Why Marriages Disintegrate When Contraception Is Used

Anthony Zimmerman
Published in Fidelity Magazine
February 1983
Reproduced with Permission

WHEN contraception, abortion, and sterilization statistics skyrocket as in the United States, and divorce statistics follow a parallel trajectory, we ask ourselves whether it is possible to have the one without the other. Sexologist Wanda Poltawska finds that among her clients, contraception is associated with a disintegration of their marriage relationship, whereas natural family planning is not.1 In this writing an attempt will be made to show why one should expect to find, for psychological and theological reasons, an increase of marital disharmony positively related to an increase in contraception, abortion, and sterilization (CAS).

We know that an enormous number of couples in the United States practice contraception and-or abortion, and that millions turn finally to surgical sterilization. In 1970, pharmacies sold '70,655,300 cycles of pills in the United States, enough for 5.4 million users; sales peaked to 102,790,000 in 1975, (7.9 million users) and then skidded to 67,293,600 in 1980 (5.2 million users).2 In addition, 2,600,000 were wearing an intrauterine device (IUD) in the United States in 1981,3 and 12,000,000 couples were surgically sterilized.4 The percent of sterilizations among women of reproductive age rose dramatically from 13 percent in 1965 to 28 percent in 1979.5

Divorces rose dramatically as well: from 382,734 in 1957 to 708,000 in 1970, then to 1,026,000 in 1975, (6) an increase of 268 percent in eighteen years; . and by 1980 the number rose to an estimated 1,182,000 divorces, more than 300 percent above the figure of 1957.

It is estimated that 53,000,000 women use contraceptive pills worldwide,6 that. another 60,500,000 have an intrauterine device inserted in the uterus,7 and that 90,000,000 couples have been surgically sterilized.8 For abortions we can only guess, and the usual figure given is 50,000,000 per year; this does not include abortions caused by the pill and the IUD. Perhaps half of the human race around the globe who are now going through the fertile years habitually use one or the other of these means to prevent conceptions and births.


When Christ spoke the words, "Therefore let no man separate what God has joined" (Mt 19, 6), He referred to an entity which was already a factual unity by its very nature, not something which had been joined only by God's positive law. By marriage and its specific act of intercourse, two persons are fused into a psychological unity and entity, which sets them apart from the rest of their human neighbors. When man tears apart the unity by divorce, he does so at great cost to his psychic nature.

Similarly, when Pope Paul VI repeated the teaching of the Church that the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning of conjugal acts are inseparably connected, and that this is willed by God,9 he was referring to a connection not artificially established by God's command but to one which is already there by reason of the nature of true conjugal acts. We shall try to show how man, when he breaks this connection by medical or technological manipulation, does so at great cost.The unitive meaning is torn out when the procreative meaning is manipulated away.

How man and wife are bonded into one flesh has been aptly described as follows by Dr. H. P. Dunn:

Couples who embark on intercourse recognize instinctively that this special privilege which they grant to each other sets them apart from the rest of society forever. They can never set the clock back. The first person who is admitted to intercourse should also be the last and only one. Once you open your heart and private depths of your soul to someone, you forge a relationship which you can never repudiate.10

Deep currents of human ties bind the two into a union from which they cannot disentangle themselves without violence, and without becoming bruised. Another description of the bonding process is given by William E. May:

The genital-coital touch ... is a life-uniting or person uniting touch, one that makes two persons to be "one flesh." As a person-uniting touch, genital-coital sex is, moreover, one that marvelously illuminates the complementary difference of male and female. The female does not have a penis and therefore cannot, in this touching, enter the body, the person, of the male, whereas he can and does personally enter into her; on the other hand, the female is uniquely capable of receiving personally into herself - her body and her person - the male, and her act of receiving in a giving sort of way is just as central to the significance of this "touch" as is the male's act of giving himself to her in a receiving sort of way.

