather than the couple’s real-world situation).

      From the CrMS book: “Using days of fertility abandons the method as a method to avoid pregnancy and adopts the method as a method of achieve pregnancy. There are no “taking chances” with the CrMS. The method is either used as a method to achieve pregnancy or as a method to avoid pregnancy.”

      This causes problems, which I should probably post about further, simply because I find it quite amusing.

      1. waywardson23

        I agree COMPLETELY about CrMS. I could really go into a long rant about why this is wrong and why this approach hurts couples.

        If you are taking ANY chances, you are TTC, and, therefore, you need help with conceiving, not with making her cycle easier to understand or reducing abstinence. NaPro is far more focused on fertility treatment than women’s health. Contrary to what Dr. Hilgers seems to think, they are NOT the same thing!

        But anyway…

        I have seen similar attitudes in the Kippley-era CCL. Not quite as ridiculous as CrMS, but there was very much a sense of “all or nothing” in the older materials. Either you had “grave reasons” and should, logically, follow all the rules to the letter, or you didn’t have “grave reasons” and shouldn’t be using NFP at all. It was heavily implied that the most holy couples would either want to have large families or be perfectly OK with a Josephite Marriage. (They encouraged both providentialism as well as abstinence for spiritual reasons beyond that required to avoid pregnancy.)

        CCL seems to have changed quite a bit since the Kippleys left and we last had anything to do with them. Hopefully, getting rid of this all-or-nothing attitude has been part of the change.

  5. November

    The thing I don’t get about this attitude is that it completely ignores the fact that the likelihood of conception gradually increases as ovulation approaches. It’s not like one side of the line and you are completely infertile and the other side of the line you will conceive. There is a huge difference between ‘taking a risk’ and having sex on the first day of phase II and taking a risk on peak day. Obviously a couple can make a method more or less effective at avoiding pregnancy depending on the amount of ‘risk’ they are willing to take. This continuum goes all the way from the couples who will not have sex until phase III (since anything in phase I is somewhat risky if there is a dire reason to avoid pregnancy, at least according to what I’ve read) to those couple who regularly have sex early in phase II, but still avoid the most fertile days.

  6. alison

    What a great point….and I like your clarification above as well. I’ve heard CrMS practitioner’s say that they don’t understand what this “taking a risk thing” is about…you’re either “trying to abstain or you’re trying to achieve” and unfortunately like you point out, its not like that for the majority of people. Even the people that are trying to get pregnant don’t use the days of fertility every month! As a teacher, I think it is nearly impossible to know exactly what a couple’s intention is. They can hint and they can claim to have one intention, but that is really between them and of course, can change at any minute. This makes it inherently difficult to tell effectiveness rates, yes, but ultimately that is not the point of a Catholic using NFP anyway.

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