As a person-uniting act, the genital-coital touch does indeed unite persons when the male and female who choose to touch each other in this way are husband and wife. For husband and wife have already, by this act of irrevocable choice that made them to bespouses, made each other to be irreplaceable and nonsubstitutable persons in each other's lives.11

The man who gives himself thus, gives also that part of himself which can make him to become a father; the woman who receives him thus receives his ability to be a father together with him. And the woman who gives herself in a receiving sort of way, gives herself as one who can become a mother. He gives as one who can make her a mother; she receives as one who can make him to be a father. It is indeed a great and meaningful sign of esteem for one another when they agree to mingle seed in order to generate a new life in which both have a part. It is also, implicitly, a promise made to each other to educate the offspring and, therefore, to remain together. Joseph S. Duhamel expressed this implicit meaning of their body language as follows:

Since it is the marital act which prepares for the union of the male and female elements necessary for procreation, in a marital intercourse there is a natural sign of the willingness to become a father and a mother, of the desire to confer on each other the dignity of fatherhood or motherhood, of the common will to be also united in parenthood.12

If children result from the act, they are living witnesses of their love and esteem for each other. The father's love is therefore renewed when he is reminded, through the child, of their union. And the mother can renew his act of love when she handles and educates the child. Birthdays of the offspring are also memorial celebrations of their love - once promised in the act, now being kept by providing.


In the light of the natural sign of the willingness to become parents together which is in the act, what happens when the fertility of the act is deliberately destroyed? Here two persons are doing something else than just abstaining from body language. It is not an insult to another person to abstain from intercourse to which the other has no right, no claim. But when the act of intercourse through which spouses pledge fatherhood and motherhood to each other by body language is deliberately sterilized, it becomes a lie, a counterfeit pledge. Neither intends to give or to do what the sign indicates. It is like drawing together to kiss, then withholding the kiss mid-action. This can be frustrating, even insulting, if perceived in all its meaning.

It is better, therefore, not to give the sign at all if the sign contains a falsehood or a half-truth. Such a sign is not only incomplete, it is dis-complete; it not only withholds love, it is dis-loving and dis-esteeming. Contraception is deceptive language, simulating a pledge but stopping its delivery.

Man is slow to comprehend the full meaning of all nature's signs, and couples may not feel the full impact of the disrespect which contraception speaks. On the, other hand spouses are extremely sensitive at the time of intercourse and may receive signals which, though subtle and deep, are truly alienating, divisive, and which tend to rupture the love relationship. In the course of time alienating impulses accumulate and, added to other problems, become a force which tears the marital fabric asunder.

An example of how the subtleties of body language can show the true nature of having intercourse is Amnon's reaction when he raped Tamar. Within a few minutes his fascination for her changed into a furious hatred. After ignoring her plea not to "commit this insensate deed" he nevertheless overpowered her; he shamed her and had relations with her. Then Amnon conceived an intense hatred for her, which far surpassed the love he had had for her. "Get up and leave," he said to her. She replied, "No, brother, because to drive me out would be far worse than the first injury you have done to me." He would not listen to her, but called the youth who was his attendant and said, "Put her outside, away from me, and bar the door after her." . . . Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the long tunic in which she was clothed. Then, putting her hands to her head, she went away crying loudly (2 Sam. 13).

Why, we ask, this change in Amnon? He was infatuate4 with Tamar a minute ago. The change was not in her. Something happened during intercourse which displeased him terribly. Was it not a revelation to him about his own guilt? He was made to face the truth of his evil, and he hated himself furiously for it. The one he hated was himself, not Tamar. But he vented his fury upon her, not upon himself. He was now changed within.

Something similar happens, it appears, to a greater or lesser degree, when married couples contracept and perceive - not fully, perhaps not explicitly, perhaps only gradually, but realistically nevertheless, that they are not acting entirely as human beings should act. And this can be very abrasive of the ego. Conflict with the partner becomes an expression of one's inner disintegration.

Doctor Wanda Poltawska of Krakow, Poland writes how the practice of contraception had disintegrated marriage bonds among some of her clients.13 When a couple fear to have a child and use protective measures, there is a situation of emotional ambivalence during intercourse. Their act does not bring the anticipated joy to the partners; quite to the contrary, it produces neurotic reactions which are different in the man and woman.


The woman usually has a frustration reaction sooner than the man; she is, so to speak, "paralyzed" in body and mind and cannot experience the joy of a union with her beloved. She responds to the tension of fear by first feeling distaste for the man's body, especially the penis; physical aversion sets in. She still compels herself to have intercourse, but it becomes more and more unpleasant for her. Her distaste for his body turns into a general aversion for intercourse. The male partners accuse the women of avoiding intercourse, of frigidity.

The women's sexual indifference provokes reactions in the husbands, continues Dr. Poltawska. Reactions of aggression have been observed most frequently. Even well-educated men are capable of reacting primitively, showing signs of inner disintegration. They feel ashamed; degradation follows and, along with it, a change of personality. "He was not like that; he has changed," a woman will say.

The depressive reaction of the woman increases; she feels deep sorrow, aware that she is losing her chance in life. The man becomes indifferent to his wife, to the child. Love grows cold and at last dies out. "By now we do not love one another any more," clients will say. They doubt their love because they are not able to retrieve its signs.

"When analyzing this situation thoroughly, it seems obvious that the incorrect hierarchy of values lies in the essence of contraception itself, " continues Dr. Poltawska. There is excessive attention to sex, without perception of the integral value of the human being. When sex takes on an exclusive physiological importance, it tends to become impulsive. The man in particular has a feeling of losing his inner freedom, as though he were compelled to sexual action. "The loss of inner freedom is at present the general reaction of man to his own sexuality. It causes inner dissociation and increases the separation between love and sexual intercourse." The use of contraception automatically causes the value of the sexual act itself to be depreciated. It loses its great sign of fulfillment in an interpersonal union; what remains is an organic reaction of the body controlled, by somatic reactivity like the reaction observed in the animal world. The man becomes a slave of his body, helpless in the face of reactions he cannot control. And the woman becomes the slave of his sexuality, a thing being used, losing her dignity as a human person of full value. Dr. Poltawska continues:

In the final phase, they even give up all intercourse. This creates a specific climate of a sort of separation and coldness, a climate of hostility during which they resume occasionally, but more and more seldom, their sexual intercourse which has the appearance of aggressive acts rather than being signs of love.

Such a sexual intercourse has no binding force whatever for uniting people. On the contrary, it breaks the bonds and gives no feeling of union. It results in separating love from sexuality. It is amazing that a married couple who use contraception are completely unable to show one another unselfish tenderness. Instead, attempts at closer relations arouse immediately in the man a reaction of sexual excitement which╩ the woman considers humiliating. And she is afraid of it, lest it give an "undesired result," a baby.

Dr. Poltawska continues later in the paper by saying that a full mutual surrender of partners in sexual intercourse is a great gift; it should be a union of persons, "a holy act deserving eternal life." When couples lack this experience the partnership becomes poorer than it should be. Perhaps some couples can achieve such a close spiritual unity that the close physical union will not be needed, but in the light of experience this would be a minority, rather to be looked for in older couples "whose gravity centre of tasks and aims has shifted." Young couples whose task is parenthood, who are still striving to develop their union, should not give up this uniting sexual intercourse, she says. We will return to Dr. Poltawska later, to witness how she uses the therapy of natural family planning for couples who have become alienated by contraceptive sexual intercourse.

At a meeting in Rome in April of 1980 of editors and contributors to the book Natural Family Planning, Nature's Way - God's Way, some of those present predicted that the article which Dr. Poltawska presented for the book would be criticized for lack of sufficient data and proof. Would the same reactions be found in cultures other than that of Poland? Are reactions to other contraceptives comparable to those of withdrawal, the chief method used in Poland? Dr. Poltawska responded that women around the world have this reaction to contraception in various degrees. "Ask them! " she said. The editors included the article, hoping that it will stimulate responses and studies about this very important question.14


A very significant observation was made. by Nona Aguilar in the book No-Fill No-Risk Birth Controlconcerning couples who switched from artificial methods of contraception to the practice of natural family planning. It was only some months after they had switched that it became evident to them how their relationship had improved. For example, one summed up her reaction in a single sentence:, "'I now know the true meaning of the word 'intimate'."15

Drs. Charles and Elizabeth Rendu, whose experience in family counseling and the training of teachers of natural family planning is vast, tell how contraceptives tend to erode love in marriage:

Listening to many couples who have consulted us on family planning has revealed that contraceptives endanger conjugal love. After using them for two or three years, women (especially) complained of a cooling of mutual love, even though they had at first been happy to be able to prevent too-frequent pregnancies. Their language pointed to an objectification: "During intercourse I am only an object, a thing, a means, at the service of my husband's pleasure." And this attitude prevailed even among couples who continued to love each other.16

I have heard frequently in Japan that couples are not pleased with the condom, which is the chief method of birth control in this nation. Divorces are also increasing, from 114,000 in 1974 to 142,000 in 1980.17 The rate of divorces per 1,000 people is more than four times higher in the United States than in Japan: in 1980 it was 1.22 in Japan (17) and 5.4 in the United States.18 One cannot say absolutely, therefore, that contraception alone inevitably reflects itself in divorce statistics. Cultural, social, economic and legal considerations make divorce easier in some countries than in others.

Compared to the nations of the world the United States virtually leads the world in the practice of contraception, abortion, and sterilization (CAS). It is also a place where divorce is fashionable and easy to get, something which places the United States near the top of the heap in divorce statistics also. However, marital difficulties which do not end in the formal termination of divorce, go largely unreported, and these are presumably co-extensive, in greater or lesser degree, with the practice of CAS throughout the world.


Catholic theology about marriage is developed best in reference to the Sacrament of Marriage, and the workings of grace in baptized couples. The majority of mankind, however, are not baptized. What do we have to say about marriages among these people?

It is reasonable, I believe, that God works with the non-Christian couples in a manner which is roughly comparable with His work among Christians. True, God has recapitulated all things under Christ, bringing "all things in the heavens and on earth into one under Christ's headship" (Eph 1, 10). Non-Christians therefore receive their help from God through Christ, even though they do not recognize Him explicitly; they know Him in a dark and feeble manner from workings of grace which escape perception by the senses, but which nevertheless buoy up their lives. Whether these graces flow only in a trickle or whether as a great river is God's secret. He commanded that all join the Church of His Son, but He is patient with humans who are slow in comprehending. We can believe that He is very generous to all mankind as He indicated to Ezekiel when showing him the river flowing from the east gate of the temple: "Wherever the river flows, every sort of living creature that can multiply shall live, and there shall abundant fish, for wherever this water comes the sea shall made fresh" (Ez 47, 9).

Sometimes the Bible even hints that persons outside of the body of God's chosen people are more faithful than those within. The pagan sailors scolded the Jewish prophet Jonah for running away from God: "How could you do such thing!" These outsiders to Judaism were the ones who prayed, asking "I beseech you, 0 LORD, let us not perish for taking this man's life.... Struck with great fear of the LORD, the men offered sacrifice to him" (Jonah 1). And when the pagan people of Nineveh repented in response to Jonah's preaching, Jonah was not pleased. But God responded: "And should I not be concerned over Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot distinguish their right hand from their left . . . " (4, 11). It is but one example of many in the Bible, where God's concern for those outside the Church is shown, for it is in Him that we live and move and have our being (cf. Acts 17, 28).

Even some of the most beautiful poetry in the entire Bible is put on the lips of a non-Jew, of Job "from the Land Uz."

He alone stretches out the heavens and treads upon the crests of the sea.
He made the Bear and Orion the Pleiades and the constellations of the south;
He does great things past finding out, marvelous things beyond reckoning (Job 9, 8-10).

Let us work on the assumption, then, that what is true about baptized Christians in the following pages, can be said, mutatis mutandis,about all of God's children on earth, including those who have not yet obeyed the command of Father to enter the banquet hall prepared for the wedding feast of His Son. We have seen above that the act of intercourse is central to marriage. It is here that the marriage is consummated, and by successive acts the marriage is confirmed, nourished, and developed. Mindful of this St. Paul advises couples not abstain too long even for the sake of prayer:

Do not deprive one another, unless perhaps by mutual consent for a time, to devote yourselves to prayer. The return to one another that Satan may not tempt you through your lack of self control (I Cor 7, 6).

Paul is aware that, generally speaking, intercourse is needed to support the marriage, to help couples perfect their unity. Since Christ elevated marriage to a sacramental sign channel of graces, an instrument of His personal actions through grace, we look for Christ to be present especially when marriage is "at its peak" during sexual intercourse. We expect that it should be especially at this time that spouses draw upon graces to which the sacrament entities them, graces which Pope Pius XI described as follows:

By the very fact, therefore, that the faithful with sincere mind give such consent, they open up for themselves a treasure of sacramental grace from which they draw supernatural power for the fulfilling of their rights and duties faithfully, holily, perseveringly, even unto death.19

We expect, then, that intercourse is the time when spouses draw most upon the graces of sacramental marriage for "fulfilling the duties of their state"20 much in the same way as intercourse is central to their psychological bonding. And we expect the opposite too, namely that if Christ is not present at the time of intercourse, the loss of sacramental graces is immense, perhaps almost central to the marriage. And this holds generally for all marriages, whether among Christians or non-Christians according to our assumption.


We ask now whether Christ can support spouses with His graces to have intercourse while using a contraceptive. The answer is: Christ cannot support a couple to do a contraceptive act. If Christ would give grace to spouses while performing a contraceptive act, He would have to do what grace always does: enlighten the mind and strengthen the will to do good and to avoid evil. His grace would have to help the couple to stop their act, which is evil, and not to go on with the act. Christ cannot take the initiative to strengthen the marital bonds of a couple through a contraceptive act. It would be formal cooperation in evil, which is always contrary to God's will. And if the couple is ignorant of the evil of contraception, can Christ at least in such a case nourish their marriage at the time of contraceptive intercourse? Again the answer is in the negative. Ignorance is a lack of enlightenment; it is characteristic of a fool; it is the absence of wisdom. Christ does not strengthen unenlightenment; He does not confirm and support foolishness, nor does He not intensify the folly of an absence of wisdom. Christ is all light, and all His actions must be done in harmony with His Being, within the light of heaven. I think Christ stays outside of the bedchamber when contraceptive acts are performed. If He came too close His anger might flare up. He leaves the couple alone, waiting for a better time for an encounter. with them.

Does Christ stay away from contracepting couples during the daytime also? Not necessarily. Christ always keeps His promise to help the couple to believe, to hope, to love (the latter if they are in the state of grace) and to carry out duties towards each other and the children, duties which arise from the marriage bond..

Will Christ, during the day, make up for grace which the couple should have obtained the night before during sexual intercourse? Who can say? Since the time of intercourse is the occasion of the highest expression of, love and faithfulness by partners, graces may be adjusted to nature. That is, graces nourish the marriage greatly when intercourse is performed correctly. This strengthens the love and faithfulness of the couple for their duties at all times. Grace enriches them to mature, to be firmly tied to each other, to grow.

On the other hand, if no graces were given during contraceptive intercourse, the couple would not grow as it might and should, would not mature in the normal and expected manner, and their love would remain undernourished to an abnormal degree. When Christ measures His graces for them on the next day, He must work with less mature persons and that may curtail the economy of graces, The saying of Christ applies here: "To those who have, more will be given; from those who have not, what little they have will be taken away" (Mark 4, 25).

We confidently expect God to be patient, to wait for the return of the prodigal son even when the wait be long; we expect Christ to go out in search of His sheep, even if He must search long and walk through thorn patches; we expect Him to not condemn and damn people during this life,hoping that they will avoid sin (cf. John 8, 11). But we cannot expect God and Christ to confirm and support married couples with what would amount to graces given them to perform contraceptive acts. It was Paul who asked:

What, then, are we to say? "Let us continue in sin that grace may abound?" Certainly not! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? (Rom 6, 1-2).

God cannot help the couple to contracept because He cannot "be directly the cause of sin, either in Himself or in another since every sin is a departure from the order which is to God as the end: whereas God inclines and turns all things to Himself as to their last end."21

Next Page: Undernourished Marriages
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